We are delighted to present the the first section of the first chapter of George Curtis Training Greyhounds – written by Julia Barnes and published in 1987. The original sold over 11,000 copies but given the passage of time, I thought a fresh airing of an amazing story would be appropriate and long overdue in the week following the loss of the great man.
Following the recent on-line publishing of SAVVA, I received literally dozens of acknowledgements and responses. There were people who had previously read the book and enjoyed rekindling memories. There was others, who had no greyhound interest/or weren’t even in the industry when it was first published. But most gratifying was to hear from those people whose sentiment was ‘I’ve never actually read an entire book before, I’ve never had the time, but enjoyed it being broken down into sections.’
That is the plan again, and even breaking the first chapter into two sections, produces two significant bodies of work (each larger than our typical articles). The first section covers George’s early life up until his 22nd birthday.
Once again my sincere thanks to John Sellers and the talented Julia Barnes (who arguably faced a much tougher and less fruitful job when attempting to teach this ex-kennel lad the rudiments of journalism) for allowing us the opportunity to re-publish – Ed
The world’s Press was gathered, the stadium was packed to capacity, live TV link-ups were set up — all for one man and his dog. Could George Curtis, the undisputed king of greyhound trainers, pull off his last and most spectacular feat?
The maestro, due to bow out after 43 years as a trainer, did not disappoint his public. Ballyregan Bob’s triumphant ran to victory, chalking up his thirty second consecutive win and a new world record, earned a special place in greyhound racing history.
Any other trainer would surely have seen this unique moment of glory as the jewel in his own personal crown. But Curtis’s first reaction was to say: “It’s a wonderful achievement for the dog — and for the sport.”
This degree of modesty might have had the ring of insincerity in any other man. But not from George Curtis, known throughout the sport as Gentleman George. His honesty, integrity and dedication are matchless – and he is always the first to praise others, shifting the limelight from himself.
His success is the result of pure hard work — and yet you will hear him say countless times, how lucky he has been.
“The sport has given me everything. It has given me a life that I never dreamed was possible,” he says. And certainly the ballyhoo that surrounded Curtis on that famous night in Brighton when Ballyregan Bob romped to victory, was a far cry from his early life in the slums of Portsmouth. “I think it is hard for some people to understand why I am so grateful to the sport,” says Curtis. “But they do not realise what my life was like and I truly never expected it to be anything different. I was always hungry, I had no socks, the arse was hanging out of my trousers and I never looked for anything better.”
George was born in 1923 – the third of nine children and his earliest memories are of his mother Ellen trying to find enough food to go round. “We had rice pudding for dinner and two slices of bread and marg for tea — with jam on it on Sundays,” said Curtis.
His father Fred was a labourer invalided during the war and struggling to support his growing family on a 10-shilling-a-week pensions. “Times were hard,” said Curtis. “There were the old soup kitchens and we had to queue up for stale bread. There were gifts from charity. We used to get boots on the cheap and at Christmas there were goodwill parcels. We used to hang out of the window and hope they were coming to us. We were one of the poorest families and so they usually did.
“All we seemed to think about was getting enough to eat. I think my only real ambition was to grow up so I could have as big a dinner as my Dad.
“I remember we all used to sit round the table and watch him eat – he got the most because he was the head of the family. My aim was to get out and start earning some money so I could get some proper grub.”
Now George lives in comfort in a semi-detached house in Henfield, near Brighton, with his wife Lily. It is not a luxurious home — a fairly modest reward for reaching the top of his profession.
But George and Lily are clearly proud of it. It is packed with paintings, photographs and trophies — mementos of his many triumphs. A focal point is the television and video, wired up for endless replays of greyhound races.
Another influential factor in Curtis’s make-up is his amazement that he ever managed to survive to live a full and active life. When he was only five years old he was stricken with tuberculosis — a killer disease at that time.
He was in hospital for some two years and underwent painful treatment which involved burning the affected areas of skin in order to stop the TB spreading. Curtis still bears the scars on his neck.
“It was a terrible time. We were only allowed to see our parents on Sunday afternoons and so I felt completely cut off from the family,” he said. “And yet I was one of the lucky ones, compared with what other children on the ward were going through. They had to have all sorts of skin grafts and many didn’t survive. All through my life I have felt that I was simply lucky to be alive. It’s something I will never forget, even though I was so young when it happened to me.”
When he was finally allowed to leave hospital he was sent to school. But as he is the first to admit, education more or less passed him by. “To begin with they said I was two years older than my actual age,” he said. “You see, education was not considered as something important. The whole idea was to leave school as soon as possible so you could start earning some money. I didn’t discover my real age until I was getting married. It said on my birth certificate that I was 25 and I had been going around thinking I was 27!”
Curtis managed to get through his schooldays without ever mastering the Three R’s. “The best thing about school for me was the school dinner,” he said.
“I taught myself to read and write much later and that was so I could keep up with the daily paper the Greyhound Express. It was my Bible.”
His great ally in those early years was his younger brother Charlie, who also went on to be a greyhound trainer. The two boys were only a year apart in ages and they were inseparable.
