‘Catch Me If You Can‘ from The Scotsman Magazine. While nearly all else around it has been razed to the ground courtesy of spurious regeneration initiatives, Shawfield continues to stand proudly in a corner of Glasgow. An anachronism it may be, but it makes for a hugely entertaining evening out, especially if you’re watching the people and not the dugs.
EVERY morning, he is gently stirred awake from his temperature-controlled bedroom at 7:30am, rising from his slumber to find a bountiful breakfast awaits him. Most days, it consists of sardines on toast, but his chef is no stranger to late requests at early hours, preparing soup, or even a meaty broth. Sufficiently sated, he returns beneath his fleece blanket for a nap, rousing again by mid-morning to head outside for a short canter. Another doze is followed by a beef lunch, and a spell on the treadmill, before his personal trainer offers up a pedicure and massage. Come evening, he eschews the bright lights. He is still young, in his prime. Revelry can wait. Two digestive biscuits provide his only luxury, eaten shortly before 9pm, before he returns to bed for the night.
If sheer talent alone is not enough to ensure sporting greatness, sometimes even an unflinching dedication and discipline cannot assuage the doubters. In the case of Barnfield On Air, however, there are few waiting to be converted. Even among the punters, secretive little men who normally stand stubbornly by their own combination of labyrinthine statistical analysis and inexplicable intuition, nearly everyone is in agreement: this three-year-old is predestined for glory.
“In the Byzantine world of greyhound racing, the only thing faster than Barnfield On Air is the rate that superlatives are being used to describe him”
In the Byzantine world of greyhound racing, the only thing faster than Barnfield On Air is the rate that superlatives are being used to describe him. “The Desert Orchid of Dogs?” is a headline one racing expert recently posed. Such grand sobriquets are justified by his record to date. He has “done the clock” – dogspeak for breaking the track record – at no fewer than four British venues in the past year. Capable of speeds of 40 miles per hour, last year he brought home over £42,000 in winnings. He even has his own website.
“He’s one in a million, I’ve not seen a dog like him in 30 years,” says Paul Brown, greyhound editor of the punter’s bible, the Racing Post, and a man who has judged more dogs than a Crufts official. “Top greyhounds sell for up to £40,000, but Barnfield On Air is worth at least double that. But if he was mine I’d never sell him, he’s priceless.”
This year, many fancy Barnfield, or Barney as he is known, for the Triple Crown of greyhound racing: winning the Scottish, English and Irish derbies. It is a Herculean challenge, achieved previously only by a handful of dogs. No-one in his camp is without optimism, however.
Sam Poots, a 43-year-old recruitment agency boss from Essex, has a quarter share in Barney. It was he who bought the dog as a pup in Ireland, after receiving gushing advice from a friend in Tipperary. Now, he is Barney’s trainer, and believes him capable of clinching the “Impossible Treble” and his place in the greyhound hall of fame.
“As soon as I saw him, I knew he was special. He just flew over the track. That’s where I got the ‘on Air’ name from,” says Poots.
SHAWFIELD GREYHOUND STADIUM offers a cold reception for potential world-beaters, even if they are of the canine variety. Located in a neglected pocket to the south-east of Glasgow city centre, it faces a grim 1970s housing estate, where sheet metal, rather than glass, adorns the windows. Across the other side of Rutherglen Road stands another monument to an aged sport: the West of Scotland Indoor Bowling Club. Around both buildings are signs of encroaching retail park anonymity; corrugated iron shells, home to the likes of Halfords and Tilemania.
The stadium opened in 1932, and thrived for many years. By 1985 however, it was closed due to plummeting attendances, before it came into the hands of Billy King, a Glasgow bookmaker and the uncle of Stefan King, the entrepreneur and bar owner. Mr King has consciously done little to bring the stadium up to date. He is said to be preserving something, though no-one quite knows what the something is.
On a resplendent spring evening, Shawfield’s aesthetic foibles are no easier on the eye. At its centre is a long sandy oval, the focus of attention. Dilapidated terraces frame one end of the stadium, above them, a roof forged out of rusting corrugated iron sheets, the odd panel of which has gone astray.
