From its working-class roots, pedigree whippet racing has evolved into a family sport that keeps the graceful little dogs at its heart, says Rory Knight Bruce

Rory Knight Bruce heads to the Andover & District Whippet Racing Club for a Sunday meeting to find out how this country sport has evolved.

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Of all the country sports, pedigree whippet racing today must be the most innocent. There is no swag of prize money, no on-course bookies and the picnics behind the custom-made campervans would not challenge Car Park Number One at Royal Ascot. “A transformation has occurred,” wrote Pauline Wilson, one-time editor of Whippet News, in her book, Whippets: Rearing & Racing. “Although most people imagine these little dogs still run to their cloth-capped owners amid a background of gambling and drinking, nothing could be further from the truth. It has evolved into an amateur and family sport.”

So I was to discover as I joined the Andover & District Whippet Racing Club for one of its 15 annual Sunday meetings in a grass field behind the welcoming Weyhill Fair pub in Hampshire. Involving more than 120 whippets and their enthusiastic owners of all ages, it was a charity race day in memory of regarded owner and breeder Mike Sawyer. Competitors had come from Wales, the New Forest and Cornwall to face off stalwart members of the Andover club, founded in 1972.

There was a time when the Weyhill Fair nearby rang out to the sound of thousands of sheep being sold, the meeting point of eight drovers’ causeways and a vibrant market. It was here, in 1822, that a local newspaper reported a young bride being sold which, 50 years later, gave Thomas Hardy the idea for Michael Henchard selling his wife at Weydon-Priors Fair in The Mayor of Casterbridge. All that remains today to mark these two events is the Weyhill Fair pub and a small cul-de-sac of newly built houses called Hardyfair Close. But the new sound in the air is of whippets primed for racing, full of energy and enthusiastic barking. “Dash, pluck and stamina are the three great things required in the whippet,” wrote Freeman Lloyd in his book The Whippet or Race-Dog. He also gives a good example of their speed which, over a typical race distance of 150 to 200 yards, can reach 35mph. He tells a story of a whippet being pitted against a pigeon in Lancashire in the 1950s. “There is no dog at his weight under the sun that can beat him,” wrote Lloyd. Over a straight cinder track, the pigeon won by two yards.


So, what is pedigree whippet racing? First, there are the dogs themselves, a cross between a greyhound and a terrier. They began to appear in the mining and mill towns of the north of England in the 1850s and were known as ‘snap dogs’ on account of the speed with which they could catch a rabbit. They were admitted as a breed to the Kennel Club in 1890. Today they race, boys and girls together, slipped from a trap to chase an electric lure operated by a ‘lure man’. The lure, a rag or object, does not carry a scent, as the whippets race by sight. There are four dogs to each race, speeding over neatly mown grass, ending up in a permanent safety sandpit at the end. The whippets are muzzled, although, once in the cinder safety pit, seem rather keen to ‘worry’ their ‘quarry’ from my observation.

It is not only the whippets that need stamina. There are perhaps 90 races in a day, so their owners are kept busy as well. The races are divided by weight and ‘weighing in’ commences each race meeting. All racing whippets are smooth coated, can race from when they are one year old until eight years old and weigh between 14lb to 32lb. They must stand at the shoulder no taller than 21in (dogs) or 20in (bitches).

To the uninitiated, the many races and run-offs can seem disorientating. There are open classes, classes determined by weight and veteran classes. One veteran entrant, Truly Trouble, had only one eye, and I spotted a three-legged whippet during the day who had come along for the ride. Unlike greyhounds or Lakeland trail hounds, which have their own successful rehoming programmes once their racing lives are over, whippets always stay with their owning family. “I have got five and when I go up to bed I call to them ‘Park your butts’ and they all find room on the bed,” Nicola Groundwell, who was racing three-year-old Ghost at Andover, told me. She had travelled from South Wales to the meeting, which forms part of a nationwide calendar that runs from April to December, with events taking place regularly, mostly on Sundays, from Helston in Cornwall to Scotland and East Anglia. There are perhaps 10 clubs nationwide.


