My earliest recollections of greyhound racing go back as far as the fifties when my father used to take me to the White City. It wasn’t so much the greyhounds that interested me back then but the bookmakers tickets I used to collect and then proudly lay out on the tiled doorstep of our London home much to the annoyance of my mum who found this embarrassing as our neighbours would know where we’d been!
I suppose that’s where my interest in greyhound racing began though and that eventually led to my first greyhound Cuba’s King in1971. My introduction to him was a bit different to most people getting on the ownership ladder. I was at College and had a job in the evenings as a mini cab driver. The owner was a bit of a villain and a gambler so it was no surprise one day that he walked into the cab office in the Edgware Road with a greyhound on a lead.
He clearly had lost a lot of money on the dog and was trying to get rid of him and without thinking I said I’ll have him. I found myself driving home to explain to my mum why we had an unexpected guest for dinner. Her reaction was not of surprise but of fear. She had the usual misconception that the dog would have her for dinner and spent that evening cooking prime steak to appease him. I went to bed with her words, get that dog out of the house tomorrow, ringing in my ears
The following day I rang Michael Marks at Hackney a track I knew well as I spent most of my Saturday mornings there. I told him the story and he said Mick Wales had some space and before I knew it I was at his kennels, behind the track, wondering whether I could afford the £3 10s a week his training would cost.
Cuba’s King actually turned out to be a decent dog and eventually ran in a couple of small open races before injuring himself. My cousin, who worked in a children’s home at that time, willingly homed him after his retirement and he spent a long and happy life there surrounded by children. That was my first foray into greyhound ownership and it was to be the start of a long association with the sport.
Back then welfare was never discussed. It hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t find my dogs a home at the end of their careers. I either sold my dogs when they had reached what I thought was the level of their ability or they were retired when too old or sometimes injured and lived happily to the end of their days with loving new owners that I and others found for them.
I ask myself constantly why are their fewer owners today than there were back then. There are clearly a number of reasons but I do think the subject of welfare is so high on the agenda that would be owners get scared off when they are told it’s easy and affordable to get into greyhound racing but warned that if you buy a dog you are responsible for it until the end of its days.
Of course it is the responsibility of the owner. Morally it always has been after all greyhounds are never treated as “stock” because they are dogs, the country’s most loved pet, and that is how they are viewed. In reality somebody who pays a small fortune for a greyhound to win the Derby and then perhaps to breed from does not view the purchase as a pet but business that will hopefully win its purchase price back, make them money or both.
I wrote in my last column that the subject of welfare is in danger of becoming bigger than the sport itself and I think the issue of ownership has been affected by that truism. I miss the old days, the feeling of excitement going to the White City not knowing who I was going to bump into maybe a well known criminal or a famous celebrity. They all mixed together in celebration of the fun of a bet and the excitement of the chase. Those heady days are gone but we should not forget that without owners the sport is nothing but a betting opportunity.
So let’s not put off would be owners by warnings that would have put me off all those years ago. We must accept that times have changed and so have peoples perceptions of what is right and what is wrong. Owners clearly need to recognise their responsibilities but also be made aware that there is a well established rehoming support.
The industry must promote greyhound racing itself above all else but also encourage ownership and assist in the greyhounds retirement. Those three elements will make the industry stronger but remember we are only as strong as our weakest link.