The traditional British pastime of greyhound racing is under threat
It’s a wet Friday night at Oxford Stadium. Between races, retired greyhounds in smart jackets are led around the bars and restaurant areas to be petted, showing that, contrary to some claims, there is life after racing for its canine participants.
The return of dog racing in September after a 10-year absence was a sign to fans that, after years of terminal decline, an activity once second only to football in popularity and followed by the upper and working classes alike, was on the road again. . Literally.
Today, greyhound racing is the sixth most popular spectator sport in Britain, but in its heyday in the immediate post-war period it had attendances of around 70 million a year.
The first races were held in Hendon, north London, in 1876, but greyhounds, characterized by long legs, slender bodies, keen vision and speed, have been used in the field sport of rabbit racing for hundreds of years.
In the early days the dogs ran on a straight course and it wasn’t until 1919 in America that the sport adopted the familiar oval race track and the mechanically operated electric rabbit for the dogs to chase.
When such changes were introduced in England in 1926 at Manchester’s Belle Vue Stadium, dog racing took off. As tracks opened up on the ground, “dog walking” became a hugely popular evening out for millions of Britons.
“Greyhound racing offered the masses a more public and cheaper version of the Monte Carlo tables,” wrote AJP Taylor in English History 1914-45.
“The sport quickly spread throughout the country; Unlike horse racing, millions of people in industrial cities could go and watch close to home, and many of the most famous dogs were bred and trained by people using a narrow back garden or local parks,” adds Andrew Marr in A History. of modern Britain.
Greyhound racing at Belle Vue Stadium
But fast forward to today and just weeks after Oxford’s grand reopening, attended by more than 2,000 people, the sport has been dealt another blow that could threaten its very existence.
For the first time, the RSPCA, the UK’s oldest animal welfare organisation, has teamed up with two other charities – Dogs Trust and Blue Cross – to call for a ban on greyhound racing. The charities want it to be consigned to history within five years.
Dr Sam Gaines from the RSPCA told me: “We have been concerned about the welfare of greyhounds for a very long time and have worked closely with the industry. But we, and the other groups, believe that, for several reasons, enough is enough. Participating in sports is inherently dangerous; detailed data on deaths and injuries at each track is not yet available.
“Greyhound racing is only partially regulated and the truth is that, unlike horse racing, it simply does not have the legal funding from the betting levy to properly address welfare issues. Too many dogs entering the sport simply cannot be tracked.”
Dr Gaines dismissed claims that the RSPCA had moved to a hard line based more on radical animal rights ideology than animal welfare, and that opposition to greyhound racing could have repercussions for sports such as horse racing and show jumping.
“We are and remain an organization for the protection of animals,” she insists. “We do not believe that the significant welfare issues in greyhound racing can be satisfactorily resolved, which is why we and the other groups have issued our joint statement. But we recognize that people’s jobs and livelihoods would be affected, which is why we are calling for a five-year phase-out period.”
The joint statement is not the only threat to greyhound racing. In Wales, a petition has been launched to stop expansion plans for the country’s last remaining track, the Valley Greyhound Stadium in Ystrad Mynach, Glamorgan. In Scotland, the only surviving licensed venue, Glasgow’s Shawfield, has not reopened since the pandemic and Green MSP Mark Ruskell has called for a total ban, labeling the sport “cruel” and “brutal”.
Greyhound racing at Shawfield
For its part, the greyhound industry strongly disputes such claims.
Mark Bird, of the GBGB (Greyhound Board of Great Britain), is disappointed by the charity’s stance because of what he says are huge strides the sport has made in tackling welfare issues in recent years.
“When I became a medical doctor five years ago, I put the well-being of dogs right at the top of my priorities,” he adds. “Well-being is at the heart of everything we do. Safety has improved, with national track fatalities halving between 2018 and 2021. In 2020, a new Greyhound Retirement Scheme was introduced, whereby owners and GBGB each contribute £200 to a bond which helps with the costs of residence when the greyhound reaches the end of the period. Career.
“In May this year we published A Good Life for Every Greyhound, a long-term welfare strategy led by veterinarian and animal welfare expert Prof Madeleine Campbell. What makes the call to ban our sport particularly disappointing is that we have worked so closely with the RSPCA to meet our welfare aims.”
Oxford Stadium promoter Kevin Boothby believes the campaigners have picked the wrong target. “Abandoned pets is where the focus should be, not greyhound racing,” he says. “I love dogs. I am one of the biggest dog owners, run four tracks and have four retired greyhounds as pets. They make beautiful pets.”
He disputes that the sport is too dangerous to be allowed to continue. “Since Oxford reopened, we have had no deaths or serious injuries. It is very rare. If a dog got hurt I would pay half of the vet bill and the GBGB the other half.
“And honestly, greyhounds love to race. The groups now calling for a ban are living in the past because things are very different now, 20 years ago. We are a well regulated sport and the welfare of dogs is everything to us. I would tell anyone who is unsure to come to the races and see for themselves.”
In the sport’s heyday, the most famous dogs were sporting icons. In the late 1920s and early 30s, no one was more celebrated than the legendary Mick The Miller. Born in Ireland and brought to England to race by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin Brophy, The Miller won 19 races in a row with his 51 career wins, including two triumphs in the English Greyhound Derby at White Stadium City of West London.
His second Derby victory in 1930 was in front of 50,000 spectators, including King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Such was his enormous popularity, he starred in a film with the music hall duo [Bud] Flanagan and [Chesney] Allen.
If the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award had existed at the time, Mick the Miller would have been in with a chance of collecting the trophy. Mick was guaranteed a packed house whenever he ran but, even after his retirement, attendance remained high. At one time there were over 200 licensed dog tracks in the UK – 25 in London alone.
“The top ones like White City and Walthamstow had really good restaurants. Tracks operated their own Tote bets so they could subsidize them,” says Sir Rupert Mackeson, who owned racing dogs.
He adds: “There were also a lot of unregulated ‘flapping’ pieces, most of which were straight, not oval. There were big bets. The dogs that ran on the flying tracks couldn’t run on the licensed ones, so they ran under different names.”
Greyhound racing was so popular that in 1947 the Labor government introduced a temporary ban on midweek race meetings to combat absenteeism at work.
The legendary greyhound, Mick Miller
Historian David Kynaston notes in his book Austerity Britain 1945-51 that, even then, sport was “the best bête noire of high-minded progressives”. Greyhound racing continued to enjoy mass appeal in the decades following the war, with the BBC televising the most important events, including the prestigious Television Trophy.
But as property prices spiraled, developers began to lose track. In 1985, the iconic White City Stadium – home of the Greyhound Derby – was demolished. Walthamstow – where Britpop band Blur released their hit 1994 album Parklife, with racing greyhounds on its iconic cover – went in 2008, while Wimbledon, London’s last surviving venue, closed in 2017.
Three years later, Manchester’s Belle Vue, where the first races took place on an oval track almost 100 years ago, closed for the last time.
Against this depressing list of closures, the reopening of Northamptonshire’s Towcester Stadium in 2020 and Oxford this year has been a godsend for racing fans. And the first night of racing in Oxford proved the sport could still draw a crowd, with spectators far outnumbering a small number of protesters.
But while recent stadium reopenings have bucked the trend, hopes of a revival of the historic sport are now threatened by increased opposition from animal activists.
Can greyhound racing stay on the track or is it headed for the dogs? Only time will tell.