Going To The Dogs
We go to the dog track on Saturday nights
We put all our money on a dog that we like
A kiss an’ a cuddle, an ‘ot meat pie
Two dollar tickets an’ a starry sky
Only aficionados of late ’60s pop music are likely to identify these lyrics from the song Dogs, a minor hit for The Who almost 50 years ago. Even then it was a consciously retro evocation of working-class urban romance for an older crowd. The Who’s own generation (“hope I die before I get old”) tended to have more colourful leisure ideas.
You might reckon that it was colour television, then just arrived, which determined the decline of greyhound racing as a national spectator sport. Horse-racing, pictured in the garish hues of jockey outfits as seen against the green sward of a Cheltenham or Aintree racecourse, found the new medium a boon. It wasn’t the fault of the poor dogs that they were monochrome grey to black and raced on a dirt track, but it proved fatally disadvantageous from an evolutionary point of view. They belonged to the black-and-white era, along with grey suits and grainy motion pictures.
Indeed the most famous film portrayal of dog racing, for those whose memory bank stretches almost 20 years further back, was in the classic Ealing Studios film of 1950, The Blue Lamp. In the climactic scene a young Dirk Bogarde, on the run for murder of a copper, scrambles over railway tracks to join the mass of spectators watching the dogs at the White City, only to be cornered by his pursuers enlisting the services of tic-tac signallers at the bookies’ stalls.
Hounds had long been used in coursing – chasing a live animal, usually a rabbit or hare. But the development of oval circuits within football stadia came from the USA in the 1920s. Attendances mushroomed. Wembley itself accommodated a dog-track, as did Cardiff Arms Park. By 1957 there were 200 Greyhound Racing Association tracks in Britain.
Easy local access in urban areas, cheap admission, convenient hours, the ready provision not only of betting facilities but of bars, restaurants and comfortable seating, all combined to enhance the experience: dogs could become sporting celebs in their own right. They might be “the poor man’s racehorses”, but there were a lot more poor people around.
And then the decline: from a top aggregate of 34 million race-goers in 1946 to less than 2 million last year. Television, particularly in colour, was one factor. Another, probably even more influential, was the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960, which licensed the opening of betting shops, until then illegal. Within six months of enactment in May 1961 10,000 had been opened up across the country. Small-time gambling had always been the bedrock of the sport. Now it could be done as part of the daily or weekly shop, divorced from the need to attend any sporting venue.
There has also been a steady attack over the years from animal welfare and rights groups, in particular the League Against Cruel Sports. Coursing, as a cruelty to hares and rabbits, had been long in their sights and was finally banned in most of Britain by the Hunting Act of 2004. However the treatment of the greyhounds themselves has also been complained of for many years: not only the routine killing off of many of them after they cease to be competitive, but training schedules that involve deprivation of social contact in small, barren kennels, neglect of injuries and malnutrition.
There are still regular race meetings across the country, including at a dedicated stadium in Hove. But across London the tracks have been closing. The White City, Wembley, West Ham, Clapton and Walthamstow have all gone. Plough Lane, Wimbledon was the last with a London postcode. Its fate – to be remodelled as a football venue for upwardly mobile AFC Wimbledon – was sealed by a planning intervention by London mayor and former neighbouring constituency MP Sadiq Khan. He has been a vociferous supporter of the anti-hunting ban, and knows there are not too many votes in dog-racing either. Last Saturday the last dog will have chased the last hare round the last London dog-track – and still, I assume, not caught it.
I attended the penultimate race meeting there earlier this month – my first and perhaps last experience of the sport. I suppose I was expecting knots of old men in cloth caps thumbing bunches of used fivers, ladies of a certain age in lipstick and high heels, Matt Monro records on the tannoy: the nostalgic 1950s experience. And the concourse outside the ancient stadium – ramshackle fencing, an ill-lit and puddled but free car park (free parking in SW17!), a long queue for entry through bouncer-manned turnstiles – reinforced the time warp. But inside, armed with vouchers for a pint and some fast food, a couple of quids worth of starting bets, I mingled with a crowd, perhaps a couple of thousand strong, of all ages, races and apparel: young urbanites in modern leisurewear, women in sensible coats (apart from one young lass of generous proportions who appeared to have bet and lost her shirt in an early flutter), families out for the evening. The cigarette smoke wafting consistently above the open trackside terrace brought a certain retro atmosphere. Otherwise we might have been at any other current sporting show, though with a more even gender balance than at a football or rugby match – and, with no referee to vent disappointment upon, rather better-tempered.
As a sport, it seems to the first time spectator a strangely minimal experience. Most races took place over a single lap of the track with the general crowd corralled in a narrow segment alongside the starting traps and finishing line. A maximum of six dogs per race, each clad in a dingy-coloured vest for identification purposes, would emerge with their respective trainers out of the stadium’s pools of darkness to parade briefly on leads on the far side of the track. Spectators could accord them a brief moment of inspection through the fencing (looking for what – strength of thigh, pinch of stomach, glint of eye? I’m wholly ignorant), then they were installed in their individual traps laid across the track. An official waved a green flag, a clarion bell chimed, and the electronic hare was set in motion anti-clockwise round the outside bend of the track. As it passed the traps they sprang open and the dogs shot out in pursuit.
Now you don’t lose all confidence in the horse you’ve bet on just because it seems a trifle tardy at the getaway. Like a middle distance human runner it may be biding its time. Even in the 100 metres Usain Bolt will occasionally be outjumped on the gun without forfeiting his customary right to breast the tape first. But my experience from one evening’s observation is that, with dogs, it’s all over in the first three seconds. It takes them approximately 30 seconds to get right round (or just over 28 seconds if its name is Razl-Dazl: see below). But here’s the thing. In 12 races we never saw a leader overtaken.
My son, watching and betting with me in equal ignorance, suggested that perhaps this is less a matter of tactical obstruction (as in Formula One) than of canine nature. A lot of modern sports psychology is dedicated to persuading the prospective contestant that he or she can overcome the odds, achieve the improbable. It’s difficult to see how a dog, as a hierarchical animal whose evolutionary survival has been all about knowing its place in the pack, can be taught this upstart mentality.
The other thing we observed, and which enabled us to come out more or less even-monied in the betting despite initially consistent budgetary losses, is that when a dog is the odds-on favourite it generally wins. It seems to know its rightful place – and so do the bookies. We scoffed at the afore-mentioned Razl-Dazl being priced at 5 to 1 on in race 6 – who would bet on that? After he exploded out of the trap like a bottle rocket and romped home lengths clear we realised that not all dingy-vested dogs were equal underneath, and we started to rebuild our finances with a series of low-priced winners.
Where’s the nearest remaining dog-track? Oh yes – in Hove. See you there. I’ll be the guy in the cloth cap (that’ll be enough to identify me) counting my profits.