“We used to do everything together,” said Curtis. “Although I was older I always looked up to Charlie. He was bigger and stronger and I thought the world of him.
“We had a rough upbringing. Of course, there was no wireless or television and we just used to roam the streets like all the other kids in the neighbourhood. We had no real interests or hobbies. We had a dog at home but I was never especially interested. That all started with the greyhounds.”
Curtis was 14 years old when he first went to a greyhound stadium. He was working as one of the Gordon Boys, a team of youngsters who were given uniforms and hired out to do odd jobs around Portsmouth. “We used to fetch and carry sailors’ luggage, deliver bills, all sorts,” he said. “One of the jobs was to go to Portsmouth Stadium between 7-10 pm and sell tote tickets. There were three of us and we each had our own booth. The pay was half a crown a night.”
That represented good money in Curtis’s book and so his first visit to the dogs proved decisive. It was the start of a lifetime’s passion for greyhound racing and it paved the way for an escape from the poverty trap that was ensnaring him.
But it still took nearly a year to find a way into the sport. “I went to the track on a regular basis doing the tote returns and eventually people got to know me,” he said. “They started to talk to me, asking me about the various forecasts and the racing. I wasn’t interested in the betting.
I just used to watch the racing and I loved hearing all the greyhound talk. Whenever I got the chance I would go down and chat to the kennel lads. When I found out how much they earned I thought: ‘I wouldn’t mind some of that.’ So I put my name down for the first vacancy that came up.”
In April 1938 he joined trainer Bill Peters as kennel lad. The first morning he started work is one he will never forget. It was to prove the turning point of his life. “I walked into the kennels and was met with the smell of pine sawdust,” he said. “I saw the dogs and that was it. I was hooked. There was something about the whole thing that got in my blood. I have lived and breathed greyhounds ever since. And I haven’t regretted one day of it.” Bill Peters was the first — and last — trainer Curtis worked for and he acknowledges a huge debt to his old Guy’nor. Peters was a kind and generous man — both to his dogs and to his staff.
“He treated me like a son,” said Curtis. “He really cared about us lads. He wanted us to make something of ourselves. The pay was £1 a week, but it went up as soon as he started to do better. And it was the Guv’nor who advised me to open my first Post Office account. ‘Save up your pennies lad,’ he said. ‘You’ll need them later on.’
He always offered to get an owner to put 10 shillings on a dog for us if he thought it had a real chance. But I was never interested in the betting side. I always argued that 10 shillings in my hand was better than risking it.”
But temptations did come Curtis’s way. Shortly after starting work for Peters, he was approached by two men who offered him £20 to take them into the kennel when the Guy’nor was away.
For a boy earning £1 a week, £20 represented untold riches. But even then, Curtis’s ingrained honesty and integrity came to the fore. He told them to wait until his boss returned and he alerted the Guv’nor of his suspicions.
“He agreed to take them in but he told me to follow behind and keep an eye of them. They were asking the names of all the dogs and I saw the younger of the two slip his hand into some of the kennels as they went past.
“As soon as they left I got a lump of soda and gave it to the last dog they had been past — and a capsule came up. We vomited all the others but by that time the capsules had dissolved.
“I missed one — a bitch called Swift Stream and the next morning she could hardly stand up. We took her out to the track to see how badly she was affected and she fell over three times when she tried to gallop.
“In those days race cards were printed the day before racing and the men’s aim was to find out the dogs’ names so they could get two non-runners in a five dog race. But they were complete amateurs. They did the job so badly, it would never have got past the vet.”
But Curtis’s honesty and his swift thinking saved a lot of suffering among the dogs and it opened the eyes of the authorities to the faulty security.
He was rewarded with a letter of commendation from Lord Denham, who was then senior steward of the NGRC.
It is a story that anyone would be proud to tell — particularly when you consider that Curtis was only 15 years old at the time. But he pushes it to the back of his mind, saying anyone would have done the same. His code of honesty is such that he did not question for a moment what was the right thing to do. But many boys coming from his background would have faltered when confronted with a sum of money they could only ever dream of possessing.
It was not long before Curtis’s younger brother Charlie joined the Peters kennel at Tipnor and the two brothers became absorbed in a routine that was to dominate their lives.
The work was hard and the financial rewards were meagre — but the Curtis boys thrived on it.
The kennel strength was around 38 greyhounds and with no paddocks each dog had to be exercised for one and half hours a day. They went out three times a day and the lads would cover a total of six miles — more if they had to go out with a second string.
And then there was the grooming, a ritual that took up to two hours a day. “We were so competitive,” said Curtis. “We took a real pride in the way our dogs looked. Each lad was allocated his own eight or ten dogs and we were always trying to out-do each other. And, of course, we were always trying to beat the dogs from the other kennels as well.
“Race nights were the highspot and I still feel the thrill and excitement as much as I did in those early days. I always shout them homeit makes no difference if it’s a bottom grader or a classic winner. I just get so excited. People think I’m mad. But I think the day you lose that feeling of excitement is the day you give up. After all, it’s what the game is about.”
It is an interesting anomaly that a man who is renowned as a gentleman, can be so fiercely competitive. And although Curtis will always be the first to congratulate the winner, there is no-one who likes winning more.
