Gone to the dogs

John Russell writes about an alternative sporting pastime.

Everyone knows, or should know by now, that Villa Park used to host cycle racing. It’s probably why, long after the track was torn up, the Villa News always used to feel an obligation to advertise Wednesday night cycle racing in nearby Salford Park. As a regular attender at such meetings I can vouch for the fact that there were otherwise very few of us. Besides, Trevor Bull from Solihull used to win most weeks until Harry Jackson came from Portsmouth to steal his thunder.

But in order to help make ends meet, several stadiums used to host twice-weekly greyhound meetings. Not the least of these was Wembley, where refusal to cancel a regular Wednesday night greyhound meeting led in 1966 to a World Cup match between France and Uruguay being staged, somewhat ironically, at the spiritual home of greyhound racing, the White City. Wembley was also home to the Greyhound Derby, which at the time was a regular live outside sporting event on the BBC calendar. The nearest you will see of greyhound racing on the television these days was in an afternoon repeat of All Creatures Great and Small in which the vet causes angst when he is obliged to be on duty at a meeting. It is now definitely a non-u sport.

Most notably the pitches at Stamford Bridge, Eastville and Vicarage Road amongst others used to be ringed by a greyhound track, resulting in the need for ball boys long before they became the vogue throughout the land. This leads to the question as to which of the Villa Park ball boys get to touch the ball the most at any particular game. Do they argue over who gets to stand where? Do they boast about how many touches afterwards? These are things we need to know.

Such was the popularity of greyhound racing, second only to football in spectator sports and more popular than cricket, that Birmingham used to boast tracks at Perry Barr, Hall Green and Kings Heath. Not as popular as fishing apparently, but who has ever watched a fishing competition?

These days I never see a greyhound without alluding to him as Wincott Ben. This inevitably requires an explanation to the owner, whose charge probably has a rather more prosaic name. Wincott Ben used to appear regularly on Saturday night in the scratch race at Perry Barr. Given a start of a few yards he would roar away from the field in pursuit of the hare and win me a few shekels for my 2/- (10p) stake on the tote. His reward meant that for the following week he would be put back to scratch, whereupon as the traps rose he would saunter round with his fellow canines and anyone not in on the secret of his running would have lost their stake money.

For reasons known only to the Perry Barr authorities, races there consisted of only five runners as opposed to six at most other venues. Were the bends too sharp? But that did not make picking a winner any easier. Spectators who paid a bit extra to be on the grandstand side of the track could indulge themselves by sitting indoors in the warmth with a pint in their hands whilst the riff-raff on the opposite terraced, of whom I include myself, were obliged to go without any alcoholic stimulant and were at the mercy of the elements. Excitement ensued with the announcement that “There are two minutes to the off,” as folks rushed to place their bets.as without placing a bet, however small, the whole exercise was pretty pointless.

Besides the bookmakers there was a large electronic board which kept spectators up to date minute by minute as to how many had bet on the tote, including forecast betting where, as if picking a winner was not problematic enough, there was greater reward to be found in picking the second but most would hedge their bets by having an each way forecast.

Another crowd puller at Perry Barr was the accumulator, a precursor of the ITV7 until this fell into disrepute when a clever punter realised that by backing every dog it could become an even money bet with a guarantee of success provided that no other punter also backed the lot. I am thrilled to be able to report that on one occasion two friends and I once scooped the pool, winning £168 between us (a king’s ransom) for the outlay of a mere 6/- (30p).

Crowds at Perry Barr used to compare with attendance at a Central League match earlier in the day but there was some comfort in that given the location of the stadium most of those there were Villa supporters so the events of the afternoon provided the sort of regular conversation and contact that you now only get in on H&V.

I must admit to an element of nostalgia on the rare occasions that I pass by the old Alexandra Stadium, even though I have never ventured there to see the dogs. My recollections of going there are for Graham Warren and the Brummies and Herb Elliot and the four minute mile plus perversely, stock car racing. But that is another story for another day, perhaps.