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In Praise of Greyhound Racing
by Neil Price
I feel strangely and disproportionately elated when Number 2 dog, Ballyblack Bess, powers home strongly to win the 20.03 race. It’s a Monday evening in January in the greyhound stadium in Blackbird Leys, Oxford. I only won £9 but I’m pleased I came because an evening at the dogs is still great old-fashioned fun. The punters love it, as do the dogs, so it’s devastating that the RSPCA has demanded it be banned. They’ve teamed up with two other leading charities, the Dogs Trust and the Blue Cross, to request that it’s phased out over a five-year period.
But the RSPCA is – excuse the pun – barking up the wrong tree. The main objection to the sport was always about what happened to the dogs once their racing careers were over. But in 2020 a new Greyhound Retirement Scheme was introduced by the sport’s governing body, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, whereby owners and the Board contribute £200 each to a bond which assists with homing costs. Contrary to the claims, there is a life after racing for these magnificent athletes and most of them are well looked after. In Oxford, retired greyhounds, looking very handsome in their smart jackets, are taken round the bars and restaurants to meet the public.
Another complaint was about racetrack safety. But national track fatalities have, according to industry figures, halved between 2018 and 2021 (from 0.06 per cent to 0.03 per cent). I’ve been racing five times since September and, having seen the best part of 50 races and 300-odd dogs competing, I can recall seeing only one greyhound limping after a race. Even when there are injuries, vets are always in attendance.
If the abolitionists do get their way, an important part of our sporting and cultural heritage will be lost. In its heyday in the mid-20th century, greyhound racing was second only to football in popularity, followed by the upper and working classes alike. In the immediate postwar era attendances were roughly 70 million a year. There were more than 200 licensed dog tracks in Britain and 25 in London alone. ‘Going to the dogs’ for an evening of exciting action and a slap-up meal was the night out.
Some would say greyhound racing is now a niche pastime, with no terrestrial TV coverage, but it’s a credit to the dogs that despite everything it remains the country’s sixth most popular sport. One of its major advantages is that you can stand right up close to the action, as you used to do in football stadiums before all-seaters took over. No matter how many races I see, I always marvel at the speed of the dogs as the traps open and they tear after the electric hare. The dogs love racing; it is what they are bred to do, and those who call the sport ‘cruel’ really ought to attend a few meetings.
None of this does much to silence the critics. The situation in Wales and Scotland is particularly worrying. In the Principality there is only one remaining track, the Valley Stadium in Ystrad Mynach, and in December the Senedd’s petition committee called for the sport’s gradual abolition. In Scotland it received a three-month reprieve in November, pending the completion of a report of the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, but the only licensed venue, Shawfield in South Lanarkshire, remains closed after the 2020 lockdown and is in a sorry, dilapidated state.
It’s easy for activists to insist that greyhound racing’s days are numbered, but what happened in Oxford is instructive. The stadium shut down in 2012 after 73 years and the site was earmarked for housing. Promoter and enthusiast Kevin Boothby wanted to bring the greyhounds back, but was met with a vociferous campaign to stop their return. The deputy leader of the Green party group on Oxford City Council joined up with the Lib Dems and branded dog racing ‘a barbaric practice’. Actress Miriam Margolyes, who was brought up in Oxford, weighed in, writing a letter to the council that described racing as a ‘ghastly business’. A petition from the animal rights group Peta attracted more than 32,000 signatures.
Everyone assumed the council would buckle under the pressure. But the greyhound track did reopen for business in September, and on the opening night the small number of protestors were greatly outnumbered by the 2,000 or so spectators who all had a wonderful time.
Many tracks have been lost in recent years but Greater London still has Romford, and Birmingham has Perry Barr, both historic venues dating back to 1929. If the sport is to survive, we need to get out there on cold winter evenings to support it.
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