Almanack: Dogs, dinners and the National health

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GREYHOUND racing in Britain has been going through difficult times. Attendances have been falling, and recently a television documentary accused the sport of corruption, cruelty and canine genocide. Some who remember the sport's heyday in the 1950s despair of its modern condition. So it was with some foreboding that Almanack's man approached Hall Green Stadium in Birmingham on Grand National night. Would anybody be there?

Despite gale-force winds and driving rain, the stadium was packed. But Hall Green was designed with the modern punter in mind. The stands are fully glazed, there are televisions all over the place, and eating is at least as important as racing. Crowds of ten or twenty thousand are a thing of the past, but the sport's administrators have realised that you can do just as well out of 2,000 if they're paying pounds 24 a pop for a bottle of Moet et Chandon. There is even a hotel for those who enjoy the pitter-patter of paws outside their bedroom window late into the night. All of the trackside rooms were occupied for the Grand National.

The sport seems to be innovating its way out of trouble. What about the accusations of cruelty in training, and the mass putting-down of past-it racers? Not fair, according to greyhound fans. All the scenes of cruelty in the On The Line documentary, they point out, were shot outside Britain, in Ireland, Spain and the US. In the grandstand a noticeboard displays the testimony of the Retired Greyhound Trust (Hall Green Branch): a kind of doggy Hello], featuring snapshots of retired mutts reclining on sofas in their beautiful new homes and little vignettes of their new lives ('Final Bid has started a new career: she was entered at Coventry Dog Show as a short- haired, short-eared Saluki]'). Greyhound folk maintain that all racing dogs pass on into homes like Final Bid's, or into unofficial 'flapping' racing. This is hard to believe, but the affection in which the animals are held makes one want to try.

After all, there is not much point in buying a greyhound and expecting to make money. Miss L Fewtrell, for instance, the owner of Costa Rica, who won the second race, collected a small trophy and pounds 32, which will barely keep the hound in Pedigree Chum for a month.

The Daily Mirror/Sporting Life Grand National Final is a rare exception. Randy Savage, an 8-1 outsider starting from trap five, pinged the first hurdle and left his more fancied rivals eating sand: his owner, John Butler, collected two trophies and pounds 5,000.

Randy Savage was by no means his first purchase. 'We've owned dogs for years,' he told Almanack after the race. 'We've had a few good ones but never one as good as Randy.' The beast, who was betraying his forthright name by neither humping nor biting the many admirers who crowded round to pat him, had been laid out specially for the race. 'We gave him a rest for a few weeks,' Mr Butler explained, 'so he came to the National fresh. Once he trapped out I knew it was all over. Tonight we've won the big one]'

It was a good result for the bookies, the only people who had to spend the entire evening exposed to the icy wind and horizontal rain. They weren't taking much money for their pains: the horrible conditions meant that all but the hardiest punters stayed inside with a hot Chicken Gazza ( pounds 1.05) and a warm pint, and did their betting on the Tote. 'It's a terrible night,' said Wilf Bloxham, a silver-moustachioed rails bookie, between mouthfuls of soggy chips. 'This weather . . . it's a hell of a way to earn a living. But we keep hoping.' His sopping clerk, hunched behind the board, was quite beyond hope. 'I'm not a bookie's clerk,' the old man moaned, 'I'm a drownded rat. I'm getting on to Age Concern.' He rambled on: 'It shouldn't be allowed. It's all the fault of Maggie Thatcher . . .'

Back in the warmth of the main grandstand the gigantic windows had steamed over with boozy breath and the carpet was covered in a confetti of torn-up Tote tickets. The lights dimmed as the next race got under way. 'Come on my baby]' screamed a woman at a black- tie table in the restaurant, 'Come on]' The dogs flashed across the line: 'Yes] You beauty]' If greyhound racing is dying, it's certainly not going quietly.

(Photograph omitted)