By now Curtis was gaining in experience and standing in for trainers when they were away. By the time he was 22 years old he had £120 saved up and was ready to make the jump to fully fledged trainer. He had been with Bill Peters for seven years and remains eternally grateful to his teacher.
“He taught me everything and a lot of the lessons have stood me in good stead all my life,” said Curtis. “He really cared for his dogs and went out of his way to make sure they were well fed, kept warm in winter and cool in the summer. He was always experimenting, trying different lotions and embrocations on the dogs. And if one died he would attend the post mortem. He believed there was something you could learn from every situation.”
On the princely sum of £4 a week, Curtis set up on his own account. To begin with he ran his kennel very much in the Peters’ mould but he admits to a certain degree of arrogance. “Of course, I thought I knew it all,” he said. “It takes you 10 years to realise you don’t — and another 10 years to realise you’re stupid! You learn by your mistakes.”
Through all the hard times, Curtis’s boundless enthusiasm kept him going. “Every morning I would go to work whistling,” he said. “I couldn’t get there quick enough. I loved every minute of it and so the work never seemed hard. For me, there was always a challenge — a new dog to settle in, puppies to school, working on the racers, grooming and massaging. I was in my element.”
But Curtis also learnt a very sobering lesson. His greatest ambition was to train a really good dog and at last he thought he had got his hands on one when Singing Trail came to his kennel. He broke the track record at Portsmouth and Curtis thought that the time had come to take on the big league. He took the dog to London for an open race — and the result was disaster. Singing Trail was completely out-classed.
“I was so disappointed,” he said. “I didn’t think that the dog simply wasn’t good enough. I thought it was me— I thought it was my training that had let him down. It took me a very long time to realise that you are only as good as the dogs in your kennel.
“You can work and work on a dog and you can finish up breaking your heart. If a dog hasn’t got it in him to begin with, no amount of work can put it there. All you can ever do is bring out a dog’s natural ability.”
Curtis was now an avid follower of the open race scene and as soon as peace was declared the opportunities to travel, and for Portsmouth to stage open race competitions increased. This post-war period was a boom time for greyhound racing. The punters packed into the tracks — White City would have crowds of 20,000 on its big nights and even small circuits such as Portsmouth would get 3,000. The mood was buoyant and it was an era remembered for some great greyhounds and great trainers.
Curtis’s hereos were the big London trainers — Leslie Reynolds, winner of five English Derbies in seven years, Sidney Orton, Jack Harvey and Paddy McEllistrim. The highspot of his working life was when Portsmouth staged an inter-track and he got the chance to talk to his idols. Charlie had joined the kennels of Stan Biss at Clapton and the two brothers spent hours swapping the training tips they picked up.
“I was hungry for knowledge,” said Curtis. “I would talk to everyone trying to find out the different ways that trainers did things. I talked greyhounds morning, noon and night — with anybody I thought I could learn something from.”
Soon he notched up his first open race win with Lottbridge Win It and when Charlie came back to Portsmouth to join him, the Curtis kennel gradually became a force to be reckoned with.
To begin with it was the graders that started to perform well for them. The secret was no real mystery. The brothers worked incredibly hard, getting to the kennels at five in the morning and not getting home until midnight on race nights. They fed their dogs on the very best — Curtis would even beg the powdered egg rations from his pregnant sister to overcome post-war shortages — and they would exercise their dogs endlessly.
“Charlie was a big, strong man and he could walk and walk,” said Curtis. “But what made a real difference was when we started taking them to Portsmouth football ground to gallop them. We used a straight about 400 yards long alongside the pitch and called the dogs up between us. The track at Portsmouth was often water-logged and this way we could always give our dogs a real good gallop.”
But it was still a hard job to earn a decent living from the sport. To make end meet the brothers depended on getting winners and the resulting bonus from owners. “I was under a lot of pressure on the gambling side,” said Curtis. “You knew that if you had a bad meeting, you had to wait a week before you could hope for another winner. And I was always conscious of trying to earn enough money for me and Charlie.”
He recalls his biggest gambling coup, which occurred soon after he became a trainer at Portsmouth. A bitch won at 10-1 and the owner was upset because he hadn’t had any money on her.
Curtis promised him a win the following week — and that started a nightmare seven days for the young trainer. He worked and worked on the bitch, exercising her, grooming her and reserving the very best food for her. The day before the race she looked a picture and Curtis decided to take her out for a final gallop. The grass in the meadow was a beautiful lush green, but what Curtis failed to realise was that a sewerage pipe ran the length of the field, emptying its contents into the sea. Inevitably the bitch returned from her run covered in black filth from head to tail.
