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Yvonne Abraham

Wonderland’s barren bones

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By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 29, 2010

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REVERE — A lot of people were outraged when Wonderland Greyhound Park closed shortly after the casino bill stalled on Beacon Hill.

We’ve lost thousands of jobs since the recession began, but track supporters and political hopefuls were particularly exercised over the loss of Wonderland’s 85 mostly part-time positions. Now look what you’ve done, they told the governor and legislators, upbraiding them for failing to deliver the gambling license on which Wonderland’s fortunes hung.

But spend a little time at the now-shuttered dog track, and the moral outrage starts to seem hollow, forced. This place lingered at death’s door for an awfully long time before its official closing Aug. 19. Even before the state’s voters decided to ban live greyhound racing in 2008, Wonderland was falling away, bit by bit.

Punters found other amusements. Restaurants went dark. Betting halls shut down. Vast swaths of the facility were walled off. Workers were let go.

Wonderland feels like a huge, rambling old house whose main occupants are long dead, and where caretakers have waged a long, futile battle against the inevitable decline. Last week, rain poured through the roof, filling barrels, pooling on the floors. Soaked chunks of ceiling lay everywhere. Mushrooms fattened in corners.

“Watch your step,’’ said my tour guide Joel LoGiudice, as if it would make any difference.

For 16 years, LoGiudice, 39, was a tech guy at Wonderland. Now his job is to sell whatever he can from the shuttered racing facility, unloading air compressors, light fixtures, and old racing programs on Craigslist and eBay. Whatever he doesn’t sell goes to auction in mid-October.

In the year since live racing ended, the track has become a ragged, overgrown mess. A broken digital sign on its edge has been frozen at “God Bless America’’ since late 2001. Hundreds of chairs and tables are stacked in the old pub. A pile of fake purple flowers in vases gathers dust in the dining room, which hasn’t seen a customer for at least five years.

In the nightclub, where glow-in-the-dark planets cover the black walls, LoGiudice’s recollections of “beautiful Colombian girls who came for Latino events’’ are difficult to conjure. “We’d pack ’em in,’’ he said wistfully, standing by the broken parquet dance floor, which hasn’t seen action since 2003. “Now it’s just a big place to grow mold, I guess.’’

The people who ran Wonderland saw this coming. In late 2008, they entered into an agreement with Suffolk Downs, giving the horse track’s owners the option to buy the dog track. Under the deal, the two tracks were to team up to bring slots or a casino to Suffolk Downs. Slots were never coming to the dog track, and the horse track preferred a casino, which would take years to open. Wonderland was always going to close, the property redeveloped into something that had nothing to do with gambling.

The remaining Wonderland employees were guaranteed spots at whatever Suffolk Downs became. In the meantime, Suffolk would continue to prop up Wonderland financially, as the dog track struggled to survive on simulcasts.

Even if the casino bill had passed this year, the bet was a risky one for workers at the dog track.

At the end of his tour, LoGiudice showed me the old rabbit lures he kept in a garbage bag in his office. The plush toys — all named Swifty — sped around the track ahead of the dogs. The aim was to get them past the finish line before the dogs caught up with them.

I thought of the Wonderland workers, racing to get to Suffolk Downs before their own track’s woes caught up with them.

LoGiudice pulled out a forlorn-looking Swifty with a red button nose and a chewed-off leg.

“This one got caught,’’ he said.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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