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20 October 2021

From the NS archive: The dogs

14 January 1928: Greyhound racing and the fast-track to perdition.

By New Statesman

Modern greyhound racing – with an oval track and mechanical hare – was introduced to Britain in 1926, with the first British meeting being held at Manchester’s Belle Vue Stadium. The new sport, popular with the working man because it was based in cities, quickly took off, with some 40 tracks open by the end of 1927. With the rise in interest came a rise in moral panic too: critics saw the racing less as a sport and more as an opportunity for betting with all the ills that that entailed. In this piece for the magazine, “YY”  pointed out that that banning things was itself a sport for some people and that there was no real difference between horse-racing and dog-racing, so why was the former “the sport of kings” and the latter beyond the pale?

Everyone must hunt something, whether a rat or a stag or a heresy. Some men hunt foxes, other men hunt fox-hunters. There is the same pleasure in the chase whether your quarry is a dumb animal or only a human being who is enjoying himself. The hunt is up in Chicago at the present moment after Miss Maude Royden and her cigarettes. The hunt is up in Iraq – is it not? – after women who use lipstick in the manner of Christians. The hunt is up in Rome after Liberals and foxtrotters. And the hunt is up in England after greyhound racers.

We may be sure that all the people who take part in these various pastimes are enjoying themselves as much as if they were dressed in scarlet coats and accompanied by dogs. There is nothing more exciting for those who like that sort of thing than to sit on a committee and gallop after your victim on a resolution. The committee that succeeds in suppressing something experiences all the joy of being in at the death. I am sure that the sport of sitting on committees will be the last sport to be suppressed. It appeals at once to the sportsman and to the despot that exist in each of us. It yokes good intentions to the chariots of destruction, and enables us to feel better men than we are as we run down pleasures to which we have no mind. We must not grudge the members of committees their amusement. In a sense, it is as legitimate as horse-racing. Great and good men have joined in it in the past, and though we may not entirely approve of some of their activities, it would not be in the public interest to prohibit even the follies of human nature.

Besides, Dora has now apparently taken a permanent place among the gods, and sits enthroned, if anything, above Bacchus and Venus and Diana; and Dora is essentially the goddess of committees. Who would dare to speak ill of committees while they are under such powerful protection? Rather let us bring to her shrine offerings of cigarettes and half-cooked tripe, pouring out libations of bitter beer before her thin-lipped image. She, above most of us, has known the wild joy of suppressing things. She has pursued the illicit Wild Woodbine as though it were a fox and sped hilariously (in Mayor Thompson’s phrase) “on the trail of the lonesome pint”. She is the queen of the modern world – She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. We may regard her as a nuisance, but we might as well regard the Pole Star as a nuisance. She can suppress us more easily than we can suppress her. Let us then, for our own sakes, pay her due honour and be patient of all those who in her spirit sit on committees for preventing us from doing things.

I suspect Dora of being the goddess who inspired a number of excellent citizens to form a committee including MPs, clergymen and town councillors for the purpose suppressing the new sport of greyhound-racing. I confess frankly that I do not regard greyhound-racing as an aid to the higher life, but rather should place it among those frivolous occupations, such as dancing, dining out, novel reading and committee meetings, from which a saint would naturally abstain. But we cannot suppress everything from which saints would abstain.

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In the first place, there are not enough saints to form a majority and in the second place man was given the liberty to be a saint or not and to take the consequences thousands of years before the dawn of history. I do not believe that a saint would gamble on the Stock Exchange, but we do not for that reason propose to suppress the Stock Exchange. I do not believe that a saint would go very often to the cinema, but though the evil results of the cinema in the sillification of the public mind are notorious, I should not like to propose the compulsory shutting of cinemas. I don’t believe that a saint would become a member of the Primrose League, but I should not therefore join a committee for putting the Primrose League outside the law. Probably, the Primrose League does a great deal harm, and the world would be better off if something better took its place, and probably, the same thing is true of the Stock Exchange and the cinema. But the experience of thousands of years has taught us to tolerate all sorts of things of which we do not approve, and that the wisest reformer is he who attempts, not to coop men up behind barbed wire entanglements of prohibitions, but to give them a faith by which they may live. Hence the growing tendency in the liberal state to concede men the liberty even to be sinners, though not criminals, and to leave it to the churches, the schools and the moralists to persuade them to become voluntarily virtuous.

It is possible, I agree, that greyhound-racing and the betting associated with it might become such a nuisance that it would be in the interest of society to suppress it. All nations, so far as I know, put some restrictions on the right to bet and gamble in public places, and they do this apparently not for any moral reason, but for the public convenience. There are towns on the Continent which have casinos, and which forbid the natives to play at the tables. Evidently the authorities have no moral objection to gambling, since they encourage it and make money out of it, but impose these restrictions for purely utilitarian reasons. In England, again, it is legal to bet on a race-course but not in a bookmaker’s office, though it is legitimate to bet with a London bookmaker by letter, if you enclose no money in the letter and do not settle till after the race.

