2013 Greyhound Hall of Fame Inductee
The year is 1949, and racing has just picked itself a plum by legalizing pari-mutuel greyhound racing in Colorado. Denver celebrates the unveiling of its major-league racetrack—Mile High Kennel Club (a.k.a. “The Big Store”).
The huge summer crowds—new to the sport–are oblivious to all the work that goes on behind the scenes, all the intricate details that go into making the plant operate smoothly.
Least of all, they know about Frank O’Brien, the night watchman who secures and protects the racetrack each night after the crowd goes home.
By 1952, O’Brien is promoted to the position of Maintenance Supervisor at Mile High. It’s a good arrangement for the track that O’Brien now actually has living quarters on-site, right at the track itself.
But let’s slip back to 1949 for a moment, with Mile High still in its maiden season.
To lend him a hand each night—and to give him some company—night watchman O’Brien is accompanied by his young grandson. The boy assists his granddad by shutting off lights and locking the gates in the facility. And, whatever else might need to be done to close down “The Big Store” following a night of excitement.
The youngster is there every evening at the track to work with his grandfather, assisting with those after-hours duties. In fact, the boy never misses a night.
This 8-year-old lad helping his granddad is none other than Bill Lee—at the time, just as unknown to the racing world as his grandfather. But this boy would grow up to become as widely known as most anyone in the US greyhound racing game. On Oct. 17, Bill will be inducted into the Greyhound Hall Of Fame in Abilene, Ks.
When Bill was 12, the track GM, Clint Dewhurst asked Bill if he’d like to work in the paddock. Arden Hartman was paddock judge at the time—which marked the beginning of a lifetime friendship and professional relationship between Bill and Arden. After working indoors in the paddock area for a year, Bill next became a leadout at the track. He did that until he was 18, then became the head leadout.
It was while working at the track that Bill (17 at the time) met his future wife, Sue—who was 16. Sue worked at the concession stand selling popcorn. They were married on Valentine’s Day in 1962, and recently celebrated their 51st anniversary.
Bill attended college at nearby University of Denver, playing football. He was a wide receiver on offense and a cornerback on defense. When the school dropped its football program, he attended and played for Colorado State College, where he received a degree in teaching.
Meanwhile, he continued working at the track—having been promoted to Scale Clerk, then Kennel Master (which he did for 5 years). Hartman was racing secretary at the time, so Bill spent much time with Arden, learning the ropes of running a racing department.
Bill taught social studies and physical education at a junior high school in Denver for 10 years before going completely “to the dogs” in 1972. Al Ross handed Bill the job and title of General Manager and Director of Racing at Interstate and Mile High. Soon after, the same positions were given to him at another Linsey-Ross track that had recently been acquired: Pueblo.
Later, Bill was put in charge of Interstate, while Mark Epstein oversaw Pueblo, and Arden Hartman was in charge at Mile High. “We—the three of us–would always work together on those responsibilities,” Bill says.
In 1992, the Linsey-Ross Colorado tracks were purchased by Wembley of England. Hartman left Colorado after years of service there, taking a new racing position in Wisconsin. Bill served as vice-president and general manager for all three Wembley-owned Colorado tracks.
Other changes in Colorado racing followed, including the division of the state into a North circuit and a South circuit, with tracks running seasonally. Wembley moved Bill into the corporate office to do political and OTB development. In 1997, Wembley acquired Rocky Mountain Kennel Club in Colorado Springs from the Cloud family. Bill stayed with the corporation until it was acquired by BLB. In 2008, Bill moved his office back to the track, The Colorado tracks did not succeed in their plan to pass Proposition 13, which would have given the tracks other forms of gaming, Mile High closed its racing operation for good in 2008.
Bill returned to his teaching profession, and remains as a middle school substitute teacher in the Denver area to this day. However, because of his love for the game, the closing of Colorado racing did not prove to be the end of Bill’s involvement in the sport—as we’ll soon see.
During his lengthy period as a officer and official at the Colorado tracks, Bill helped mentor a number of young or new people in the industry—men such as Jim Gartland, Tim Leuschner, Steve Rose and others. He also hired Rick Green (now co-owner of RGS Corp.) as a racing secretary at Pueblo; Rick later became general manager at that track.
