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Dog Days of May

Last Saturday, while thousands gathered at Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby, residents in a nearby neighborhood turned out to watch a different kind of race.

Instead of seersucker suits, onlookers wore sundresses. Instead of mint juleps, they drank cold Coronas. And instead of cheering for animals known for their muscled physiques and dignity, they cheered for Chihuahuas that wore sparkling pink collars and T-shirts that said “Mr. Sexy.”

“She’s a big dog trapped in a small dog’s body,” one woman said about her young Chihuahua pup, Bailey.

It was the first Racing of the Chihuahuas, an event to raise money and community support for an off-leash dog park at Delaware Avenue and I Street Southwest, a few blocks south of the Capitol complex.

Call it collective action — or at least a potential YouTube sensation.

In the blazing midday sun on the Southwest waterfront, a loudspeaker system blasted Gloria Estefan and Baha Men. Hundreds of people crowded around a strip of artificial turf to watch the tiny dogs duke it out for neighborhood pride and $150 in prize money.

As the announcer called out the first heat, the proud owners lifted up their pups for the entire crowd to see. Stepping up to the line were Chihuahuas named Gabby, Gloria, Tico and Pedro.

“On three, two ... cinco!” the announcer shouted incongruously, and for a brief moment it looked like a tight race. But it was Gloria, with her long strides and energetic spunk, who ultimately prevailed.

That is, before she ran back to the starting line. And then back to the finish line. And then to the starting line again.

A Canine Influx

The event, for all of its frivolity, highlighted the changing dynamics of the neighborhood.

“Over the last several years, Southwest has undergone huge changes,” said Gwyn Jones, one of the organizers of the event, citing recent development around the Waterfront Metro and plans to build new condos and restaurants along the river.

“With an influx of new residents come lots of new dogs,” she said.

One of those new residents is Nick Matiella, a legislative aide for Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain. Matiella recently moved into a condo in the neighborhood. He brought his two dachshunds, Max and Marshall, to watch the race.

“They’re looking forward to cheering on the Chihuahuas,” he said.

Matiella, who works on the Hill, said a community dog park would meet the needs of working professionals in the area.

“It would be nice to get home after work and take them to a dog park across the street,” he said. “These guys need a safe place where I can unleash them and they can stretch their legs.”

He even brought matching political — and noticeably bipartisan — outfits for the two wiener dogs: a white T-shirt for each, one with a Democratic donkey and the other a Republican elephant.

As he began to dress his dogs in their partisan garb, he noted that the shirt with the donkey was a bit bigger. A fitting symbol, he quickly added with a smile, of a party that supports big government.

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