Kosmo, you’re fat!”
It’s a mean thing to say to anyone, much less one of my best friends in the world, but it’s true. Luckily, this brutal honesty doesn’t remotely faze my friend. He just smiles, waddles over, sticks his big, long nose under my hand and tries to get me to scratch his cheeks.
You see, Kosmo’s my dachshund, a wiener dog, our family pet, surrogate baby and sometime clownish scapegoat. I can verbally insult him anytime I want without hurting his feelings as long as my tone is kind and there’s a head scratch, belly rub or beef jerky doggie treat somewhere in it for him. Especially the treats. Food equals forgiveness from Kosmo.
But he really is fat. Very much in need of a personal trainer. Stepping on the scale with him a few moments later, I realize I could use a bit of personal training myself. That was the key that eventually led us into the world of wiener dog racing.
• • •
The Budweiser 35, Cleveland’s most prestigious wiener dog racing event, is held during Berea Oktoberfest at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds each Labor Day weekend. It is the brainchild of Toni Gossard, of Findlay, a kind-spirited dachshund lover who developed the race as an entertaining way to raise money for dachshund rescue groups.
The rules are simple. One member of each dog’s team holds the competitor behind the starting line. Another teammate stands at the finish line, 35 feet away, coaxing him or her. The first dog to cross the finish line is the winner. The dogs run in heats of four, and the winners of each heat qualify for the championship runoff at the end of the day.
“What do you need to get in?” I ask in the initial inquiring call.
“Four dollars and a healthy wiener,” Toni replies.
Hmm ... I pause and ponder. As a 51-year-old man, I still want to wear Nikes, but my achy, fussy feet demand Dr. Scholl’s. I painfully and reluctantly understand that my athletic game is quickly sliding.
But Kosmo, though a bit of a chub, is a fine piece of wiener-y machinery. Running in the backyard with our black border collie, Winnie, he’s flat-out fullback fast. My competitive juices are suddenly gushing as I answer: “Count us in.”
• • •
Ten months earlier, I walk into the local PetSmart toward a group of people holding a leashed array of dogs. They’re part of a dog rescue group offering stray, abandoned and abused dogs for adoption. My daughter, Juanita, is one of the leash-bearing volunteers. She has called me in to see what she describes as a nearly identical mini version of our collie.
“No way in heck am I coming home with another dog,” I’m telling myself as I spot Juanita, holding the fat little black longhaired dachshund with the big, brown Disney-cartoon eyes.
“No way in heck am I getting another dog,” I swear to myself as the big brown eyes look longingly into mine, and Juanita explains the dog is heartworm-positive and was just one day away from being put to sleep before the rescue group claimed him.
“No way in heck am I getting another dog,” I repeat, as Mr. Sad Eyes rolls over so I can scratch his belly.
“No way do I need a new dog that’s gonna need expensive vet treatment,” I sensibly rationalize, petting my new little pal as he snuggles against my leg.
“No way,” I’m demanding to myself as the little black hairball wiggles into the little-boy part of my heart — and I suddenly start thinking about how to convince my wife that we need another dog.
• • •
I’ve always loved sports. From early grade school to high school I played baseball, football, basketball. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been an Indians, Browns and Cavs fanatic. I have an opinion, theory or second-guess of every athletic event I’ve ever been in or watched. I’m every game’s total bigmouth: cheering, booing, cajoling and couch-potato coaching. For years, I was the embarrassing sideline know-it-all at my children’s CYO sporting events.
Life has made me wiser. I now know that people shouldn’t try to relive their athletic dreams through their children. Or their animals.
I promise myself not to be the pushy parent when training Kosmo. In fact, except for a good two-mile walk in the park with Kosmo and Winnie in the morning, the most training I put Kosmo through is throwing a tennis ball for him to chase while I lay on the couch and watch “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” reruns.
I have decided Kosmo can win with merely my superior ability to interpret statistics and design winning strategy. I know, from watching my guy jump onto my bed, that he has a 24-inch vertical leap. I also know that the powerful 4-inch legs on his 3-foot-long body can drag a 200-pound man two miles in less than a half-hour. Kosmo’s talents also include a manic ping-pong ball energy that digs holes, chews up socks and barks incessantly at anything that comes into our yard.
From all my years around sports, I recognize this as the intense inner focus of the elite athlete. And I know how to coach, inspire and focus that intensity. I’ve discovered the key that will unleash this drive and enable Kosmo to run like Seabiscuit and win the Budweiser 35.
My secret weapon?
It’s a wiener lover’s delight as Team Kosmo — I, Kosmo, my wife Lisa, and daughter Juanita — enter the Bud 35 racing barn on Labor Day. Every kind of wiener dog is represented: brown wieners, black wieners, spotted wieners, curly wieners, short wieners and longhaired wieners. They have comical, endearing names: Oscar, Frankie, Hans, Kaiser, Jewels, Mitzi and Brutus. Their owners dote on them like babies, lavishly cradling, cooing and stroking.
I look down to dote on my Kosmo. It looks like he’s smiling. He’s comfortable. Happy. In his element. His world. He’s with his “people.”
A few minutes before our race, Toni, the organizer, gives us a racing vest for Kosmo. When I try to put it on my wiener, he does something I never saw coming. My little guy suddenly flops over in a submissive dead-fish flop. Gone is the happy, ready athlete, replaced by a whiny, stiff, unmovable piece of roadkill.
I try to bribe him with a piece of ham. When that doesn’t work, I’m feeling like it’s Red Right 88, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, The Drive, The Fumble — all the bad luck of a lifelong Cleveland sports fan rolled into one. I think:
Oh, well. There’s always next year.
Humiliated, I’m saved by another blessing: a wife who hates sports and doesn’t believe in curses or excuses.
She gets alpha-bitch with both of us, restoring our athletic integrity. Two minutes later, a vested Kosmo wins his heat by a nose and is heading into the evening’s final run.
• • •
Rocky, Sudden Sam, Bingo, Campy, Brian, Bernie, Manny: Favorite Cleveland players from my past. Not a Cleveland championship among them. Just great talents who kept the game interesting when the ball wasn’t bouncing our way. The ones who taught me to keep trying, even when behind and time on the clock is running down ...
• • •
It’s been a long day, and Kosmo is definitely lagging as I take him to the starting line for the finals. He’s lost interest in the ham in my hand. Even though he has the athletic talent to win it all, I know there’s more to winning than just talent.
While they ready us for the start, I appeal to that winning piece of the puzzle I know Kosmo has in championship quantities: the character of his big, loving heart.
“Where’s Mommy?” I ask, and his eyes flash ...and he finds her ...as the race starts ...and like a bat out of hell — he’s off to her in a blur of fur.
• • •
It’s a second-place finish for my little black dog. No championship trophy this day for Kos, but anyone who looks at him can see he’s still a winner:
The kind person who saw it in him when his clock was running down and saved him from the veterinarian’s needle.
My daughter, who saw it and called me that one fortunate day from PetSmart.
My wife, somehow seeing it even as he scratched up her pretty leather couch and ran up some hefty vet bills.
And it wasn’t missed, but appreciated, by a fading old pack leader who grew up worshiping heroes with names like Rocky, Bingo, Bernie — and who’s now added a “Kosmo” to that list.