“A snack bar offers not so much a food service as a means of assisted suicide. It is all heady stodge, and there appears to be three choices on the menu: pies, chips, or pie and chips”
At the other end is a crude stand next to betting windows, featuring bulky televisions in wooden cases which date back to Thatcher’s first government. A snack bar offers not so much a food service as a means of assisted suicide. It is all heady stodge, and there appears to be three choices on the menu: pies, chips, or pie and chips. All around, the paint is peeling and cracking. If you were to take a colour photograph of this place, it would somehow develop in sepia.
Tonight, however, is a special occasion: the semi-finals of the Scottish Derby. Only six out of 12 dogs will progress to the final, where £25,000 awaits the winner. Barney is among the competitors, despite only coming second in the first heat a week earlier, when the track was muddy and heavy-going, courtesy of a Glasgow downpour. Inevitably, his previous form ensures he remains much fancied.
In the Bully Wee, one of four bars in Shawfield, a hunched man in his late fifties, unshaved, jowly, and wearing the expression of a recently burgled homeowner, surveys his copy of the night’s programme. For the price of a beer, he tells me his name is Harry Ha’penny, and he is careful where his money goes.
“Ah’ll bet big if I think I’ll win, aye, course I will, but I’m no’ a mug,” he says in a conspiratorial bark. “My ear’s to the ground, son. I know a guid dug fae a s***e dug. See yon, and yon?” he adds, pointing to the listings. “They’re s***e dugs.” I ask for his opinion on Barnfield On Air. He closes his eyes and nods. “Aye, guid dug, that. Back that and you’ll be happy, he’s a guid, guid, dug.”
Downstairs in the café, the inhabitants are less earthy than old Harry. I approach a well-heeled woman slipping comfortably into middle-age. It turns out she is Mary Fahy, the breeder and owner of Barney’s main competitor this evening, Tyrur Kieran.
A prim, friendly woman from Galway, she believes the dog has a good chance. Tyrur Kieran is one of four dogs she has reared running tonight in races in Britain and Ireland. “Greyhound racing is a brilliantly social occasion. You see groups of people who know nothing about dogs coming along for a night’s entertainment,” she says. “It’s a very, very busy life being involved. There’s no end to it, but it’s a wonderful life.”
The dogs are big business in her home country. Funded by the government, the stadia are bright and modern, and around one in six of Ireland’s population attend at least one meet a year. On British soil, only Primark could boast of a similarly impressive footfall.
“Places like Shawfield simply don’t compare,” she adds. “I don’t want to talk it down, because the people here are really trying, but it’s a world away from the sport in Ireland. There’s not even any televisions showing replays of the races.”
“In 1960 the dogs were a regular fixture across working-class enclaves such as mining communities, with some 64 licensed racecourses the nation over, many of them wonderful art-deco structures. Now, the number stands at 29, with Shawfield the only such track in Scotland”
Mrs Fahy’s politeness not withstanding, the decline of greyhound racing in Britain is far from a secret. Sheer numbers alone show the downturn in the sport’s fortunes since it became officially recognised 82 years ago. In 1960 the dogs were a regular fixture across working-class enclaves such as mining communities, with some 64 licensed racecourses the nation over, many of them wonderful art-deco structures. Now, the number stands at 29, with Shawfield the only such track in Scotland. Well-kent tracks at Powderhall, Blantyre, Cliftonhill, Carntyne, and Clydebank are mere memories, while plans for a premier £4 million track at Wallyford in East Lothian, first mooted a decade ago, have stalled.
Independent tracks – popular with amateur trainers, but where, to the concern of animal welfare groups, there are less stringent drugs tests and no vets – have witnessed an even harsher decline, from 87 to just 14. More than a dozen have perished in the past decade alone.
The crowds have followed suit. In the glorious post-war evenings, up to 20,000 men would gather for a punt, with 15 million attending at least one race throughout the year. Today, a race will be considered a success should 600 turn up. The gates at daytime meetings, meanwhile, do well to break beyond double figures. Off-course gambling, the opening of evening betting shops, and television coverage have seen off the flat caps. Away from showpiece events such as derbies, it remains very much a pursuit of the hobbyist. The average prize money per race is a paltry £220, with the top prize at a run-of-the-mill track only £100. The shortfall must be met with passion alone.
