!Yo Quiero Gold Medals!

Tiny, undisciplined athletes race for glory

The competitors come from all over Orange County and run the gamut of shapes and sizes. Some wear tutus, others black skull-emblem T-shirts. A few sport fancy jewelry, and more than one don flame-etched goggles to shield against the morning sun. The richest are backed by crews with matching team T-shirts, but many are here simply with two companions to ensure the day's events run as planned.

The search for America's fastest Chihuahua has begun.

In this third year of the PETCO Unleashed races, Orange County is a market for the first time. The first year, there were only four cities involved—New York, Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago. Last year, San Francisco, Miami and Dallas were added. This year, they're up to 15 preliminaries.

Little doggies. Photo by Jonathan Ho
Little doggies. Photo by Jonathan Ho

So why Chihuahuas? The popularity of Taco Bell ads and Legally Blonde had an influence, but also, "We thought it would be fun because a lot of Chihuahuas aren't racers," says PETCO spokeswoman Rachel McLennan. "They just want to play with one another."

Here, in the gargantuan Anaheim parking lot shared by PETCO, Wal-Mart and a dozen other stores, an Astroturf racetrack has been set up and fenced in, and by starting time, there are still approximately 100 dog owners (pardon, animal companions) waiting to sign up their mini-mutts. Said companions range from tattooed hipsters to obese housewives to mustachioed motorcyclists. Were any other breed involved, one might expect a few barking contests, but McLennan's right—these guys and gals just want to play with one another. And by "play," of course, we mean sniff.

Nearly 300 dogs are ready by cut-off time, but only 10 will race at a time. It's going to be a long day, made even longer by the hyperactive referee/host who can rattle off unfunny banter faster than a Taco Bell combo can rush through your digestive tract. "What's your dog's name? Pearl? Like the Black Pearl? [Affects bad Johnny Depp voice] I'm Captain Jack Sparrow!" Multiply that by a thousand to get the idea. By the time he's singing along to "Paradise City" in a hideous Axl Rose falsetto, replacing the phrase "grass is green" with "Chihuahuas are pretty," one could only pray that next time, he gets to host a pit-bull race. In fairness, though, his Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation is slightly better than that of Saturday Night Live's Darrell Hammond.

A huge percentage of the pets in attendance are named either "Peanut" or "Tinkerbell." Yet only one of each manages to make the next round. Take THAT, unoriginal doggie-namers!

Because Chihuahuas are easy to distract, each racer has one human companion at the starting block to ensure the dog gets out of the gate, with another at the finish line to lure the racer in the correct direction. Those who wait past the finish line may wave squeaky toys and dog treats, but they must not interfere with any other dog, nor must their hand cross a barrier line, or they'll be disqualified. (Actually, that last part turns out to be all talk—several hands enter no man's land, and nobody cares.)

"On your bark . . . get set . . . PETCO!" The starting gate opens, and the dogs get to running. Or not. Some seem confused. Others run toward the nearest human, whether they be familiar, strange, behind the finish line, in the crowd, or anywhere else on the track. The one constant is that none of the tiny critters stays in its lane. Thankfully, they only have to cross the plane of the finish line, not the actual line itself, which most of them ignore completely.

The races continue, and the pattern remains much the same—victory in every case seems to be a matter of random chance. The chaos of canine cuties seems to be the point, but after an hour and 45 minutes' worth of races, punctuated by the ref's really horrible impressions and bad jokes, most of the crowd has dispersed. Few remain to see a trooper named Mo-Mo capture the big win, which will see the li'l pup travel to San Diego for the finals on Sept. 2, to be held between innings at a Padres game.

If that gives Paris Hilton a reason to live through her jail term, so much the better.

lythompson@ocweekly.com

 
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