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Wednesday, 23 January, 2019

Greyhound Derby settling in well after escape to the country

James Milton visits the prestigious event in its new home

The dogs take the first bend in the Greyhound Derby second round heats
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It’s a familiar tale for Londoners these days. Squeezed out by the capital’s soaring property prices, they decamp to the countryside where the kids each have a room of their own and there’s plenty of space for the dogs to run around.

That last factor is particularly pertinent when it comes to the Star Sports English Greyhound Derby, which has moved from the now defunct Wimbledon Stadium to Towcester in Northamptonshire.

The Derby’s new home is just under 100 miles from its former venue in south-west London but the two tracks are worlds apart aesthetically.

Spectators accustomed to trudging across the vast car park at Plough Lane, studded with potholes filled with murky puddle water, can look forward to making a grander entrance at Towcester.

An arch of Coade stone, flanked by Corinthian columns and a pair of elegant lodges, forms a handsome gateway to the Easton Neston estate, the site for horseracing at Towcester since 1928.

The Easton Neston Gate is featured in Pevsner – not, to the best of my knowledge, a claim to fame shared by the car park at Plough Lane.

The greyhound track dreamed up by racecourse owner Lord Hesketh and chief executive Kevin Ackerman held its first meeting in December 2014.

Little more than two years later, Towcester saw off rival bids from Sheffield and Sittingbourne to inherit the sport’s most prestigious event from Wimbledon.

Despite such speedy success, nobody connected with the track is resting on their laurels – tempting though that might be on a sunny Saturday evening in June with a juicy selection of second-round Derby heats on the card.

Racegoers watch the action from the restaurant balcony
It’s my first visit to Towcester since the £1.5 million greyhound stadium was built and the new addition is strikingly well integrated into its pastoral surroundings.

The track is banked up just inside the racecourse’s home straight so spectators in the Empress Stand have a perfect view of the action, enhanced by a 50 square metre screen and, when the sun goes down, piercingly effective floodlights.

The circuit is wide enough to accommodate eight-runner races and the Racing Post's seasoned greyhound watcher Jim Cremin points out the long run to the first bend, which “allows good Derby dogs to show their pace”.

With the track in place and the setting as beautiful as ever, Towcester is now focusing on attracting those key demographics: dogs and punters.

It has already acquired some influential supporters – none more so than eight-time champion trainer Mark Wallis, who won the first-ever race at Towcester and is now based at the track.

Wallis believes the Derby will be enhanced by its relocation. “We had some great nights at Wimbledon, winning two Derby finals, but it could be a bugger to get to, especially for the Irish and northern trainers," he says.

“Towcester is easier because it’s so central and it’s a great track. If we get a couple of Irish finalists it could boost the attendance by 33 per cent, so come finals night I’m sure the atmosphere will be electric.”

Ben Keith, of Derby sponsors Star Sports, is similarly enthusiastic, telling raceday presenter Roger Hart: “It’s a pleasure to come here every night – it’s such a nice atmosphere, everyone’s so friendly. Long live Towcester!”

Hart tells me he has a straightforward objective as master of ceremonies. “We just concentrate on making it fun. We get stag and hen parties, people celebrating their birthdays – I’ll get the whole crowd singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them – and then there are specific races where the children can come up and meet the winner afterwards.

“Those have been a real success and I always make sure I call the dogs by their names – they’re never just ‘trap four’ here.

“It’s so important to make it a special experience for people, especially for the owners. I remember the first time I went up to interview the winning owners, they ran a mile – they’d never been recognised before.”

A birthday party in full swing in the ground-floor marquee
Owners may be important – along with trainers, they receive free meals before racing – but there’s no doubt who are the true stars of the show.

Hart whips up the crowd before the first of the Derby heats: “Let’s hear a great roar when the traps open. That’s what we want tonight – let’s make these greyhounds feel special!”  

And runners at Towcester should feel pretty special even before they ping the lids to the cheers of their supporters.

The management and staff take understandable pride in the track’s kennels and Star Sports supremo Keith insists I see the set-up for myself. “The kennels here are fantastic,” he beams. “They’re immaculate – you could eat your dinner off the floor.”

That may be a slight exaggeration – when pressed, Keith admits he actually dined in the restaurant for owners and trainers – but I’m intrigued by the claim from one member of the Towcester team that the kennels “don’t even smell of dogs”. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that line from an estate agent . . .

A restaurant diner studies the form over a glass of bubbly
Chaperoned by Andy Lisemore, deputy racing manager and commentator, I’m shown through to the converted stable block.

Each stable contains eight kennels, so the runners for each race are housed together, ensuring a calmer, less chaotic atmosphere behind the scenes.

