Photos by Gawain Towler
Artillery Row

Gone to the dogs

A once iconic sport is in retreat across the Western World

On 28 June 1931, seventy thousand people turned up at the old White City Dog track, including King Alphonso of Spain. They were there to see the phenomenon of the age, the Irish born brindle, Mick the Miller. The now aging star was trying to defend his Greyhound Derby title for the second time. There was a crisis, due to one dog snapping at another, and the race was voided. The old champion who had just won the failed race, was forced back into the traps, and the hare sped off. This time he only managed 4th and his years as champion were over (though he was a full 2 ½ lengths quicker in the first race than the official winner, Seldom Lad, in the rerun). Mick the Miller was a canine celebrity and went on to a successful stud career, appearing in films and opening village fetes. He is rightly regarded, with Red Rum, as one of the two non-humans in British sports’ top 100 greatest athletes. At his death, his body was stuffed and now resides at the Natural History Museum’s outpost in Tring.

A few years later, ninety thousand turned up at White City Derby Day. Across the country, almost but not exclusively in urban working class settings, over two hundred greyhound tracks played host to races two or three times a week. It was a huge and very visible sport. Later, when sporting events became the plaything of sponsors, first Spillers, then The Daily Mirror and William Hill, betting took up the mantle and provided the funds. Then the sponsorship dried up. Dogs left the front pages of the papers and have now departed from the back pages altogether. Today they only exist in the hearts and minds of the hard-core aficionados and perennial punters in bookmakers across the country.

Today, though there are only nineteen working tracks, it is still Britain’s 6th largest sport by numbers passing through its turnstiles. The hard truth is that the sport is in retreat across the Western World, chased and chastened by lurid allegations of animal abuse. In the light of all this, on Saturday night, while the country was focussing on Wimbledon and football, at the recently reopened and idyllic country venue of Towcester Racecourse, the 2021 Greyhound Derby was run.

The Racecourse had requested a gate of ten thousand from the Covid authorities. They were offered four thousand, and, looking around, I would say they came in just under that number. The crowd is eclectic, but divides into three major groups: young, well-dressed working-class men and their spangled-shiny social media driven WAGs; older, seasoned dog people, trainers, owners, punters, and long-time followers; and finally, though far smaller this year, the Irish base. About half the dogs at the meet are Irish based. Patrick Janssens, the winner of the Derby itself, though based in Towcester and trained by an expat Belgian, was born in the Republic. The crowd are remarkably like those that one would meet at Cheltenham, if the County set had remembered they had a pressing engagement at the Polo. That link was visibly reinforced by the sight of Colin Brown, Desert Orchid’s great jockey, sliding through the crowds.

The fundamental problem for Greyhound racing is that it is a casualty of the culture war, without ever knowing it was a participant.  It has visible diversity but certainly lacks fealty to modern day equality targets. Its supporters are deplorables, without even knowing it. It is steeped in its own arcane traditions; it is run and supported by people with no political clout or, frankly, interest in having political clout. It exists in a liminal space, half remembered, half forgotten, but in some indiscernible way beyond the pale for the moneyed and hackneyed elite.

That being said, the 21st century has not entirely passed the sport by. The gambling industry ensures that it is at the cutting edge of digital and online tech. Not only that but the animal husbandry and care for the dogs is second to none. Acutely aware of the groundswell of so-called animal welfare pressure groups attempting to erase the sport, the focus at Towcester and other tracks is welfare, welfare, welfare.  There is a huge charitable drive to ensure that retired dogs are rehomed, and the ones that I have met over the years are the softest and gentlest of beasts. One aspect high on the agenda is renaming the old campaigners. Historically, and in the minds of the antis, these dogs are “rescue dogs”. It is as if they were unearthed in a gutter and dumped on Battersea Dogs Home’s doorstep. That they most certainly are not, says the Greyhound Trust and others. They are retired, not rescued.

Dog racing also suffers from a dearth of reportage. Its interests and the interests of its partisans are so far removed from those of the metropolitan elite that they could just as well be different species.

Another basic problem is that no matter how beautiful the setting, and it is, no matter how fine the facilities, and they are, the fact is that it is eleven miles from either Milton Keynes or from Northampton stations. It is a right royal pain getting there on public transport, and that has stripped the sport of the casually interested and makes it nigh on impossible for unhefted youngsters to grow an organic interest in the sport. Today interest is, on the whole, hereditary.

The stripping of dog tracks from urban spaces is killing it

In the past there would have been many others, unknowledgeable but out for the event and the evening out. The stripping of dog tracks from urban spaces and the Derby itself from White City and Wimbledon, on the altar of spec residential building, is killing it—Galliard Homes being one developer that has made dog tracks a speciality. Local councils see not amenities and the cultural value of the dogs but merely a one-off cash payment as they sell or grant planning permission to denude the city landscape of the tracks.

Ben Keith
Ben Keith, Star Sports

Talk to Ben Keith of Star Sports, who provided a purse of £175,000 for the winning dog this year and is the lead sponsor for the whole sport in the UK. He admits things are difficult, but was up-tempo. “Yes, takings were down last year, but that is mostly Covid restrictions related. I have to single out the efforts of the Irish owners, trainers and supporters for applause. They had to jump through all the quarantining hoops just to be there, but there they made it and made a marvellous evening of it.”

He also pointed out that Kevin Boothby, who is the new boss of the Towcester set up, is in the process of reopening the old Oxford track.

Mr Boothby is intent on diversifying and breaking out of the current social and economic straitjacket that the sport finds itself in. He is convinced that the sport is rounding the bend without an external hand. Re-opening the Oxford track, which is squashed between Cowley and Blackbird Leys estates and has a ready market of punters and a long history to rest upon, is a promising start. He sees a bright future, though one that is right now obscured by clouds.

All the sport must do now is persuade the powers that be to create a Dog’s Levy. Just as the bookmakers support horseracing out of the profits they gain from gambling on the horses, greyhound racing must join Star Sports in reinvesting their huge margins into the game. But to do that will require engaging with the culture war, something that the sport is, at present, ill prepared to do.

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