The love that the owners have for their whippets and the obvious enjoyment their canine charges have in taking part are immediately obvious. “It is a wonderful sport,” said Jane Rankin, who has been whippet racing for 28 years. “It brings people from all walks of life together.” She had travelled to Andover from Tewkesbury with her 12-year-old sire, Quiver. In the past, she had also owned a Beau and an Arrow. Her first racing whippet, Blackbird, came from an undertaker in Kent. “Quiver has had 64 children and a large proportion of racing whippets today are his grandchildren or great-grandchildren,” she continued. He still holds the record for the 26lb class race. As befits someone brought up in rural former Rhodesia, Rankin, now 75, kitted out her van herself. “I drilled in bits of wood and put carpets on the wall,” she told me. “When we go to meetings, I sleep on a bench that is only 3ft 6in wide with a whippet in my sleeping bag. I have to be quite still at night. But we are all united in our love of an odd little dog.”

The community of friendship that envelops these race meetings is borne out by Angela Sawyer, who, with her late husband, has been whippet racing for 47 years. This charity day was held in his memory. “We started out with two show whippets and all our later dogs have been descended from them,” she told me. “When I lost my husband, it was to the whippet-racing family that I turned. They are real family.”


Literal families also take part – Groundwell had come with her grandchildren, Myley Jones, 11, and cousin Shelby Nicholls, nine. I caught up with them behind their custom-made campervan while Ghost was being given a bath out of a sea-blue paddling pool. “He is one of the slowest, but that doesn’t matter to him or to us,” Groundwell told me. The campervan is a marvel to behold. There are individual battery-run fans for each dog, bedding for the adults and children to stay overnight, iced water and activated cool mats in the dog crates. “When we go to the Helston meeting in Cornwall, we will make it a 10-day holiday,” added Groundwell. And what’s in it for the cousins? “The best bit is catching them in the sandpit at the end,” Myley told me. Later in the day, at the presentation, I saw her proudly put a ‘consolation medal’ round Ghost’s neck.

Terry Wheeler has been racing for seven years. “I always had a whippet and ferret as a child,” he recalls. “So this is a reconnection with those times. I have made some good friends through whippet racing.” Richard Grogan and his wife Gill are experienced field trial dog trainers but came by their whippet, Sunbeam Slipper, aged three, through their daughter, a London doctor. “With all the pressure on her during the Covid pandemic, she asked if we would keep her at home in Hampshire,” Grogan told me. How easy is a whippet to train? “Some can be recalcitrant, but can be got round with a mixture of firmness and kindness,” he told me. “They can be aloof and give you a stare. But then their eyes will follow you around a room.” And what about the racing dimension? “It’s purely a love of seeing them run at full stretch. They are so graceful.”

Unlike other historic canine racing sports, such as hound trailing, greyhound racing or coursing, there is no betting in whippet racing. The raffle prizes might include a toaster or muddy paws board game, a sort of doggy snakes and ladders. On this day, there was also a groaning hamper that would not have been out of place in Fortnum & Mason, which contributed to raising £1,786 for progressive supranuclear palsy charity PSPA. “This was a fantastic effort and shows the kindness and generosity of our community,” said new club member and helper Stacey Haynes. Her daughter, 14-year-old Ellice Rose Wright, was in charge of the photo finish with her iPad. “There were a couple of close calls,” she told me. “But the atmosphere is always so good that there is never a disagreement.”


“You can leave the boot open and know your dogs will be safe,” David and Lynne Thomas, who had travelled from Cwmbran,
South Wales, told me. Another inclusive element of whippet racing is that the dogs are valued at an affordable £400 to £600. The lifespan of these canine competitors can be up to 15 years. The prize-giving at the end of the day underlined the innocence of proceedings.

Everyone got something for taking part, which might be a medal, a whippet coat, a rosette, a scratch card or a cupcake. The biggest cheer went to Lorraine Fitzgerald and her 21-month-old dog Crom-a-Boo (the Irish clan FitzGerald battle cry meaning ‘Crom Forever’, after Crom Castle, one of the principal residences of the Kildare branch of the FitzGerald dynasty). “He was slow to begin with and we could not compete during lockdown,” Fitzgerald explained. “We have raced for 10 years but rarely been in a final. Today he won against strong competition, having got a good start out of the traps.” Crom-a-Boo has clearly got a taste for his sporting life. He went on to win three further finals in meetings a few weeks later. No more cupcakes for him.

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