Dogs, drugs and scandal in a twilight world hit b

Scam at the track: Syndicate's doping of greyhounds casts shadow over efforts to improve the sport's cloth-cap image
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Crime Correspondent

It was a drab October night at Catford greyhound track in south-east London. The punters munched their burgers and chips as the bookies chalked up the final odds.

Five greyhounds were set into the traps on the floodlit course. The 7.49 race was about to start.

Apart from a small group of tricksters no one knew that one of the biggest dog doping scams to hit greyhound racing was about to be unleashed.

The fall-out from that attempted sting last month is only now emerging. One of the casualties is the reputation of the sport, which for years has been battling against the image of a shady business watched over by old men in flat caps.

The race fixers had an ambitious, some would say naive, plan to make some quick money. They drugged seven dogs in two races on 16 October and bet on the remaining fit animals.

One bookie who witnessed the race recalled: "I couldn't believe it when they came out of the trap - one dog practically fell over. It was immediately obvious that something fishy was up."

The last greyhound doping scandal was about five years ago in Canterbury. At Catford no one has been caught since 1983, when the trainers Alf Ellis and Arthur Boyce were each fined pounds 100 after five dogs were tested positive.

The authorities were alerted to the most recent sting when betting shops in Catford took a flurry of unusual and highly risky wagers. Several people placed bets on two races and named dogs in each to come first and second. Suspicions grew even stronger when the fancied dogs duly took the first two places at the 7.49 and the 8.19 at Catford.

Urine samples were taken and found to be positive. Someone had fed the losing dogs with beta-blockers, which make the animals lethargic. However, the team that pulled off the scam was not able to collect its winnings - about pounds 8,000 - because the bookies were told to withhold all payments until an inquiry was completed.

Now Catford police have been brought in to investigate. Questions are also being asked about the track's urine testing programme which initially passed all the dogs as drug free. It was only after more extensive tests at Newmarket that the doping was identified. The dogs were probably drugged either at the trainers' kennels or just before the Catford races.

The management of the 1930s track, one of London's largest, insisted yesterday that the testing measures were adequate.

Frank Melville, chief executive of the regulators, the National Greyhound Racing Club, added that although the on-track tests were "basic", there were other security precautions. He said scams to fix races were "very, very, rare".

This sentiment was not shared by the 600 or so bookies and punters who turned up on a bitterly cold evening at Catford stadium on Thursday.

One bookie said: "A lot of funny things go on here that don't get found out. The idea that the sport is completely clean is laughable."

Ann Beal, who was born prematurely at Harringay dog track and had just watched the greyhound she owns come second, agreed. "I've seen some very dodgy things going on and it has got a lot worse. When big money is involved, people don't mind how they get a result as long as it's the right one."

A punter said: "Drugging dogs is a bit over the top, most will slow them down with a big bowl of water or a couple of steak and kidney pies."

Everyone questioned derided the dopers as "amateurs" for trying to pull of a scam that was bound to cause suspicion.

Despite the criticisms the track management insist that the sport's image has changed and that this was a rare example of cheating. Mike Raper, operations manager for the Greyhound Racing Association, said: "The image of cloth caps and sawdust is outdated. We have executive suites at some of our tracks now. You get businessmen going and a lot of young people - we've started serving designer lagers as well."

There was not much evidence of yuppies at Catford. There were three Japanese businessmen and one mobile telephone, but the vast bulk of the crowd were made up of middle-aged men, tough-looking south Londoners out with their mates and girlfriends, and the famous old men with flat caps, long coats, and wet noses.