Greyhound Racing: Hare for the dogs is a Sunday attraction

Greyhound racing spreads to the Sabbath but for unwary punters the same traps lay in wait. Greg Wood reports
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The serious punters were following the furry athletes in red and blue jackets, but the most joyful reception at Hove's first Sunday greyhound meeting was reserved for a performer in a multi-coloured waistcoat. The spectators danced and cheered, an d if the reaction to the clown in the creche could have been reproduced elsewhere in the stadium, the tracks's first card on the day of rest would have been judged an unqualified success.

Hove was one of eight tracks -ranging from the rural delights of Swaffham to the echoing arena at Wembley -which yesterday launched racing with betting on Sundays. Point-to- pointing will follow suit at Tweseldown next week, with the highflyers of the horseracing world waiting until the Guineas meeting in May to get involved.

Hove already has its place in greyhound racing history, as the circuit where Ballyregan Bob recorded his record-breaking 32nd consecutive success. A bronze of the great dog now stands near the winning line, and the memory of his exploits will endure longafter those of yesterday's meeting have faded. The management had tried hard to raise a carnival atmosphere on a murky afternoon, but it soon vanished as the punters remembered that losing is unpleasant on any day of the week.

And if luck is against you, it does not take long to lose at the dogs. The first race was the longest of the afternoon and Milehouse Speedy, the winner, covered the 695 metres in 42 seconds. The next, a sprint over 285 metres, took less than 17. Diners in the Skyline restaurant picking the wrong moment to butter their roll would have seen nothing of the victory by the aptly named Ardcollum Flash.

The Skyline, where the table service extends to taking and settling bets, is a dangerously comfortable punting environment, and the waitresses do not let you forget when a race is imminent. But the minimum stakes are low (£1, or 20p for forecasts), and plenty of punters are happy to stick to them. Many, after all, have their families to think of.

Families are a major target for greyhound tracks -Hove is to spend £300,000 on an adventure playground -and for many the racing was almost peripheral.

The Skyline and bars were cosy retreats from the drizzle during the 15-minute intervals between races, but the explosive effort which was supposed to be the point of it all could only be appreciated at close hand. As they paraded sullenly in front of thestands, the runners barely deserved a second glance, but from the moment they leave the traps they are all, briefly, things of beauty.

Designed and bred for speed, the greyhound's long, elastic spine gives it a giant stride which propels it around the bends at stupefying speed. The whirr of the hare, the snap of the traps and the the soft thud of paws on turf is lost on the drinkers anddiners, but is alone worth the derisory entry fee. As is the adrenalin rush when your dog survives the jostling uncertainty of the first bend, strides clear on the back stretch and then holds off a late challenge by the width of his wet nose.

Dog races are often decided by a hundredth of a second, and as a high-octane punting medium, there is nothing to match them.

Greyhounds also perform with remarkable consistency, rarely deviating by more than a fifth of a second from their best time for a given trip. This, though, is enough to keep the bookmakers in business, and business yesterday was brisk. "It's a bit betterthan an average Thursday night, and Thursday's the biggest night here," one said. "Of course, there's lots of people here because it's the first time. We'll have to see if many of them come back next week."

They will, and no doubt in increasing numbers as the temperatures rise. But if there is a lesson for horseracing in yesterday's events as it prepares for its first season of Sunday meetings, it is that the novelty will last only until the first torn-up betting slip hits the floor.