An independent review into the greyhound industry by Lord Donoghue, published last autumn, offers a well-disposed, but realistic account of the sport’s health. “Those familiar with the recent modernisation of the rest of the British sporting and leisure industry are struck by how, in comparison, greyhound racing appears at times to be stuck in a different time warp,” it states. “It can offer a touching reminder of earlier – and especially working-class – sports from the post-war decades before most of our leisure industry decided to modernise.
“As one of our expert assessors commented: ‘Our pubs do not now look, smell and feel like they did 30 years ago – yet many of our greyhound tracks depressingly do feel just like that.’ That feeling may be nicely nostalgic as well as depressing, but it is not necessarily a formula for future commercial success.”
At 8:11pm on the dot, after two uneventful races involving young, inexperienced dogs, the main attraction is upon Shawfield. The attendance is still poor, a flock of only a few hundred, now darting anxiously between the trackside and the bookmakers. Barney started at evens, but has drifted out to 11/8, and now, with moments to go to the race, stands at 7/4. For those unfamiliar with the betting lingo, this means that whereas before, a £20 stake would have earned you a total return of £40 had Barney won, a successful bet would now be worth £55. It is a sign the dog, for whatever reason, has fallen from favour. Undeterred, I remember Harry Ha’penny’s words and stick a fiver on him. At the betting window beside me, quantities of cash are being exchanged that are best measured in inches, not pounds.
A bell sounds, the lights dim, and a mechanical hare starts its 480-metre route round the oval. After a few seconds, the traps burst open and the dogs pound the sand. They jostle for position, their sinews and muscles stretching as they reach top speed with effortless grace. Come the first bend, Barney is in trouble, bumped sideways as he tries to turn inside. He falls back into fourth place, and never recovers. The blink of an eye later, Tyrur Kieran romps home first to scarce applause, setting a new track record in the process, 28.69 seconds.
Barney is defeated, and will not be lining up in the final, let alone taking the Triple Crown. Shawfield takes on a funereal air at the realisation. Judging by the grimaces, I count myself lucky to have lost only £5. “He’s no’ the same dog he was,” one bulb-nosed punter bemoans. I overhear another, sure of his impeccable contacts, tell a friend: “That dog was hurt last week in the mud. Injured his leg, he did. He wasn’t fit.”
I have arranged another interview with Sam Poots after the race. When I call his mobile phone, however, there is a curt answer. “It’s a pointless exercise, mate,” he says. “You seen what happened.” I try to reason with him, pointing out that Barney can still win the two remaining derbies. He does not reply, his mind focused only on the long drive back to Essex.
Three nights later, and the mood is palpably different in Shawfield. The car park is full, with a Sky satellite truck taking up much of the room. Inside, the crowd of thousands is oiling itself on OVD and Blackthorn. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air around the open stand. The flat caps are out force, like the AGM of the Chic Murray Appreciation Society, but so too groups of young women have chosen Shawfield for their Saturday entertainment. The derby final may well have lost its favourite, but its atmosphere is intact. “It’s a big night. Normally, we’ll have around 600 to 700 people, but a derby is a one-off,” says William Reid, Shawfield’s racing manager. “There’s about 2,500 here. It’s like a football cup final.”
Inside the betting enclosure, seven bookmakers, including Billy King himself, field a wild scramble of enquiries, shouting out ever-changing odds, and taking in clumps of notes. In the space of five minutes, they take in thousands, if not tens of thousands. Little wonder more than £2.5 billion was bet on greyhound racing last year.
At 9:45pm, I watch the final get underway from a corner of the Bully Wee. Tyrur Kieran, the new favourite, races out from his trap ahead of the other dogs. He is not for catching and triumphs by a metre. Mary Fahy, resplendent in a turquoise suit jacket, punches the air, and the crowd cheer enthusiastically. “Go on, Tyrur, gies the Triple Crown!” one punter roars.
A few empty glasses away, I see Harry Ha’penny, looking out on the track like a Sioux elder surveying the rolling prairies of South Dakota. “What a guid dug,” he shouts, “I told ye a’ that was a guid wee dug.”