On one stormy evening last summer, a group of Darby Dan Farm employees gathered at Lexington's Red Mile to cheer on a cherished four-legged athlete in his first race. They discussed running strategy and trained their runner to properly break from the gate. And when a herd of floppy-eared Dachshunds (a.k.a wiener dogs) came charging (more or less) down the stretch under the lights, Team Darby Dan cheered for second-place finisher Paco.
The about 3-year-old Paco belongs to Tracie Willis, financial controller at Darby Dan, but is loved by all in the farm office. Willis adopted Paco from the Lexington Humane Society two years ago when her elderly dog Buddy died. She hoped Paco might make friends with her dog Ginger, a longtime companion to Buddy. Ginger was struggling with the loss of Buddy and though Willis wasn't emotionally ready for another dog, she felt Ginger was lonely. She made an appointment at the shelter for a 'meet and greet' with a puppy she thought would be a good addition to the family. Ginger apparently didn't agree.
“She bit the puppy. Only my dog would bite a puppy,” said Willis. “I said, 'I'm going to leave now' because I was so mortified.”
(The puppy was none the worse for wear. Ginger was a former neglect case before Willis adopted her and lost her front teeth as a result long before this meeting, so her 'bite' was more of a 'gumming.')
On their way out, a humane society employee suggested Willis take a look at a Dachshund who had come in as a stray. The shelter had held onto the dog for longer than usual, expecting to find an owner because the dog was so friendly and well-bred. Willis was skeptical but agreed to meet the young dog anyway.
“He came out and brought me a tennis ball, wagging his tail,” she remembered. “I brought Ginger in, and he wagged his tail at her, she wagged her tail at him, and they started licking each other. They're best friends.”
Paco accompanies Willis to the Darby Dan office occasionally during the week and is her constant companion when she's on weekend duty booking stallions for the breeding season. His favorite part of the day is when they take the shed sheets from the office to the barn.
“The stallion guys love him,” she said. “All week long it's 'How's Paco? Where's Paco? When is he coming in?'”
They love him so much, in fact, that stallion manager Ryan Watson lets Paco help him feed the stallions. Each afternoon, Watson makes his way down the aisle at mealtime carrying two buckets with Paco in tow, then leaves the dog and one bucket outside a stall while he ducks in to feed. (Watson insures the stallions and the dog are on opposite sides of the stall door so no one gets hurt.)
“He'll pretend he doesn't notice while Paco gets on his hind legs and tries eating out of the bucket. Then when Ryan comes out he sits down and pretends that he was just watching the bucket for him,” said Willis. “They will go stall to stall together. It is adorable.”
Paco's predecessor, Buddy, had traveled the wiener dog racing circuit and Willis had no idea whether Paco would have any interest or show any speed. The stallion crew at Darby Dan decided they could get the young dog racing fit with the right preparation. Watson saved a box and outfitted it to resemble the start box Dachshunds must jump out of. Ryan Norton, stallion director, came up with an idea for the perfect treat to lure Paco into breezing speed.
Paco, as it happens, is an 'easy keeper' – meaning Willis is constantly working to keep weight off him. His treat of choice is the unexciting piece of carrot.
“He said, 'You have got to stop feeding him carrots, and when you step out onto that track, you've got to offer him a hot dog. I guarantee you, that dog will run for a hot dog,'” laughed Willis.
Willis took Paco to Red Mile's annual Wiener Dog Race in summer 2018, ready with the perfect lure and an enthusiastic cheering section. Paco broke out of the box well and quickly put daylight between him and the rest of the field. He encountered serious traffic when a competitor hit him broadside in the stretch, spinning him 360 degrees and taking his momentum. Willis reminded Paco of the hot dog in her hand, which renewed his interest and he rebroke to come in second. His finish in the heat qualified him for the final race, where he placed a hard-trying fourth.
“The guys from the stallion barn came down afterwards and said 'We need to put some blinkers on him.' They're already planning for next time,” she said. “I booked last weekend and Gabriel [Rodriguez, assistant stallion manager] told me 'Yeah we need to get him back in training.' The race isn't until July.”
When it comes, Paco and his crew will be ready – maybe even with customized Darby Dan blinkers.
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