Fifty sovs on dog number four, my son

Twenty years after we join the euro these guys will still be dealing in sovereigns
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The Independent Culture
ONCE, IN conversation with a very middle class actress, I began a sentence with "I know this postman..."

"Honestly, Mark", she interrupted, "You are funny. Fancy pretending you know a postman".

Last Saturday I could have blown her fuse, telling her I was heading down Wimbledon to the dogs. For the image of dog racing is comedy working class, along with whelks, string vests, slurping tea from a saucer, tin baths, and coughing up phlegm into a coal fire. In this world, the postman is aristocracy, with his stuck-up sack and la-di-da bike.

It's an image which is shattered within seconds of arriving at the stadium. The main spectators area is an enormous but cosy room, with two large bars and hundreds of tiered seats behind their own tables, giving the appearance of a massive theme pub, except that the theme is real - greyhounds.

In fact it's so comfortable that a marketing manager may be thinking along these lines, so that a chain of pubs called The Hare and Whippet start appearing in every town, selling Genuine Olde White City Creamy Ale, with actors employed to jump up every few minutes shouting "Come on number four my son."

The next shock arises from the mix of punters. For many people the dog racing has become the centre of the community, in the way that working men's clubs used to be on Saturday nights. About a third of the audience were women, and there were several of those enthusiastic four-year-olds who are the only ones dancing during the first half of a wedding reception. A table of schoolgirls looked around, whispering and giggling in that way that makes everyone think "They're giggling at me", and lads in their twenties stood drinking in circles, like the one behind me who managed to start a sentence "What that man can do on a dartboard is magic ...", and finish it "then it all kicked off in the toilet". So no-one need feel intimidated, even while placing a bet. There's no etiquette involving betting shops and miniature biros, you just say "a pound on number three", and give the clerk a pound. The relatively small sums of money required applies to owning an animal as well as betting on one. A decent dog costs about pounds 1,500. So whereas the list of owners in a horse race is likely to include a sir, two sheikhs and a member of the royal family, dog owners often have similar names to pub quiz teams. On Saturday, they included "The Wishful Syndicate', `The Sharp Fellows', "The Famous Five', "The A-team" and "The K-9 Syndicate.'

At least one of those must have been the result of a drinking session, after which someone woke up thinking "Christ, I feel rough. Hang on. Did I dream it, or did we buy a dog off a bloke in the chippy"?

The other unexpected part is the thrill of the race itself. From the moment the hare sets off until the end is less than 30 seconds. There's no talk of last time out, or who prefers the soft going, just 30 exhilarating seconds of screaming "Come on number two", in the same way as if you were betting on a race between centipedes or raindrops. When the race ends, it's lasted hardly long enough to interrupt a conversation or a joke. Maybe this explains why dog racing took off in Britain in the 1920s. It provided somewhere to gamble, but you could take out the family at the same time, so by the Second World War every area had its own dog track. The legalisation of High Street bookies, and the growth of new leisure industries eroded the appeal of dog racing. By the 1970s, almost the only regulars were the serious gamblers.

But recently the trade has renewed its appeal, providing food, carpets, tables, and most importantly heating. The social element has returned, but what's happened to those who stayed bleak times?

They're outside, in a huddle of about 50, stood on the concrete steps where bookies with names like Dell Nash shout "Nine to two yer four, evens yer five" in the fastest, gruffest, South Londonest voices imaginable. "Three pound each way on Pat Goes Well", I offered.

"Three sovs each way on 3," called the bookie, gruffly. What a fantastic word. Twenty years after we join the euro these guys will still be dealing in sovereigns. In the three minutes before the race, these bookies take money, record each bet, and chalk constantly changing odds on a blackboard at the rate of three tasks per second. But one of them still found time to tell his mate about the time he saw Bud Flanagan at the Brighton Empire. "Is this possible?" I wondered, as he was only about 50. Or did he pick it up as part of his patter off his Dad? So 100 years from now, his descendants will still be shouting "Six to four yer three, "ere, I tell you who could sing, Bud Flanagan, I see 'im at the Brighton Empire. Ten sovs yer six".

Everything is carried off with such confidence, that no action contains a moment's hesitation. These supposedly skilful parliamentary performers would be trounced in an instant if they came up against these boys, going "Here's yer budget, interest rates down yer quarter per cent, I've got half a billion sovs yer 'ealth service, 'ere look at this, I'm trying to run a country and this bald Tory git is trying to ask me questions, thruppence on yer fags ..."

Most money seems to be exchanged in the last seconds before the race, with three crisply folded fiftys being handed over after the hare had started from one of the many punters who looked like a guest villain in The Sweeney.

So could there be any greater thrill than watching Pat Goes Well, come strolling home a length clear at 3-l? "Er, I had Pat Goes well" I told the bookie, and handed him the ticket. "There yer go mate, twenty-one sovs", he said, and slapped twenty-one sovs in my hand. I wanted to run into the street, yelling "I entered this world, where blokes hand over crisp pounds 50 notes at the last minute, and got away with it and l won fifteen quid".

Back indoors, the atmosphere was still as sociable, despite some having drunk so much that the racing required too much concentration. "Come on you six dog", one lad shouted between gulps of lager while facing the opposite direction to the track - he never even checked to see if he'd won.

As everyone left at the end, they walked across thousands of discarded betting tickets. But these tickets weren't screwed up, launched in bitterness like the crumpled slips that decorate a betting shop floor. They were still intact, having been casually dropped like a used travelcard. The odd pound lost deemed part of the price of the social occasion, while the odd fifteen quid won makes you feel like you've got away with a bank job. The only worry is that the middle classes catch on, and co-opt it in the way they've done with football. Still, I'd like to see them say to Dell Nash, "Excuse me, do you take Switch?"