A tale of hope, triumph and Derby dreams – by Lynda Bonner OBE

The English Greyhound Derby’s home at Towcester, although short lived, provided us with experiences and celebrations that will never be forgotten.

Many of us will remember 2017 as the year when ‘Brig’s Rainbow’ suddenly appeared in the backdrop as Seamus and Teresa Cahill lifted the Derby trophy after Astute Missile’s victory.

The 2018 Derby is remembered by some as the year of ‘The Shakin’ Crutch’. As lids rose for the Final and The Wildcat broke fluently, we saw someone in the packed stand vigorously shaking their crutch in the air as if they were wielding a sword in battle. What could have triggered a racing enthusiast to shout and cheer with every fibre of their being for the dog in front to win? Was it financial gain? Or, was it something that gave joy much deeper and infinite than the transient reward of a few bob?

The crutch belonged to Steve Millard, a self-employed tradesman who first went to Walthamstow dogs when he was 5 years old. These family trips were a regular occurrence until Walthamstow closed its doors for the final time but they remain a source of many happy memories. In recent years and with a young family of 6 to support, some might think Steve and his wife Sian had enough on their plate but their first venture into greyhound syndicate ownership resulted in Stella, the first of three retired racers, coming to live with the family. Closely followed by Sharon and Lema, the Millard’s showed how easily these ex-professional canine athletes could transition to family life and Steve’s wife Sian could often be seen dropping the kids off at school, pushing their buggies with their greyhounds in tow.

The Millard’s eldest children, Tyler and Kayla took a keen interest in greyhounds and in recent years the family were introduced to top trainer Kevin Hutton and his team near Oxford where they would go most weekends and walk the dogs. During this time, ‘The Wildcat’, a greyhound with such supreme ability that you often only encounter such brilliance once in a life time, was taking part in the 2017 Derby for Team Hutton. However, he was inexperienced and after stumbling from the traps and meeting trouble at the bends, his Derby dream was over. It was bitterly disappointing for all the Hutton team and although the Millard’s shared that disappointment they offered hope and an unshakeable belief that 2018 would be his year.

Tyler Millard and sister Kayla get their hands on the Derby trophy

As the months passed by, the Millard’s faced some tough times. Sadly, Steve’s mum was diagnosed with cancer and after a period of treatments she lost her incredibly brave battle a month before the 2018 Derby Final. A shared passion for greyhounds had provided a welcome distraction for Steve and his mum whilst she was undergoing treatment and Wildcat’s participation in the 2018 Derby was eagerly anticipated. Would he ever realise his potential on the greatest stage of all?

The month following his mum’s passing was a tough time for Steve and his family as not only had they the burden of grief to deal with, but Steve required treatment for a leg infection and needed crutches to move about. They also had concern for the wellbeing of the greyhounds stolen from the kennels of their close friends Kevin Hutton and Donna Witchalls and in particular ‘Monkey’ who was still missing when the Derby final was underway.

One man and his crutch – Steve Millard

But for one moment on the 2nd June 2018, grief and concern were set aside. Instead there was a moment of extreme joy, a once in a lifetime experience, as Steve Millard and his family lived the dream and knew that the English Derby belonged to The Wildcat from the lift of the lids.

Steve held the crutch aloft and shook it wildly in the air, not because he owned or trained the Wildcat, not because he would win any great sum of money, but because the Wildcat was finally realising his potential as a supreme athlete on the biggest stage of all.

Steve and his mum’s prophesy was coming true and after a tough time the Millard family had something very special to celebrate. Their close friends Kevin and Donna really deserved the success especially after the disappointment of Wildcat’s elimination in 2017 and the recent traumatic theft of some of their dogs.

Winning the English Greyhound Derby only happens for very few of us, but we don’t have to own the winner to experience the magic or live the dream of the Derby. Through social media we can share the journeys of Derby hopefuls. Whatever happens in 2019, we can be assured there will be a fantastic story behind the winner. A story likely to be filled with trials and tribulations that heart-warmingly ends with a fairy tale result. Let’s celebrate and cheer the winner as vigorously as the man holding the ‘Shakin’ Crutch’.

Photos: Jim Tate                  Video Anne-Marie Blencowe