Rocking Ship was a greyhound legend, the greatest marathon runner of them all. When I speak of marathons in relation to greyhound racing, I am referring to the 2,310 foot seven-sixteenths of a mile distance, over which Rocking Ship had no peer. Rocking Ship literally came out of the backwoods of Ireland to become a star, and his life and death had an emotional impact on thousands, including his trainer, Don Cuddy.
Rocking Ship was born in Ireland in December of 1969, originally owned by Pat Dalton, a huge name in the Irish greyhound world, but soon sold to a veterinarian living in County Kerry. This vet had an older partner whose job it was to raise his greyhounds for him, including Rocking Ship, who was a black male. They lived in a thatched hut and Rocking Ship ate three meals a day, usually round steak but sometimes a fish caught in a nearby stream. Rocking Ship slept on a mattress near the fireplace and was spoken to in Gaelic, not English. The unusual times that Rocking Ship ate, the same times as the old man himself, and a language he was not used to, was almost his undoing later on.
At about sixteen months old, Rocking Ship made his racing debut at a local track in the town of Tralee. Rocking Ship won four of his first five starts and was then sold to a Chicago contractor named David Cahill, who hailed form Ireland. That’s when the fun began, as Rocking Ship was sent to America to be trained by one Don Cuddy, a man who is to the greyhound industry what Michael Jordon is to the National Basketball Association. When Cuddy took control of Rocking Ship, he had a slew of problems with the dog. Unused to kennel life, having been raised as he had been, Rocking Ship took objection to the American way of things. Rocking Ship absolutely refused to eat when the other dogs in the kennel were fed, and he went three whole days without eating. Cuddy was forced to put him on an intravenous hookup to keep his strength up, but after awhile Rocking Ship started to adjust to his new environment. Still, the diction and dialect of Ireland, the voices that Rocking Ship was accustomed to, were gone, and the dog had a hard time with the new voices in his life. But Rocking Ship regained his vitality and weight, and he was shipped to South Florida from New England without running there even once.
It was in Florida that Rocking Ship dominated over the marathon distance as no other dog had before or since. Black and sleek, the sixty-five pound Rocking Ship seemed to be able to sprint the entire distance. He loved the one box, closest to the rail, and almost never lost while wearing the accompanying red blanket. In September of 1972, Rocking Ship would win the Flagler Marathon Stakes from the one hole, by almost nine lengths over Gem’s Firefly. Rocking Ship was then entered into a series of marathon match races in which he easily broke the track records for the distance, records that he already owned. By the time 1972 was over, Rocking Ship owned three track records over the marathon courses he had competed on in Florida and was named to the All-American team. Rocking Ship was awarded the Flashy Sir Award, which goes to the best distance racer in America each year.
Cuddy by this time was calling Rocking Ship the best marathon greyhound to ever come out of Ireland. The dog held records at two of the Miami area’s ovals, Flagler and Biscayne, and on January 20th, 1973, Rocking Ship annexed the Hollywood mark, one set by a dog named Cookywise ten years earlier and tied just the previous night by a dog owned by Teddy Meadows, Lady Imperial. Rocking Ship’s 42.08 second clocking over the 2,185 foot distance in front of almost 8,000 fans gave the dog the marathon record at all three of Miami’s dog racing ovals. It was the beginning of a year that would be filled with triumph but end in heartbreaking tragedy.
The incredible Rocking Ship came out of the Hollywood Endurance Classic in January a victor and was being hailed as one of the greatest marathon racers of all time. What he did in the next ten months removed the words “one of” from that sentence. Rocking Ship traveled to Biscayne, where he took the Spring Marathon Championship. As the summer wore on and then came to an end, Rocking Ship found himself in the finals of the Biscayne Fall Marathon Stakes. A fine dog named Rough Black Handle had defeated Rocking Ship in the semi-finals, and perhaps “Rocky” was starting to slip. But Rocking Ship erased any thoughts of his being vulnerable when he recovered from a poor break from box number six and began to stalk the leaders. Rocking Ship caught the front runners and went on to win by a whopping eleven lengths!
October came and the first Irish-American Marathon at Biscayne was being looked forward to with great anticipation. Rocking Ship strode confidently through his elimination races and into the finals, ready to impress the huge contingent of Irish Greyhound Board members on hand for the big race. Rocking Ship romped to victory by another eleven lengths, but Don Cuddy was quoted that night as saying the actual margin of victory was “a fifty cent bus ride”. He broke the track record again in the process, and the crowd was set on its ear with his overwhelming display of class. His habit of lying down next to the starting box endeared Rocking Ship even more to the patrons, who took to calling him “our dog”. When he got to the box and assumed this position, the fans would applaud, but after this great victory, little did they know they would clap for him but once more.
He had won the Irish-American on a Saturday, but when Tuesday came, Rocking Ship was once again on the card. Track management had asked Cuddy if the dog could come back on short rest, not the usual five or six days, but two, and Cuddy obliged. Rocking Ship came from behind and won, “more with his heart than with his legs” as Cuddy put it. The next day he walked with a slight limp and a swelling in his leg. Brought immediately to a veterinarian, Rocking Ship was treated with the thought that he had been bitten by a poisonous snake or perhaps stung by a scorpion while out in his turnout pen. Despite the best efforts of the doctor, Rocking Ship would die in Don Cuddy’s arms at one in the morning on November 9th, 1973, not yet four years old.
His career record would be 53 wins in 86 starts with 11 seconds and 8 thirds. He was given his second Flashy Sir Award after his death. Rocking Ship was the first Irish import to be enshrined in the Greyhound Hall of Fame, in 1980. I now quote Don Cuddy from an article in the 1980 October Greyhound Racing Review by Greg Farley. ‘There was something about that dog- whether it was supernatural or demonic, I cannot say- but it was something I know I’m never going to find in another greyhoundÃ¢Â?Â¦.. he was a funny dog. Rocking Ship was very regimental. When it came 10:30 in the morning in the kennel, if anyone was grooming dogs on the bench or sweeping the floor at his end of the building, he would get up and growl. You could set your watch to it. Then, within seconds he would roll over on his back and go to sleep. What sort of dog was that? At Flagler, it was customary for the lead-outs to stand near the starting box, holding the dogs at parade rest before the race. But he wanted to lie down, so he would sit down and then spread out. Every time. The presiding judges at Flagler and Biscayne allowed him to do it, because it was part of his showmanship. Then, when the one minute light flashed up on the tote board, he would get up and start to lunge and roar, wanting to get into the box. It was a ritual with him. How did he know?… I know one thing. When Rocking Ship died, part of me died with him.”