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Long dogs are making a short dash at track

Dana Parsons / ORANGE COUNTY

July 14, 2007|Dana Parsons

This is race night, the night when all the preparation and training and hype give way to a simple reality: Which wiener dog gets to the finish line the fastest.

Or, as historically has been the case at the annual Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals at Los Alamitos Race Course, which ones get there at all.

Sometimes, the little fellas get tired. Sometimes, they fall down in the 3-inch deep dirt. Sometimes, they just seem to lose interest. When your legs are 4 inches long, 50 yards can look a long ways off.

This is all you need to know: No dog has ever repeated as champion. Which makes this year's race a wide-open affair for the 87-dog field.

That's how Angelo Samperisi sees it, and it's what led me to his Anaheim Hills home last Wednesday night to see how things were going for Enkidu, the 26-pound longhaired dachshund who'll carry the family hopes in tonight's event.

Samperisi, a 57-year-old bank underwriter, is hopeful but not overconfident. Enkidu's only racing experience was two years ago, when he finished second in his heat in a race at the Old World shopping area in Huntington Beach.

"I've been making sure I walk with him," he says. "As you can see when you were coming down the hill to the house, when we go for walks, we go up the hills. He runs when he goes up the hill, so I've been making sure he's in good shape."

Do you make him run? "He just naturally runs," Samperisi says. "It's easier for him to run up the hill."

Any other training? "I've been practicing with the carrier to simulate the [starting gate] in the actual race. I've been doing that for a couple weeks."

Do you think he suspects this is all leading up to a race? "No," Samperisi says. "He's a dog."

As in past years, the little wienies will run in heats, with the winners advancing to the finals. They break from something resembling a starting gate with a hole in it, so the dogs presumably can see their owners at the finish line and make a beeline to them.

Owners are allowed a lure. Samperisi shows me a raggedy blue squeaky mouse toy. In addition, he'll have a piece of American cheese that is an Enkidu favorite.

Did the Huntington Beach race also have a starting gate? "Yeah, he's used to it," Samperisi says. "But at that time, he was more interested in seeing what was going on with the other dogs around him and he tried to jump over into a different lane. But once he got going, he took off."

One other thing for you fans: Samperisi will be the guy at the finish line dressed in the red and blue tights popularized by Jack Black in the 2006 movie, "Nacho Libre." That, of course, makes him a major-league ham, a side of his personality that he displays at retirement parties or church fundraising efforts.

In keeping with the movie theme, Samperisi wants to put a mask on Enkidu but hasn't yet figured out how to secure it. All the dogs will be fitted with racing silks.

If you sense Samperisi is in this for fun, you're correct.

Still, it's better to win than lose. And he, his wife, Barbara, and daughter Adriana -- along with a small group of supporters -- will be cheering like crazy tonight.

I ask if he has any instinct for how Enkidu, who he says is 9 or 10 years old, will do.

"I have no idea. It depends if there are any repeat runners and if he's up against any experienced racers. And if he is, he probably doesn't have much of a chance.

"But I would think anything could happen. Those dogs can get distracted by what's happening next to them. Or some other dog, just like in a quarter-horse race where they go outside sideways and bump another horse and throw them off-stride and they're out of the race

Samperisi bought him when Adriana, now 25, was a teenager. "She was studying these stories of Gilgamesh and knew this character Enkidu was a strong warrior, so she chose that name," Samperisi says. "He's lived up to those attributes."

I look down at the strong warrior, who's resting at our feet and perhaps wondering what's delaying his evening constitutional. I put my hand down, and he gets up and comes over and licks it before settling again in repose.

Is he battle-tested in any way? "We had a close call one time," Samperisi says. "We thought he got attacked by an owl. He had to go into the dog hospital for a while, but he came out of that with flying colors."

Does he have competitive instincts?

"I don't think so. But it's one-on-one. When they see their owner and their favorite toy, they just know to run. I don't think they realize they're trying to beat out another dog."

We go outside and Samperisi backs Enkidu into his carrier on the sidewalk.

The dog backs in, calmly and confidently, as Samperisi walks about 15 yards away.

Then he yells to him to come, squeaking the toy and holding the cheese. Enkidu bursts out of the box like Secretariat from the starting gate and scampers toward Samperisi.

My unofficial clocking: seven seconds.

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