As a young lad Curtis used to talk to all the other trainers and get hints and advice. But he remembers Portsmouth trainer Jack Toesland saying: ‘I’ll help you as much as I can, but once we get to the track keep out of my way or I’ll cut your throat.’
“That sums it up,” said Curtis. “You’re good mates away from the track but once you’re there at the business end you’re in opposite corners and that’s how it should be.”
As Curtis got to know more about his job and the sport, his confidence grew. He began to feel a sense of importance for the first time in his life. “I felt so involved in the kennels. I knew all the dogs and their different ways. They would make a fuss of you and they seemed to appreciate what you were doing for them. When you got a winner it was fantastic. The owners would come along and the Guv’nor would point you out and say: ‘That’s the lad that looks after your dog.’ The owner would pat you on the head, tip you a shilling and say: ‘Well done, son.’ It was magic.”
But the outbreak of war shattered this happy existence. Trainers and lads were called up. Charlie was one of the first to go — but Curtis was left behind, exempted because of his TB. It was not a situation that he was altogether happy with. It is never easy being the one that is left behind. “I had to make the best of it,” said Curtis. “I promised Charlie that I would save up all the money I could while he was away and we would split it fifty-fifty when he got back.”
But to begin with, Curtis was almost the one without a job. When the news of the war broke, there was considerable panic. Many owners had their greyhounds destroyed thinking there would be no more racing. It was to prove a tragic waste.
“We moved up to some kennels at Liphook and for a time the stadium was closed,” said Curtis. “The racing boss Joe Childs, the former Queen’s jockey, came to see us at the weekends. I remember him saying: ‘As I see it we have two choices. Either you leave now — or you go on half-pay.
‘Well, none of us wanted to be without a job and so we agreed to half-pay. Fortunately it didn’t last too long and within a month or so we were racing every Saturday afternoon. That went on throughout the war. I still remember the dogs that were destroyed. It was heart-breaking. There were some lovely animals. But I think when you’re young you accept things like that more easily. The older you are, the harder you take it.”
Portsmouth’s coastal location made it the obvious target for German bombers and Curtis was enlisted for fire-watching duties at the stadium. One morning a bomb fell and the complex was within inches of being flattened. A fire started and, curiously, all the kennel doors were blown off. “It was pandemonium,” said Curtis. “We were trying to fight the fire and the dogs were running loose.” Undeterred by the panic, a couple of greyhounds came across the sandwiches the lads had brought in for breakfast. They set to, leaving a tell-tale trail of blood where one had nicked himself on some glass. “We found him wandering round looking very pleased with himself, despite a small cut on the nose,” said Curtis. “He was a blue dog called Genial George.”
War-time rationing presented new problems for the trainers who were faced with trying to get enough decent meat to go round. Bill Peters, who ran his kennel on the maxim ‘Feed them well and they race well’ — was not to be beaten. He sent Curtis down to the fish market and he came back with buckets-full of cods’ heads. They also used sausage meal, soaking it first and inevitably ending up with tubfulls as it swelled up, almost with a mind of its own. At that time all the racing greyhounds came from Ireland. British breeding, still very much in its infancy, was at a temporary standstill. And there was no competing with the price of the Irish imports. Most dogs cost about £5 and if you paid £10 you expected something a bit special. They would arrive in a terrible state. Curtis remembers them coming over with a bit of old sack on their back and a chain round their neck. Their teeth were bad and their nails were long and uncared for. These dogs would have come straight from the farm, where agents picked them up for next to nothing. All they looked for was a couple of trials to see if they chased. It didn’t matter what the times were — and no one cared about the breeding.
“But these rough old dogs presented a real challenge for us,” said Curtis. “No-one had done any work on them and so we did all we could to get the best out of them. We would spend hours grooming and exercising and it was marvellous to see how a dog could improve. With luck, a dog that started off at £5 would be worth £50 by the time you had finished with it.”
Unexpectedly the war gave Curtis his first opportunity to go open racing. The open race calendar was drastically reduced and most of the events were in London. If any of the Portsmouth trainers had a decent dog they would send Curtis away with it – as the most senior lad at the stadium.
He went to Wimbledon for the Puppy Derby and to Wembley. It was his first opportunity to see the best dogs racing and he was filled with ambition to get hold of one. Portsmouth was a track where virtually any dog could grade. Bill Peters was very much a track trainer and so there was no real prospect of competing in the big league.
But Curtis was content to bide his time and the good dogs they had at Portsmouth live on in his memory. He remembers Shady Rattler and Domino Dotter as the best two at the track and he has special affection for Tanmere — a top-class stayer who looked a world-beater at Portsmouth, though Curtis admits she would have been nothing elsewhere. He rates Clam as the best dog Peters handled – and sees the dog’s success as a true tribute to his Guy’nor’s qualities as a trainer. The dog would do fantastic times in trials but when it came to racing he did nothing. They took him coursing and put him in a trap on a swivel. When the hare came up they released him— and he tore after it. Clam came back to the track to win an open race and went on to clock a track record that stood for 10 years.