“I didn’t tell the owner,” said Curtis. “I just cleaned her up and kept my fingers crossed. The owner backed her and I put £20 on her and she came out and won at 8–1. That was the biggest win of my life.”
But Curtis has always remained indifferent to the temptations of big-time gambling. He enjoys a speculation on a long-priced fancy. But he is a man who bets in fivers and tenners. He claims he never had the need to gamble after he became a full-time track trainer at Brighton. But more importantly, he is not someone to risk the things he has strived so hard for.
When he was 25 years old Curtis married Phylis Austin – he had worked with her brother Peter for many years. But tragically, their marriage was only to last for seven short years.
Phylis had leukaemia and one day the doctor told Curtis that his wife only had three months to live.
“She was so young and we got on so well together. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“We didn’t tell her she was dying, we just did everything we could for her in those last months. She had a couple of spells in hospital and the doctor was right. She died in three months time, almost to the day.
“It was a terrible thing, but I just had to accept it. Charlie and the rest of my family were marvellous to me and although I was on my own for the next 10 years I never spent a Christmas alone.”
More than ever, hard work and greyhound racing — always inseparable in Curtis’s mind — ruled his life. He lived for his dogs and became more determined than ever to train top-class greyhounds. But the breakthrough to open race success was slow in coming.
The tide turned with Bad Trick (Tuturama-Nifty Lady). One of
Curtis’s owners, Morry Tucker, had been breeding greyhounds but had never had much luck with them. Curtis suggested that he got a couple of puppies over from Ireland and then try to rear them. “I picked them up from Portsmouth Station,” said Curtis. “They were only 12 weeks old. Morry took them home and he did a good job rearing and schooling them. They were called Bar Ten and Bad Trick.”
He was quick to realise that Bad Trick was a bit special. He started her off in open races but soon after her career she got knocked up at Portsmouth and jarred her wrist. Thinking she had recovered from the injury, Curtis took her to Wimbledon. But she checked on the bends, obviously still feeling the wrist.
Con Stevens, racing manager at Wimbledon and one of the strictest in the game, was distinctly unimpressed. He told Curtis to take the bitch away and not return until she had produced some better form.
Undeterred, the young trainer still had total belief in the bitch and soon proved his point when she reached the final of the Trafalgar Cup. But the real vindication came when Curtis took Bad Trick back to Wimbledon and she won the 1964 Puppy Derby. The brindled bitch recorded 28.46 for the 500 yards and finished three-quarters of a length in front. She went straight on to contest the Junior Stakes at West Ham and got the verdict by a head, clocking 30.86 for the 550 yards course.
Then it was back to Wimbledon for the Puppy Oaks and this time Bad Trick made it all look easy winning her heat by 11 lengths and then storming to a nine length victory in the final in 28.11. She completed a magnificent run by winning the Stayers Cup at Stamford Bridge clocking 39.79 for the 700 yards.
“I must admit, I felt doubly good after what Con Stevens had said about the bitch,” said Curtis. “In fact, Bad Trick turned out to be the best greyhound I trained during 29 years at Portsmouth. She had tremendous middle and final pace and was easily the best pup of that year.
“She started favourite for the TV Trophy and after being knocked out of that she won her heat for the Double Diamond at Wembley. She was odds-on for the final and she broke her hock. Even so, she still came back to win three open races on the trot.”
The Curtis brothers also used to race their own greyhounds. Curtis remembers one in particular called Sliced Character.
“We were going to sell her for £75 and she was all set to join Phil Rees at Wimbledon,” he said. “But in the end he turned her down. He said she wouldn’t grade at Wimbledon. That was fair comment because we were running over 470 yards and Wimbledon was over 500 yards. We decided to try her over the distance and discovered she was a good marathon bitch.
“Three months later we took her to Wimbledon and she won the Stayers Plaque. The prize money was £125 so we didn’t feel too badly about losing out on the £75 we would have sold her for.
“Then the next year she went back to Wimbledon and won the race again. In fact, by the end of her racing career she had won £1,800 in prize money and that was enough to buy houses for both me and Charlie.”
Right from the beginning, Curtis’s chief love was training stayers and this has been reflected throughout his career. While he was at Portsmouth he won the Cobb Bowl at Catford twice, both times with dogs owned by Les Smith.
Boreen Berry (Steady The Man-July Hawk) started at 20–1 in his heat for the 1965 competition but he was only beaten by a head. In the final he strode to a five length win, clocking 50.28 for the 810 yards.
