Scampering paws, elegiac undertones; In the fourth and final part of his Northern Adventure, Steve Dennis visits Newcastle.
THERE are no ugly women in Newcastle. In the interest of equal rights, for those who are reading this in possession of two X chromosomes, I daresay the men aren't bad either. Even at three in the morning as they tumble in turmoil out of the clubs and into a soft veil of rain, dressed for flaming June and not freezing January, they bloom with a candid grace and beauty. But all this is after the before, necessarily, and the before is Brough Park.
It's not Brough Park any more, it's Newcastle Greyhound Stadium, and to call it a stadium is to endow it with a grandeur it doesn't own. Navigate the industrial estates surrounding it, find your way through the labyrinth of steel fencing towards the lights and when you arrive it is something of an anti-climax. This place ushers in no ideas of glory, plants no seed of anticipation. Until you get out of the car, that is, and listen to the dogs barking in the night.
It costs pounds 5 to get in and there are 14 races, which is an equation many racecourse executives might like to commit to memory. A racecard is concomitant with entry. Go through the doors at the bottom of the stairs and you find yourself in a facsimile of a William Hill betting shop, complete with slackjawed chancers playing the FOBTs. There is somewhere to buy a pie, should a pie be desired, but the ones in Airdrie are better, although a pie's a pie for a' that.
If this were all the place could offer it would be a dismal setting. But there is life upstairs and life outside, plenty of it. All the races are the same. The dogs run 480m round an oval and when they reach the daytime brilliance of the finishing line trap 1 always loses.
There is a horrendous bias against the inside dog tonight. The one box must have glue on the floor, or else the little red jacket is packed with lead. I am no Tom Segal, but Fast Conors Boy must be something of a good thing next time out after managing second spot from the inside in the finale.
Two things I know about greyhounds: they make superlative pets and you need to bet the ones who get 'on the bunny', as dog maestro Richard Birch advises. The bunny is orange plastic and has a flawless winning record, and if your selection is on the bunny then you can start the 'oi oi' from turn three.
There is a lot of 'oi oi' from the upstairs bar, from where you can see south Newcastle picked out in streetlamp sodium orange. People go to the races, they attend the opera, they enjoy a night at the dogs.
I think it is impossible not to enjoy a night at the dogs, as long as you have money enough to eat, drink and bet. It is so simple, this process of enjoying oneself; all the psychoanalysis in the world comes a poor second to three hours watching the dogs go round with a beer in one hand and a betting slip in the other.
Buoyed by my slight betting success at Airdrie the night before - reinventing myself is ace; who will I wake up as tomorrow? - I press up (is that right?) with a few fivers on the Tote. I don't know why greyhounds have names, because no-one ever uses them. It's all trap 3 or the five dog as the money shoots across the counter, like a six-hole roulette with a wad of chewing gum where the one-slot should be.
I lose money; I lose it fast, half a minute fast as the dogs helter-skelter round the bends. The group of office workers next to me aren't losing, though. That's where the 'oi oi' is coming from, the shrieks and squeaks and shouts. Someone wins on every race and it's another round of drinks, another opportunity to laugh away the long day at work.
One girl spots my camera, poses. Then another, then all of them in one loose scrum, grinning as the flash fires. One chap who evidently hasn't missed a drink all night asks me if I'd like to hear a scoop for the price of a beer. It's an inviting proposition, but he could have the remains of Shergar in his fridge and I still wouldn't be able to understand a word he says.
The Geordie accent is an all-out war between consonants and vowels, a dissonant discourse of amity.
NEXT door is the restaurant, a slightly less convivial arena but popular. A patient waitress, Susan, takes me through the possibilities; pounds 7.50 for two courses on a Tuesday night, pounds 10 for two courses and a welcome drink on Thursday, a tenner for three courses and a drink on a Saturday night, when they are wedged in like students in a telephone box. Tote workers come to take your bets and return your winnings, unless you've backed trap 1. But you mustn't stay by the bar, in the warm. No-one stands outside on the steps, but that's where the best of it lies. Out come the greyhounds with their three coats, one nature gave them and the other two man-made. Up and down they walk, squatting often to lighten the load or cocking a leg against a floodlight stanchion, their handlers rubbing an ear or patting a back, best friend to man's best friend.
One minute to race time. They come behind the traps and off comes the top coat with a flourish, like boxers entering the ring. Then it's one gentle hand under the neck and the other under the stomach and lift into the little boxes. All are locked away, and the hare begins its electrical advance.
The dogs know. They bark, whine, howl with anticipation, scrabble with their feet, wriggle against the sides of their tiny tin can, rattling the framework with their pent-up energy until the hare passes and the doors lift and - kapow! - they stream after it, eyes wide, tongues lolling like a slice of salt beef. As they swish past their paws drum the sand, a beautiful sound, light and feathery and fierce and fast. Round they come, a cluster of vitality, one stretching out ahead of the rest in the sinuous glory of full flight. It isn't trap 1. But greyhound racing is struggling. Dog tracks are closing, interest is dwindling, attendance is falling. The animal rights fringe evangelises over the uncertain future in store for many greyhounds, and there are more ways in which to be entertained these days than there were when venues proliferated and greyhound racing was a mainstream sport.
In 20 years there may be far fewer tracks, far fewer greyhounds surging up the straight in pursuit of the unattainable hare, rippling joyfully along trying to catch the uncatchable, a mad gleam in their eyes as they try to avoid trouble at the first turn.
Attendance at Newcastle tonight isn't so very much and you can see it waning instead of waxing, see it disappear before the little boy in the blue shirt who scribbles pictures on his racecard has the chance or the inclination to bring his own children to watch the dogs run round.
It is difficult to avoid striking an elegiac note when talking about the future of greyhound racing. The present may be no more than laughing in the face of death, but at least tonight there's plenty of laughter. The office crowd are off oot on the Toon while money and wakefulness sustain, and they bid me try the Quayside, or the Gate, or the famously infamous Bigg Market for the pick of the nightlife.
Thursday may be the new Friday, but this lot go as if there's no tomorrow. At three in the morning they call it a draw, honours even between themselves and the licensing hours, and I daresay they'll pick up where they left off soon enough.
The end of the night brings with it its own elegiac undertones, and as the slips of things slip home in the dark only the rain remains. Yes, there's plenty to muse upon as the rain falls on the Newcastle girls and boys; it falls softly, insistently, and the sound it makes on the pavement is the sound of greyhounds scampering up the straight.
The traps fly open at Newcastle in a race with a certainty - the certainty that it won't be won by the greyhound hailing from trap 1
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 31, 2010|
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