Born to run?

More than 25,000 greyhounds are discarded every year by the racing industry, and most of them get ki

Cleopatra had hers. Queen Elizabeth I had hers, too. And I've got mine - Molly Kay, a shy, sleek, blue, aerodynamic wonder of the world. But the journey from the pyramids to the asylum where our eyes met and we fell in love is a lamentable narrative. It's a story of not rags to riches, but riches to rags and even unceremonious death.

On 16 February, David Smith, a local businessman, appears before North Dur ham magistrates facing an unprecedented prosecution: he has been killing thousands of grey hounds for years. He won't be prosecuted for that - it's not illegal - but has been summonsed in a private prosecution by the Environment Agency for illegally dumping thousands of unwanted greyhound carcasses on his allotment.

How did it come to this?

Greyhounds are reckoned to have been around in their contemporary form for about 8,000 years. Their relics appear in the tombs of phar aohs. Their prowess streaks across the vases of Mediterranean empires. The greyhound diaspora stretches from the Middle East, along conquering trails through Europe, to the royal houses of our own monarchs, from the Tudors to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

These fleet sight-hunters who target rabbits and hares and squirrels have been petted as accessories to the aristocracy. They are admired for a peculiar faculty: greyhounds have been known to surpass 40 miles per hour, and yet they lie around all day, like Mae West, resting. That magnificent greyhound chest is for breathing and extreme acceleration. They dash, like springs; they soar. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes them as "fowels in flight". Their heads and hips are perfectly engineered for spasms of speed. They run for joy; there's even a notion that they smile, and then they spend the day prone.

The Normans banned the common people from owning greyhounds. Royal dynasties colonised them, and they made house room for greyhounds much as, sometimes, they admitted clever black slaves: as exceptions and adornments. In some societies, including our own, the greyhound was prized above a woman. The history of this dog is stitched into narratives of empire and class, of country and city.

They have been bred not for killing but for running. In less than a century, however, the greyhound has been transformed from an emblem of luxury to a victim of capitalist exploitation.

In the 20th century the greyhound was proletarianised; the dog became a working-class man thing - like allotments and football and pubs, an excuse to get away from their women. This happene d, however, only after the industriali sation of its spectacular prowess, with the creation of a mass spectator sport and a billion-pound betting industry.

This modern crisis begins there. The effort to release the greyhound from rural sport to urban stadium triumphed in the invention of a mechanical lure early in the 20th century. That allowed the greyhound to hurl itself around the oval stadiums that then proliferated in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia.

Britain's first was Belle Vue, built in Manchester in 1926. The industry proliferated until the 1980s, when stinky, scruffy stadiums were closing down en masse. London now has only two - Wimbledon and Walthamstow.

But the decline in the live audience did not lead to a decline in either the number of dogs or the betting. The betting industry offered a fresh opportunity for you to part with your money when it invented the Bookmakers' Afternoon Greyhound Service (Bags). That means afternoon racing where the dogs sprint round empty stadiums. So, although live spectatorship declined, betting flourished. But Bags needs more dogs, and that means more surplus dogs.

Tony Peters, founder of Greyhound Action - the direct-action wing of the greyhound welfare movement - reckons that you need only study the stud books of the British and Irish breeders (most greyhounds in Britain come from Ireland) to see the source of the problem.

Greyhounds are bred to race. If each track needs 400 new dogs a year to compete, behind those racers are all the siblings who don't make the grade. "Every year more than 30,000 are bred to race," says Peters. "The industry is churning out all these dogs." Even those who do triumph on the track have relatively short racing careers. Injury or exhaustion can finish off a racer by the age of four. Then they join the armies of the discarded - it is believed that between 25,000 and 30,000 greyhounds are discarded every year. Most of them get killed. "No one was tackling this problem," says Peters.

Stop the sport altogether

Certainly not the bookmakers' industry, which is estimated to have an annual turnover approaching £2bn. Bookies are becoming interested in virtual racing - punters, it seems, will bet on anything, even the illusion of a greyhound. That appears to be an attractive option, too, to Greyhound Action, which wants to see an end to greyhound racing altogether.

The bookmakers' alibi against the growing abhorrence of greyhound destruction is the historic and necessary separation between the breeders and the bookies. This, of course, masks the symbiosis between all the players: the bookies are largely the owners of the tracks, and it is the bookies who have generated the demand for the beasts.

The bookmakers tasted the first scent of pressure in 1991 when Norman Lamont, the then chancellor, introduced a voluntary levy of 0.4 per cent as a contribution to a greyhound fund for the industry, to be run by the British Greyhound Racing Board. The board was described by the racing commentator Jim Cre min as "a sham democracy", set up "in the hope of gaining control of government funding".

Many bookmakers did not contribute - including the intransigent chair of the Association of British Bookmakers, Warwick Bartlett. Unsurprisingly, little had changed by the new millennium, when the industry came under growing scrutiny from a convergence of animal welfare campaigners, corporate concern about the decline of the stadiums, and a government that was worried about the unseemly evidence of excessive gambling profits and the sordid state of the business.

Cremin warned of growing government disquiet while bookmakers sat "on both sides of the negotiating table" as owners of tracks and as businesses profiting from the racing.

The Gambling Bill concentrated the mind. The government's greyhound man in the Lords, David Lipsey, took over the board, restructured it, and brokered a deal with the promoters to increase the levy to 0.6 per cent by last year (2006). But much of that fund is invested in reinventing the industry and marketing greyhound racing as a classier night out before hitting the clubs. It has not dealt with the killing fields and the dogs bred to die.

Ten thousand dogs are retired from racing every year. Some are put to sleep and disposed of by local authority pounds. Some go into rescue sanctuaries, and the number that find a new home is increasing - up from 2,000 a year to about 3,500.

Molly Kay is a lucky one - she is living happily ever after among doting human beings. But she is in the minority: most of her generation lived a life brutish and short, only to be discarded by a corporate culture that depends on people like David Smith. His prosecution draws attention to the industry's total failure to take responsibility for the gap between surplus value and surplus to requirements.