Search for the hare of the dog

Forget the glamour set at Kempton, Catford is the place to go for a Boxing Day punt. Andrew Baker joined the in-crowd
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The Independent Online
Failing to defrost the turkey adequately is a common cause of Yuletide grief. Down at Catford Greyhound track on Boxing Day, a similar problem distressed the punters: an inadequately defrosted hare.

The day after Christmas Day may be associated in most gamblers' minds with Kempton Park and a grey horse or two. But greyhound folk have their own meccas, and on Boxing Day Catford is the place to be.

Close on three-thousand people had crammed in to the little stadium, and stood on the terraces cradling plastic cups of steaming tea, more for the warmth than the taste. The first race was due at 11am, and bets had been laid with the six or seven rails operators and with the Tote girls, who wore tinsel necklaces in their little hutches. The dogs went into the traps, then came out again - backwards.

"We apologise, ladies and gentlemen," the Tannoy announced. "There will be a short delay to our race programme, due to problems with the hare mechanism." Hilarity in the grandstand, yells of "The hare's a tortoise," and "Rabbit pie, get your frozen rabbit pie here!" The Tannoy crackled again. "Our thanks for your patience, ladies and gentlemen. Our engineers are working on the problem."

And there they were: a crack team of hare engineers in anoraks, stooped over the recalcitrant bunny. To ironic cheers, they got it to move - but only for a few yards at a time. The hare carers signalled frantically towards the grandstand. A "cable change" was announced, and a further delay of half an hour.

The crowd muttered and grumbled. On Boxing Day last year, many recalled, racing had been called off at the last minute when it was found the track had not been defrosted properly. The words "brewery" and "piss-up" were on every lip. The management must have overheard, for they sensibly halved the price of beer in all the bars.

Punters passed the time waiting in line for punnets of chips, studying the form, discussing hangovers while children played with whichever presents had been deemed sensibly portable.

At last the technicians had finished, and a mighty cheer went up as the Tannoy solemnly intoned: "The hare is running." Seconds later, so were the dogs.

But the management's woes were not over. The delay had clearly sharpened the greyhounds' appetites, and at the end of the first race Junction Flyer, from trap one, managed to get hold of the hare in his jaws, and paraded it in front of the grandstand, tossing it happily in the air, pursued by an apoplectic official. The crowd were in stitches. At last the poor abused fluffy toy was retrieved, a bit soggy but otherwise undamaged, and the familiar, relentless rhythm of a day at the dogs was restored.

"This has not been an easy day," said Greg Heath, the stadium manager, grabbing a quick fag in his office under the grandstand. "A cable change is one of the hardest things to do, but we'd tried everything else. Only 20 people left, and we gave them their money back."

Behind the grandstand, the hounds bayed and yelped in their double-decker kennels. Released before their races, they leapt joyfully up at their handlers, and licked the hands of owners who had come around to give them pep talks.

The talking doesn't stop when the racing starts. "Come on five!" the punters yelled. "Move up, four!" "Down the inside, one!" It matters not a jot that such calls get lost in the bedlam, or that the dogs wold not know if they were one, five or fifty- seven: this is ritual.

Ritual, too, are the long queues at the Tote windows, and the waiting game played by the rails bookies. Just when it looks like they can't be bothered to offer prices, up they go, and in crowd the punters.

Some hefty bets went in on the big race of the day, the M & M Bookmakers Boxing Day Marathon: the sponsors themselves had taken more than pounds 2,000 on the favourite, Elbony Rose. It wasn't a 26-mile race - even greyhounds would take too long to cover that distance - but rather 718 metres. Elbony Rose, a pretty, delicate, brindled bitch, led every inch of the way, leaving the crowd hoarse and the bookies wincing. "She's a little battler," said the owner's mum, collecting her cut-glass trophy and a cheque for pounds 1,250. "She doesn't like to let anything go past her."

Dusk was falling, and punters began to drift away as the final two races ran their course. A confetti of shredded tickets surrounded the bookies' pitches. "At least I can relax now," Greg Heath said. "Until Saturday, anyway." Poor Greg - he'd had a bad hare day.