Tempers rise down at the dog track

Tempers are rising down at the dog track, where a doping scandal threatens to tear a traditional northern pastime apart. But is this sport of flat caps and real ale really going to the dogs? Or can one man prove to be its saviour? Welcome to the strange world of whippet racing in the 21st century
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A silence descended on the little grassy racing track behind the car park of the Jolly Friar pub in the former pit village of Blidworth, on the border between Nottingham and South Yorkshire, when Mark Pettitt appeared. It was an uncomfortable silence, the kind you get in cowboy films when the gunman walks into the small town. For Mark Pettitt is currently the most unpopular man in whippet racing.

A silence descended on the little grassy racing track behind the car park of the Jolly Friar pub in the former pit village of Blidworth, on the border between Nottingham and South Yorkshire, when Mark Pettitt appeared. It was an uncomfortable silence, the kind you get in cowboy films when the gunman walks into the small town. For Mark Pettitt is currently the most unpopular man in whippet racing.

Bob Osmond, a burly man with close-cropped hair, a tooth missing and his arm bandaged to the wrist (of which more later) approached him. Bob is the South Yorkshire regional secretary of the British Whippet Racing Association (BWRA). Mark should get off the course, right now, otherwise he would effing thump him. In reply, Mark told him this was public property and he could eff off himself. And that was just the beginning.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Whippetry in the year 2000. But what follows is not the stereotypical tale you might expect of ex-miners with flat caps racing the poor man's thoroughbred across northern post-industrial wastelands (though it does have its share of beer and belligerence). Rather, it is a story of petty jealousy, hubris, feuding and injusticethat centres on a row over official allegations - fiercely contested by Mark Pettitt - that dogs are being doped to improve their performance.

Tempers are rising, to say the least. For the thing about the sport's most hated man is that, privately, muttering quietly into their beer in the saloon bars of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Scotland and even Essex, many whippet-racers acknowledge that he is right, though they are too cowed by the racing authorities to come out and say so.

"There's no doubt that Mark has been correct in everything he has said about the unfair way the sport is being run," said Irene Cunningham, a dog-trainer from Essex, who this week, after 30 years in the sport, was still awaiting official test results that have made her the latest in a string of trainers to be banned for doping. "There would have been no one who could defend me better than Mark, but he's so hated by the authorities that getting him involved would've been counter-productive."

Looking round the field behind the Jolly Friar, it was hard to understand how things had reached this level of ferocity. There were just a few dozen people there. Some just sat, ample-bellied, on the grass in the hot sunshine, making inroads into the local ale and watching the whippets tear by in pursuit of a lure of bright cloth and plastic. But most were racers themselves, readying their dogs for the next heat or rewarding them for the last. The sun was hot. People were enjoying themselves with the pure pleasure of the dogs' scampering speed. There was no betting. The overall winner took a prize of just £15.

And yet this little world is riven over the unlikely issue of doping. Unlikely because both sides insist that doping is not a widespread worry in whippet racing. "The scale of it is very minimal," says Paul Jennings, chairman of the BWRA, while his arch-foe Mark Pettitt believes it is virtually non-existent. "The scourge has been dreamt up by the BWRA authorities to make them feel important," Pettitt says.

Unlikely because, as Bob Osmond puts it, "it may be an issue in greyhound racing, where people try to dope animals to slow them down for the betting..." His words were interrupted as the dog he was preparing to run leapt wildly, shrieking and yelping and snapping, as three people restrained it while Bob muzzled it. "But can you imagine anyone wanting to stimulate a dog like this? It's mental already. This is what it did recently," he said pointing to his missing tooth and bandaged arm.

In slightly less graphic language, the experts agree. The Society of Greyhound Veterinarians pronounced last year, in the words of its president, David Poulter, "We were unanimous that the levels mentioned [in the drug tests] would not have a performance-enhancing effect on a whippet". And the Journal of Analytical Toxicology has published test results that show that the levels of theobromine, theophylline and caffeine being detected in the tests are no more than would be found in half-a-dozen chocolate buttons, which have traditionally been the standard treat to reward racing whippets.