Another feather in Bill’s and Arden’s caps was the introduction of the sport’s first comprehensive direct-pay in commissions program, whereby all owners of a greyhound received the complete purse percentage requested. This was in response to decades of complaints from owners and breeders not always receiving their commission payments in a timely manner. The Mile High direct-pay program also included a direct-deposit feature. Soon, this comprehensive direct-pay program became the standard in the industry.
The Arden Hartman/Bill Lee duo enjoyed incredible success as general managers in Colorado. What was their formula for success?
“Both Arden and I loved the business,” Bill says. “We liked the people we worked with—the employees, the greyhound guys—everyone we associated with at the track.”
“We listened to our racing fans,” Bill continued. “We didn’t run off and hide from them. Sure, they’re going to have complaints at times. But we listened to them, tried to answer their questions, tried to respond to their concerns.”
“We were, by the way, the only two track operators that continued to show up in Abilene in 1975 (year of the strike), Bill said,” continuing on the theme of nurturing close relationships with everyone they came in contact with in the racing world.
“I’d suffered an injury and came to Abilene that year on crutches,” Bill recalls with a laugh. “No other track operators dared to come to Abilene during the strike year, except for Arden and me. Showing the people in Abilene my crutches, I told everyone, ‘You guys can’t hurt me any more than I already am.”
Through years of participation at NGA Meets, Bill and Arden truly endeared themselves to the Meet attendees and the NGA. It was at the Fall Meet in 1985 that Bill and Arden were jointly honored at the NGA Banquet—dubbed by emcee Bill Janecek as the “Gold Dust Twins.” In 2002, Arden Hartman was inducted into the Greyhound Hall Of Fame.
Bill fondly recalls many of the greyhound people he’s worked with over the years in Colorado. The names of Carl Pritchard, Bat Castellani, Jesse Frank, C.W. “Fat” Wilson and G.A. “Sonny” Alderson immediately stand out in his mind.
“F.B. “Happy” Stutz was a funny guy,” Bill recalls. “I remember when his trainer—before Clarence Connick trained for Happy—was having a hard time winning a race at Mile High. Happy got so desperate that he put on a striped pair of cover-alls and went in the kennel himself, just to mix things up. He put the dogs in the south part of the kennel in the north, the dogs in the north side in the south. He put the dogs from the bottom crates in the top and vice versa—anything to change things around.”
Stutz was just one of the veterans that bring back fond memories. “We really had a lot of characters in racing over the years,” Bill says.
Bill Lee’s contribution to greyhound racing wasn’t limited to his many roles in those glory years of racing in Colorado. He served on the Greyhound Hall Of Fame Board of Directors for many years, going clear back to 1973, the year the museum first opened—interrupted only when Wembley first bought the Colorado tracks (1991-92) and the corporation was not yet a part of AGTOA.
It was while driving to and from Abilene for one of those NGA Meets and Hall Of Fame Board meetings that he and Arden (often accompanied by Ken Guenthner and Don Casciato) came up with the idea of inviting all active All-Americans to Mile High for a match race. Thus was born the Stroh’s Invitational that was popular at the Denver track for several years—the first big-league invitational race of its kind in America.
Bill was also a contributor to the development of the American Greyhound Council, having participated in the meeting in Denver in 1986 where the idea of an AGC was born. He has also served for many years n the AGC Board Of Directors. He was the AGC’s president in the 2011-12 fiscal year, and is set to fill that capacity again in the 2013-14 fiscal year for AGC.
Bill was also was the driving force in a number of greyhound veterinary symposia held at Mile High and in the Denver area for several years in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Bill has always been active in AGTOA affairs—even to this day, although he is no longer involved with a racetrack. In fact, he served as AGTOA president for a two-term in 2000-02.
Looking back over the many years in the game—even to the time as a little boy helping his grandfather secure Mile High’s Big Store after a night of racing—Bill has fond memories of his life in the game. “I’ve been very proud and feel very fortunate to have been in this great sport,” Bill says.
The Bill and his wife Sue continue to reside in the Denver area. They have three grown sons and a daughter, as well as six grandchildren.