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'The restaurant manager wanted to serve grouse. It was all so over the top'.

AS far as greyhound racing goes, few people in the business can boast as much experience under their belts as Stephen Rea.

It was back in his twenties when Rea took out a permit licence to run a few dogs at Norton Canes. He explains: "When Charlie Southall, who ran the stadium, died, his family sold the business to Arthur Caine. Arthur approached me to take over the racing side of things and before I knew it I was general manager, racing manager and chief bottle washer at what was really a glorified flap.

"But it was good experience for me. But when my first marriage broke up I wanted to get away. There was a job at Crayford, so I applied and got it."

Working for Ladbrokes, and with Gordon Bissett, in particular clearly gave Rea real satisfaction. He says: "Gordon had just come out of the betting shop side of things and leaned on me for some of my track experience. But he was a quick learner and, for my money, remains the cleverest man in greyhound racing. He's a great businessman and the success of the Ladbrokes tracks are testament to this."

However, after three years at the Kent circuit, Rea heard through former Sporting Life greyhound editor Bob Betts that Robert Parker was looking for an operations controller at the newly redeveloped Hackney.

"At the time it was an easy decision.

I went from something like pounds 20K and a Cavalier at Crayford to pounds 50K and a Mercedes at Hackney."

But Rea soon realised all was not what it seemed at the track. "It was a real eye-opener in terms of the money that was flying about and the trainers who kept turning up telling me they'd bought a contract at the track.

"We had a restaurant manager wanting to serve up grouse and jugged hare, while our betting ring had bookies such as Victor Chandler himself, Tony Morris and John Power.

It was all so over the top."

The final straw came for Rea when he was instructed to get Hackney out of their prestigious Saturday morning Bags fixture one week as the World Speedway Championship was at the track that night and the riders wanted to practice.

"I said it was a bad idea, but was told to speak to Bags' John Johnson. He didn't want to do it - Hackney on Saturday mornings was a massive turnover track for off-course bookies.

"When the management heard this, I was told to tell Bags the hare had broken down that morning. I said I'd rather resign. That's what I did."

But the Hackney experience was not quite over for Rea, as there followed a TV expose into the ill-fated business which saw millions of pounds pumped into creating what soon became a white elephant - Hackney was declared bankrupt as a business the night it reopened.

REA recalls: "The documentary focussed largely on Robert Parker and Danny Dhamnia. But they also spoke to a track vet and he blamed me for something or other. It was total nonsense and I came out fighting.

"The headline in the Racing Post the next day was 'It's total crap, says Rea' - and it was. It was me that blew the whistle on certain things."

It wasn't too long before Rea was taken on by Edwin and Clarke Osbourne at the BS Group. "I helped with the sale of Bristol and the buying and redevelopment of Poole. But the track I loved most was Milton Keynes. It was just a great little track and full of real dog men, including bookies Del Borrows and Gary Wiltshire.

"I spent three years involved there and saw tote turnover increase from pounds 400K a year to nearly pounds 2million. The place just took off and I was gutted to see it go later on."

Next to call was Clive Feltham at the GRA, who offered Rea the Hall Green general manager's post.

"It was unbelieveable really. I spent the first three weeks of my life living at my Auntie's house which is directly opposite the main entrance gates to the stadium, and nearly 50 years later I was running the business. I'd come full circle.

"I had 13 years there and loved it. I'm still involved as a consultant and care about what happens to the track and business. But I no longer have to sit in an office which at 61 is a truly liberating feeling."

Rea, however, is not totally finished with greyhound racing. Aside from his ad hoc GRA role, he also admits to getting the bug to start training again. "Nothing is certain, but I might think about getting a couple of good dogs and going open racing with them. I've got all the space and facilities I need here."

Well, if it's good enough for Mark Johnston ...


Stephen Rea in the 1990s, his Crayford and Hackney days
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 5, 2012
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