The following year it was Breshen Crackers (Odd Venture-Pats Regret) who took the honours. The August 1964 whelp was beaten 13 lengths in his heat but in the final he got the verdict by a head at the rewarding odds of 16-1. His winning time was 51.71.
Peculiar Way (Mad Era-Lottera Queen) came close to giving Curtis his first classic winner when the July 1964 whelp competed in the 1966 St Leger. He was runner-up in his first round heat, beaten a short head, but he came through in the second round to win by 2/4 lengths, clocking 40.08 for Wembley’s 700 yards.
In the semis he qualified in third place and started at 12–1 for the decider. In a tightly contested race, the favourite Summer Guest won in 40.03 and Peculiar Way was the runner-up – just 114 lengths adrift. The black dog continued in cracking form for Curtis when he won the Seymour Stakes at Portsmouth and then the Test at Walthamstow. In both these competitions Breshen Crackers also reached the final and finished third on each occasion.
“When you get a run of luck like that everyone starts scratching their heads and wondering what you are doing differently,” said Curtis. “The truth of the matter is that you are getting the right class of greyhound.
“When I started training, I was nobody — I could only make a name by what I did. When you start winning, you attract better owners who can afford a better class of greyhound. It’s all a matter of getting that first breakthrough.”
Gordon Poole was one of his first big time owners. The property man has always taken his hobby seriously and money is no object when it comes to buying a good dog.
“I remember him asking me if I knew of any good dogs for sale,” said Curtis. “I said I had heard of one but it was a bit expensive. It was £215 which would be about £2,000 today. Gordon bought the dog and Crags Hope went on to win ten races on the trot.”
Curtis helped to make the Crags prefix famous in those early days at Portsmouth and he has trained greyhounds for Gordon Poole ever since. Gordon is unstinting in his praise for the trainer.
“I have known George since he was a kennel lad at Portsmouth and what I admire most about him is his complete integrity,” he said. “There has never been a trainer who has given so much to the sport. I own race horses in England and America and the reason I prefer greyhound racing is entirely due to George.
“He has unending consideration for his dogs — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the dogs are never out of his mind. And that’s not just the top open racers — he cares about all his dogs. They are all there to win races. They are happy with him. If they are happy they look well, they feel well and they run well and with determination.
“You only have to watch George with his dogs to see how they respond to him. Recently I was in the restaurant at Brighton and someone wanted George to autograph his race card after one of his dogs had won. ‘Don’t ask me to write congratulations,’ said George. ‘I can’t spell it! This is the man who left school when he was 12 years old and has achieved everything through his own merit.”
Gordon Poole is still deeply involved in the sport and has become increasingly interested in the breeding side. His bitch Evening Moon, who is litter sister to Ballyregan Bob, has a litter of pups by Yankee Express and he has high hopes for their future.
The sixties also turned out to be a lucky time in Curtis’s private life. He met Lily on a blind date and three months later they were married. It was the second marriage for both of them.
Lily had been struggling to bring up two children on her own — and Curtis had lived through ten lonely years following the death of Phylis. It was a match of mutual need — and has proved the most successful partnership of Curtis’s career.
Lily had never been greyhound racing before she met Curtis, although her mother used to do a bit of tic-tac. But she soon became swept up in Curtis’s ruling passion and has shared his successes and disappointments whole-heartedly.
“I worked in the local cake shop when I first met George,” said Lily. “When he went off open racing he used to pull up by the shop and I would run out and give him a bag of cakes. We got on well from the start and there was no reason to have a long engagement. We got married in the June and we had a lovely wedding with all George’s owners and friends.”
The only obstacle to their relationship was Lily’s pet spaniel Rickywho has earned his place in history as the only dog to bite George Curtis. Ricky had been given to Lily by her brother and he didn’t take to his new master at all. He used to sit between them on the sofa, doing his best to protect Lily from George’s advances!
“Everything was going well for me in those last few years at Portsmouth — and I look back on it as a very happy time in my life,” said Curtis. As a direct consequence of his new-found success, Curtis was offered a job as full-time track trainer at Brighton. Strangely enough, he was reluctant to make the move. Portsmouth was his home and he had built up a good team of dogs and owners. He had recently married and was having improvements done on his house.
“But I knew I had to move on,” he said. “And I knew that if I went, it would give Charlie the chance to take over my job at Portsmouth. It seemed wrong to hold him back and so finally I allowed myself to be persuaded.”
It was a decision he was never to regret.