These stakes have got legs - four of them

Jasmine Birtles on the risks and rewards of buying into racing

Pensions are depressing, the stock market is scary and interest rates on cash are derisory. What's an investor to do? Go to the dogs. Or maybe hitch a ride with the nags.

This isn't to say you should bet your life savings on the 3.30 at Doncaster. But if you have cash you can afford to lose, you could join the punters who go beyond betting slips to buy a racehorse or racing dog. Both are very risky investments and you should mentally write off any money you put in right from the off. But the possible winnings, particularly with a horse, are an attractive prospect.

"We always say that you shouldn't buy a racehorse primarily as an investment," says a spokeswoman for the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA). "It's only worth it if you have a genuine interest in the sport."

If you are interested, you will have to shell out a lot of cash. To buy a horse, usually just as a foal, will cost upwards of £20,000 as an initial investment. If you just want to own a share in a horse, the ROA runs its own partnerships where you pay £3,000 upfront for part-ownership, then £175 a month towards the expenses. According to the ROA's latest figures (for 2000), the average cost per year of running a racehorse is £16,418. The average prize money won in a year is £4,572.

Of course, the returns will be much higher in the case of future champions. If you have a horse that has won races and then goes on to breed, you can see a regular trickle of income from this.

Every now and then, you could also be lucky and buy a real winner. Football manager Sir Alex Ferguson has potentially made millions from a £120,000 investment in golden horse Rock of Gibraltar. The horse has since been retired to stud, and if Sir Alex sells his half-share now, the estimated £20m return would be tax-free. Because the stud is in Ireland, the £60,000 netted per mating is also tax-free. "The Rock" is due to mate with over 100 mares - worth £6m-plus to his owners.

But, before you get out your chequebook, remember this: many racehorses never see a racetrack. And most of those that do never win a race. Also, the horse that wins the Grand National may pick up £348,000 in prize money, but there is no guarantee it will ever win again.

Going to the dogs is a much cheaper option, both in terms of buying and maintaining the animal. If you want to buy a greyhound, it is best to approach one of the trainers at the track where you want it to race. Most have young dogs in training that they have bought themselves with a view to selling them on. The cost can vary enormously. An unraced puppy at 16 weeks old will fetch from £350 to £1,500 depending on its pedigree. The price increases as the dogs get older and more experienced.

The better the greyhound, naturally, the greater the price. A top-class racer at one of the bigger tracks will fetch up to £5,000, while the best in the country are worth between £5,000 and £50,000.

Keeping a greyhound in training is relatively inexpensive, usually £5 or £6 a day plus veterinary fees as required. Arthur Hammond, a director of the British Greyhound Racing Board, says it costs him about £80 a month to train up a puppy. Greyhounds are not allowed to run until they are at least 15 months old and on average they will be about 18 months old when they first start racing.

Mr Hammond says the return on an owner's investment will depend on the dog and the kind of race it can be entered for. "The prize money is not great but we're trying to get a deal with the bookmakers to bring it up," he explains.

"If the dog is good quality, it will be able to run in open races and the winnings can be £200 upwards. We had the Greyhound Derby a couple of weeks ago and the top prize there was £75,000."

At least you get more bites at the cherry than with horseracing. A greyhound can race around three times a month; horses tend to race much less frequently.

Mr Hammond has made money from some good racers in the past, but then he has been doing it for 30 years and knows the form. He also runs a "rehoming" scheme for retired greyhounds in Brighton and stresses the importance of caring for your dogs when they can no longer race for whatever reason.

"I have two retired dogs myself, as well as the two pups I'm training," he says. "We try and encourage all owners to be responsible with their dogs when they can't race any more. My ambition is to get a greyhound rehoming scheme in all tracks around the country."

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