These restrictions are not logical; they may not even be wise; but they seem to be evidence of a general agreement that betting and gambling must be kept under some kind of control. On the other hand, the legal sanction of betting on race-courses and with credit bookmakers is equally strong evidence of a general agreement that betting and gambling are such a normal recreation of normal men and women that they must be permitted to some extent in an imperfect world. There are men who denounce betting as though it were the Devil’s right hand, as others denounce drink, and as others denounce Sabbath-breaking, but ordinary common sense tells us that a man may back a Derby winner and drink two large whiskies-and-soda and play lawn tennis on Sunday, and yet be as good a citizen as his neighbour who does none of these things.

It seems, however, that betting on greyhound-racing has for some reason shocked many people, not only among those who are shocked by all sorts of betting (except in the way of business), but among those who themselves bet on horses. Sensational pictures are painted of a vast new moral peril that is threatening the foundations of society. It is true that the leaders of the anti-betting movement had already painted so black a picture of the evils of betting on horses that you would have imagined that no new form of betting could have caused more widespread mischief. It was only after the arrival of the dogs on the racing track that they discovered that betting on horses was in comparison almost innocent.

They use all manner of arguments to prove that, while horse-racing is a real sport with some evil associations, greyhound-racing is not a sport at all but merely a medium for gambling, like a casino. “Consider,” for example, says one of them, “how little time is actually spent on racing during an evening at the White City. There are seven races, each occupying about half a minute, so that there are only about three and a half minutes devoted to racing during the whole meeting. This shows that people do not attend in order to see races, but in order to bet.” And he suggested that nothing comparable to this existed in the world of horse-racing.

Everyone who has ever been to a race meeting, however, knows that almost exactly the same conditions prevail there. If you go to the White City, you will find that at the end of the evening you have seen in an hour and a half three and a half minutes of racing. If you go to see horse-racing at Windsor, you will find that at the end of the day you have seen ten minutes of racing in two hours and a half. The difference between the two cases is so trivial as to be scarcely worth reckoning, and even this small difference will disappear if ever longer races are introduced at the White City.

If dog-racing is to be compared with horse-racing, indeed, it will be found that there are just as many good arguments in favour of the one as of the other. Dog-racing has the great advantage, for instance, that it brings a fine spectacle within reach of the townsman after his day’s work is done. If all the townsman cared about was betting, he could bet to his heart’s content on invisible horses with a street bookmaker. At the White City, however, he sees a spectacle that charms the eye as well as stirs his pulses, and no one who has heard the subdued roar of acclamation as a good dog clears a hurdle with a grace surpassing that of any other animal (including man) could doubt that the crowd enjoys a real aesthetic pleasure as well as the excitement of betting. If men must bet at all – and I for one think that a man who bets except occasionally and light-heartedly might be much better employed – these seem to be the ideal conditions in which to indulge in his folly.

There can hardly be any question that betting on a race one sees is preferable to betting on horses without ever having seen a race or ever hoping to see one. Further, dogs appear to run more honestly than horses, or at least to live up to their known form more consistently. This is shown by the fact that first and second favourites have won at the White City in far greater proportion than first and second favourites win on the race-course.

One result of this consistency is that the “long-priced” dog does not tempt fools with the hope of making a fortune as the “long-priced” horse does. There are no 20-to-one chances on the dog track, and, if there were, no one would back them except for a joke. Another advantage that betting on dogs has over betting on horses is that it encourages ready-money betting as opposed to credit betting, and, as Mr Edgar Wallace lately pointed out, it is credit betting that lures fools to destruction by allowing them to bet beyond their means. Probably it is better not to bet even on dogs, but, on the whole I think a Safety First Committee would recommend the dog as the least unsafe animal for purposes of betting.

The truth is, however, it is foolish to single out any one kind of betting as either very much better or very much worse than another. From some points of view, the betting that takes place on Association football is the most perilous of all forms of betting, since bookmakers tempt their clients with long odds, not only on the result of matches, but on the number of goals scored and various other things. The growth of betting on football is quite as sensational a phenomenon as the growth of betting on greyhounds, though no committee has yet been formed for the suppression of football. Even if greyhound-racing were suppressed, it is probable that this would merely lead to an increase of betting on football and horses. For this is a betting generation, and I cannot think of anything that is likely to change matters short of a religious revival.

I do not mean to suggest that a religious man could not make a bet, but that in a religious world most people would have other more interesting things to think about. Meanwhile, I hope the committee will enjoy pursuing the little electric hare as much as the dogs appear to enjoy it, and that the hare will in the end escape from them. If it is a symbol of moral evil, its appearance belies it. I cannot believe that the burden of the miseries of the world can be seriously lightened by the destruction of a creature so innocent.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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