I had laid my bet on a shiny, black bitch called Millicent Magic. She had previously been beaten by Jet Stream Smurf and Boherduff Solas, and that night she ran against Boom Boom Love and Smoothappa Razor. Six sleek dogs stood quietly by their handlers in the dim light of a misty evening. A metal cage lay across the track and the dogs calmly stepped into the back. As a florescent rag zoomed past, the trap opened and whoom! The dogs bounded out, as on springs. Their long, powerful legs and flexible spines took them from 0 to 43 mph within six strides. They hurtled around the track, a blur of legs. One dog tripped and somersaulted across the sand. But he rolled upright and was soon only a few lengths behind the pack.
|18th century racing greyhound|
Less than 30 seconds and 420 metres after they started, there was light applause as the winner flashed past the finishing line. The handlers walked their dogs back to the kennels; their half a minute’s work for the week was over.
My lovely Millicent Magic came last and I lost one pound. Was the trip to Swindon Greyhound Race Track worth a few seconds of excitement? For thousands of people in Britain, greyhound racing has been their world, their life: as trainers, owners, bookmakers, kennel hands and punters.
In 1926, greyhound racing was introduced from the USA to Manchester, England. Within a few weeks over 11,000 spectators attended each Belle Vue meeting and two years later there were 68 tracks around England. There was not much else for the working man to do, and it was a cheap night out.
After a decline during the second world war, there was a post-war boom and 50,000 people regularly attended White City stadium in London. Working men had raced dogs for centuries, and this offered a night out with a bar and the promise of riches.One of them was East-ender Alan 'Ginger' Newman, born in London in 1940. I met him in a café and he told me how he had spent his life in the greyhound racing business as a tic-tac signer and bookmaker in all the 33 London dog tracks. ‘White City, Hackney Wick, Wimbledon, Wembley. Back then you could only bet legally on the track, and I knew all the bookies: ‘Fatty’ Sparks; Obie ‘The Chalk’ Dyer; Big Bertie Pearson; Harry ‘Erroll Flynn’ Saffron; and Tony ‘The Professional’ Morris. You’d always knew when Judah and his brother had lost. They would start screaming at each other. Then one of them would kick the other quite hard. The punters loved it.’
“Jock the Thief” was a regular at the Wimbledon track in the 1950s. ‘He always came with a big suitcase,’ remembers Newman. ‘It was stuffed with razors, shirts, silk ties, ladies stockings, scarves, perfume –things that were difficult to get. He sold them out of his suitcase at knock-down prices but nobody asked questions. By the time the races started he had sold the lot. He then proceeded to lose it all on the dogs. Next week, he was back, with another suitcase full.’
Once legal betting shops opened in 1961, track attendances declined. New clientele were attracted by modern restaurants up in the stands. Roger Moore was starring in The Saint when he took Bette Davis to White City greyhound stadium. ‘She loved it,’ wrote Moore. ‘The idea of being able to dine, place bets and watch races every fifteen minutes from our table was like manna from heaven to Bette. Everybody was so pre-occupied with looking at their racing forms, eating and placing bets that they never paid much attention to us.’ It was one place where humans were not the stars.‘Dogs don’t need much training,’ trainer Gilly Hepden told me. ‘You breed them, feed them, groom them, love them and then say “Go!”’ The dogs walk daily on a lead, and once a week they run 350 metres. ‘They don’t need stamina, they need explosive energy,’ said Daryl Porter, a trainer for over 50 years. His dogs eat cornflakes for breakfast, beef and tripe for lunch and vegetable soup for supper. ‘They know when it’s race day. As soon as they get a racing breakfast, they start to get excited. They may look calm standing on the track ready to race, but their hearts are pounding away. A dog won’t race unless it wants to, they just do it because they love it.’
|'Running in field', painting by Charles Hampton. |
The dogs are placed in categories from A1 to A10 and so unlike horses, there is little possibility of a surprise outsider winning. There are six dogs in each race, matched as equally as possible. Dogs are remarkably consistent in their form and eyebrows are raised if a dog runs one third of a second out of its normal speed. The owner keeps the prize money which ranges from £35 to £100,000 for the English Greyhound Derby. A Derby winner can then earn £1,000 a pop in stud fees. So there’s a gamble in the owning too.Winston Churchill described greyhound racing as ‘animated roulette’, the dogs were simply running machines on which to bet, and the business had a reputation for cruelty. But now all tracks employ qualified vets who inspect every greyhound before racing. Dogs start racing at about 16 months and are usually retired by six years. Greyhounds make ideal pets for retired or lazy people as they only need a 10-minute daily walk and sleep up to 18 hours a day. ‘They are loveable, calm couch potatoes,’ said Steve Simmon, owner of retired greyhounds. ‘Easy-going and good with children.’
‘In the old days,’ said Gilly Hepden, ‘rich people raced horses and poor people had dogs. Now dogs are owned by all types.’ A greyhound costs anything from £500 up to £40,000 and then £50 a week to train. ‘You never make your money back, that isn’t the idea. People do it for the love of dogs, and the other people who love dogs.’
Just 21 tracks are open now – the land is often worth more for housing. Over 8,000 people attended the last night of racing at Walthamstow, near London, in 2008. Oxford stadium closed in 2012; and Wimbledon in 2017. Swindon track probably wouldn’t survive without speedway and its indoor market and car-boot sales. However, people in Britain still bet over £2 billion a year on the dogs and owning a greyhound has become so cool even Jools Holland has one.
|The author with Dylan, a rescue greyhound-cross, or lurcher.|
The Retired Greyhound Trust rehomes nearly 4,000 dogs a year,
funded by a levy from bookmakers.
Back at Swindon dog track, I turned my attention to the next race. For one night I was Bette Davis and Mr Hampton was my Roger Moore.
Greyhound Board of Great Britain
Retired Greyhound Trust
Swindon Greyhound Track
A version of this article originally appeared in The Oldie magazine.
Post a Comment