Indeed, when Osmond was secretary of the BWRA he looked into the question of dope-testing, which was then becoming fashionable in other sports, and decided that: "It wasn't enough of a problem to warrant the expense. An initial indication test costs £150, and the full confirmatory test costs another £800. There's no money in whippet-racing, so we decided not to bother." If only they'd left it at that.

But Bob's successors changed the policy - and being a cash-starved amateur body with just 600 members, they decided to make do with just the initial £150 screening. And on the basis of that, they have started to ban people - even though the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory, which does the tests, has made it clear that the first test is not conclusive.

"The screening procedure is designed to distinguish between a sample that is completely negative and one that requires further work. It is an automated procedure that gives an indication that particular drugs may be present but does not prove their identity," the lab's assistant director, Mrs Pat Chalmers, wrote to the BWRA. Only the second test will "withstand legal scrutiny", she says, and underlines that "we have never been asked to perform an accurate quantification for substances in samples received from the BWRA".

Yet despite that, the BWRA - whose committee, as Paul Jennings put it, is"a bit ignorant as far as science goes" - decided to ban owners simply on the basis of this first screening. Those who wanted the confirmatory test done were told they would have to pay the £800 themselves. "The whole notion offends against natural justice," Mark Pettitt complains.

And that wasn't all. When Pettitt - whose girlfriend's sister, Jane Poole, was banned - took up the matter on behalf of her and three other banned owners, he uncovered a whole saga of inadequate tests and tampered samples. A Scottish trainer, Davey Cooper, threatened legal action when he was one of 21 owners found guilty of doping. Later, when the BWRA sent a copy of a drugs-test report to another trainer, four lines had been removed. They read: "I must emphasise that these figures are only a rough approximation and not a valid quantitative measurement. The presence of these substances in the samples has not been confirmed by mass spectrometry and until this is done we cannot issue a positive report". The lines had been Tipp-Exed out.

Ask the authorities about all this, and their response is, to say the least, confusing. Paul Jennings of the BWRA acknowledges that members are banned simply on the basis of initial screenings but insists the system is fair: "We can't afford to go paying out for £800 tests. If a member wants to, they can pay for it themselves."

More bizarrely, he insists that the controversy is nothing to do with chocolate. "No one apart from Mark Pettitt has mentioned chocolate," he says, despite the fact that vets, chemists and countless other racers have done so. "There are other substances involved," he says, darkly. Such as? "I'm not prepared to say what, in case it encourages other people to use them."

At the Blidworth racetrack, Yvonne Ragnoli, an assertive middle-aged woman who organises the drug-testing for the sport's other regulatory body, the National Whippet Racing Federation, is back on chocolate. Only she insists, "The quantities of chocolate you would need to get these levels are huge." Which is quite the opposite of what the scientists say. Irene Cunningham consulted a pharmacist, who told her that the level found in her dog could have come from just four chocolate biscuits.

So what is it all really about? "Paul Jennings had the top dog until Pettitt arrived. When Mark beat him Paul vowed to get him back. It's revenge," one told me, echoing feelings expressed by several others. "It's noticeable that no one in the ruling clique ever gets their dogs tested," said another.

"All that is just stupid," ripostes Paul Jennings, whose committee has now pronounced a life ban on Pettitt for bringing the sport into disrepute.

There is no doubt that Mark Pettitt - who has lobbied members, vets, chemists, MPs and the media with a relentless determination - has made a real nuisance of himself. "This sport has to be cleaned up," he argues. The trouble is that in the process he has alienated many of those who agree with what he says. "He's right," says Bob Osmond. "But it has become an obsession. What is going on is ripping whippet racing apart."

Even Mark's girlfriend, Gill, agrees. Last weekend she was racing their dog at Blidworth while Mark fulminated on the side-lines. The couple have fallen out to such an extent that last weekend, after eight years together, he moved out of their home. "There has been a great injustice done," she told me, as she returned home and the couple met in the kitchen for the last time before he left. "But you have to know when you're beaten. People prefer racing to justice."

"And I prefer justice to racing,"Mark said.

She shrugged and took their three whippets off for a walk. When she had gone, he picked up his voluminous file of correspondence on the controversy and pushed it into a bag.

"I'll never give up," he said. And, like the cowboy in the film, Mark Pettitt climbed on to his motorbike and rode off alone.