Sunday, August 25, 2013

Greyhounds in the Field

Greyhound racing is taken very seriously in the village. They buy and sell them, know a great deal about them, what to look for and how to train them, they race them whenever they are arranged, and organize races themselves. Like anyone with a passionate for anything, they get together as much as possible to talk about dogs. They eat, sleep and breathe greyhounds. Their conversation can probably get rather dull. Fortunately I don't know any personally. I do know a lot of hunters, though, which is the other great passion in this region, and they can be very boring indeed. I imagine Mrs Hickory feels the same way when my father and I start to reminisce about that great Essex team of the '80's under Keith Fletcher…

Anyhow, despite their love of greyhounds, there are no dog tracks. The great stadiums of Romford and White City are not to be found in this region, or anywhere else in Spain (or even in Romford any more, I believe), rather the races are run in fields, from end to end, over some length that probably depends more on the space available than on any characteristics of the dogs, but those I have seen are over about 800 yards. Every summer, by tradition, we allow a morning’s racing on one of the fields nearer the village, at Festival time (now), in exchange for which we get tickets for the bullfight. (There used to be a ploughing competition as well, but since a dispute with a previous mayor it’s now held somewhere else.) So I sometimes go and see what the atmosphere is like and how it all works.

There is nothing complicated in the mechanics of greyhound racing- you point them in the same direction and let them go at the same time, much as though they were horses or Ethiopians- except that the motivation is provided by a hare, which they chase. The way in which they get the hare to operate is quite interesting. A long, thick stake with a kind of capstan on top is driven into the ground beyond the finish line. Through this threaded a steel cable which is then attached to the hare. A motorbike takes the hare down to the bottom of the field where the starting line is. The other end of the cable is wound round a spool attached to some kind of engine. In the photograph the engine is a car engine and the spool is adapted from the wheel of the car. This year the spool was mounted on the back of a van and had its own engine, which makes it easier to move around and gives you finer control over the hare. He was also somewhere about the middle of the course, so the cable must have been well over half a mile long. Once the race is underway, the hare driver keeps his wits about him and his eyes on the dogs, and keeps the hare at whatever the appropriate distance is considered to be. It looks to be about ten yards, though I assume he uses his judgement.

When the dogs reach the top of the field, such members of the organizing council as are still sober will have been deputed to judge the finish, and then everyone involved, and probably idle spectators as well, will argue at length about the result. In the end agreement will be reached and they begin to prepare the next race. It looks fun, and in fact, despite the picture I may have given, it is not chaotic or disorganized at all. As I said, they take it very seriously. Whenever I have seen it everything has gone off as intended, and the crowd has had a good time. Then everyone hides under the trees to eat sausages and drink a lot of wine until about one o’clock when it starts getting too hot and they drift home, doubtless nursing grievances about decisions gone against them, voicing suspicions of nobbling, and planning the next meeting.

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