There’s a swimming pool in which the dogs enjoy a post-race cool-down and canine welfare is at the heart of Towcester’s operation.

Lisemore says there are plans to have a full-time greyhound vet’s practice at the course and the long-term ambition is to make Towcester “the Newmarket of greyhound racing – we’re already the home of the Derby and we want to become the centre of the sport.”

The staff gathered around the kennels before racing are primed to make that grand vision a reality. There is no shortage of experience in the team headed by Chris Page, formerly racing manager at Walthamstow, but – like any 21st-century start-up venture – it also contains plenty of youthful enthusiasm.

One of the girls who shares the role of starter has painted her fingernails in the colours of the eight trap jackets and is just uploading a picture to Instagram.

Live streaming of the races on Towcester TV’s YouTube channel is also available and visitors to the track can punt with the in-house Towcester Bet. If the brand-awareness campaign continues at this pace, soon people will be able to pronounce ‘Towcester’ correctly.

A group of women enjoy their evening in the first-floor restaurant
The action gets going on the track with a rollicking routine of parades, races and boisterous trophy presentations, interspersed with feisty interviews conducted by Matt Chapman up in the television gantry.

Chapman grills rueful trainer Rab McNair about England’s late equaliser against Scotland in World Cup qualifying before the evening's second race sees Colins Peace dig deep to beat Ferryforth Fran in a six-bend thriller.

The 686m race is a serious test of stamina, not least for a man standing next to me. From the moment the traps open he yells repeatedly “Go on, two dog!” yet, impressively, he still has enough puff to declare “That’s how we do it!” when Colins Peace holds on by a head.

“We’ve got our first stag of the night,” Hart announces after a later race, encouraging the bridegroom-to-be to “give our winner a little pat and a stroke”.

However, even the unflappable presenter is taken aback when the stag reveals that his wedding day clashes with the Derby final. “Are you sure you’re committed to this?” Hart asks incredulously.

Ballinakil Clare pounces late to win the first Derby heat of the night before Wallis’s Bruisers Bullet gets up to win in a photo.

Chapman milks the announcement of the verdict – “Our judges are taking a long time over this one . . . mind you, they are very old . . .” – before teasing punters with some Chris Tarrant-style dramatic pauses: “Winner . . . Trap . . . Four . . .”

Cheers ring out and Hart congratulates Wallis for “keeping the flag flying for the home team”.

A hint of drizzle sends less hardy spectators scurrying into the bars in the belly of the Empress Stand, which resembles the world’s greatest airport lounge.

Kids sitting on high bar stools slurp Vimto and Fanta through straws while their elders and betters sink into grey leather sofas in front of a bank of TV screens showing greyhounds from Central Park and horseracing from Stratford and Gulfstream.  

Back outside, a small boy asks his mum whether they can have “a rolling-down-the-hill race”. Towcester’s management would probably welcome the suggestion – they’re game for most things, including hovercraft races on the twin lakes in the centre of the racecourse.

The betting ring lights up as twilight falls
At this early stage of the Derby competition some connections like to keep their cards to their chests. Not, though, the Pacey Syndicate, owners of heat 11 winner Pacey Bambi. “Best dog in the world!” one of them roars during the post-race photocall before the Pacey Syndicate amble off in a leisurely fashion towards the bar.

Trainer John Mullins is more circumspect after Carn Brea’s victory in the next, conceding only that his dog – the fastest performer of the night – “likes the track”.

It’s a view likely to be shared by many visitors to Towcester, whether their trip is inspired by Pevsner, Instagram or the prospect of backing a 33-1 winner such as Airport Jumbo in heat 14.

Airport Jumbo (trap 4) leads home Swithins Brae (trap 1) in heat 14
The cover of the racecard features a crest with the Latin motto: ‘Hora e sempre’ – “now and always”.

Whether that promise of permanence will apply to Towcester’s relationship with the Greyhound Derby remains to be seen. It stages its inaugural final on July 1 but the competition certainly seems to be laying down roots in its new home.

Shortly before the start of racing, I meet Lord Hesketh – or, as Chapman hails him during commentary later in the evening, “the man who built this track”.

I ask how he feels the Derby will fare, having been transplanted from south-west London to the Easton Neston estate. “We wouldn’t want to transplant it,” he corrects me. “I’d say we’re growing a brand new tree here.”

Lovingly tended to by a devoted staff, the Greyhound Derby appears to have a favourite’s chance of flourishing in the Northamptonshire soil.

The Derby’s new home is just under 100 miles from its former venue in south-west London but the two tracks are worlds apart aesthetically

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