Gone to the Dogs (Volume 7)
Colin Payne tells the story of greyhound racing at Vicarage Road.
Vicarage Road’s history is scattered with examples of the ground being used for more than just football. In today’s ideal of 365 day-a-year usage – be that for revenue flow or more community-minded motivations – the club strives for ideas to increase activities within their home. Whilst a mouth-watering prospect, past diversions such as motorcycles and horses on the field, as detailed in previous volumes of The Watford Treasury, are unlikely to make a re-appearance any time soon! And just as surely, nor will the sport that ran side-by-side with football at the ground for most of the club’s tenure there up until 1978 – greyhound racing.
Born through a mutual benefit, ‘the dogs’ first came to Watford in 1928, just two years after the country’s first licenced course was opened at Belle Vue. The sport as an organised spectator event took off immediately, with over 13 million people attending races in 1928 alone, as tracks sprang up all over the land. That desire for fresh venues saw events hosted in many existing stadiums, including Wembley and White City, as well as a host of less salubrious settings.
At the time Watford were, as they invariably were for most of the 20th Century, struggling financially. Having been at Vicarage Road for six seasons, the expected financial rewards of the move to a new ground had not been forthcoming. Since joining the Football League in 1920 they had not finished any higher than sixth in Division Three South, and the expected five-figure gates that the move to Vicarage Road had promised proved to be the rare exception rather than the rule. A global depression didn’t help this situation, and it’s fair to say that Watford were in trouble. So when promoter Frederick Dutch, a man with widespread business interests in newly-booming greyhound racing, offered to finance a track at the still-fledgling ground, Watford’s board welcomed him keenly. It was to be a longstanding relationship between the host club and the Dutch family, one that would last over 40 years.
Vicarage Road’s first meeting came on 20 October 1928, and was run under the newly-formed National Greyhound Racing Club’s rules. Rather fancifully heralded in promotional adverts as ‘A Great Wonderful Arena full of Thrilling Racing Events’, punters were charged between one and five shillings to take their place in the ground. Meetings were held on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings, and run under lights, with a 300-yard track being created around the perimeter of the pitch. As was common at the time, the track was all turf, with two bends incorporated into it, running from where the Shrodells Stand joined with the Vicarage Road terrace, with the finishing post in front of the main stand.
The new venue proved popular with locals, with attendances and interest reflecting the national trend at the time. 1934 saw the Greyhound Racing Association, the sports major promoter, take over the licence in Watford, although Dutch would still be heavily involved, and begin what was to be an on-off relationship between Watford FC and the GRA over a number of years. This saw what was described at the time as a huge investment in new equipment, and with the moving of the pitch, the track was extended to 500 yards, creating a full circuit.
The restrictions offered by racing within a football stadium did little to dampen the enthusiasm for the sport. The GRA announced further bold improvement plans, perhaps rather too bold, and in 1947 they formed a subsidiary company, Sports Stadium (Watford) Ltd. The company took control of the lease at Vicarage Road, as well as 752 shares in the football club. Plans were publicised to invest £50,000 (around £2million at today’s values), and it appeared that the GRA was becoming the dominant partner at Vicarage Road, to the point where, to all intents and purposes, the football club would be plying its trade in a greyhound stadium! However, not for the last time in the relationship between Watford FC and greyhound racing, promises of investment never materialised. A new sporting levy, the ‘Tote Tax’, severely hamstrung the GRA’s intentions, as it saw revenues hit nationally, and the grandiose plans for Vicarage Road were first postponed and then shelved, with the organisation relinquishing all its involvement and shares in Watford in 1954.
Following the exit of the GRA, Vicarage Road became what was known as a ‘flapping track’, an unlicensed (although still legal) venue. These tracks had mixed reputations, within a sport that was often tainted with suspicion of gaming irregularities and cruelty to dogs. It was not unknown for injured dogs to be left tied to a post outside the stadium, for kindly dog lovers to ‘adopt’, although more often than not the hounds were seen as little more than a disposable commodity, and would often be ‘permanently disposed of’ when injured or no longer race-fit.
During this period attendances and fees from the bookies were enough to keep the sport going at the ground, and throughout the fifties and sixties races were held regularly, with at least twenty bookmakers in attendance at each event. Staged mostly mid-week, entry fees for the standard races would cost owners £5, with a £30 first prize. Races were contested by six dogs, over distances of 290 and 490 yards. For a long period, the track’s assistant manager was Les Simmons, who was also the football club’s groundsman, as well as being a greyhound trainer in his own right; a character who was to become synonymous with the link between the two sports in Watford.
The marriage between football and dog racing was not always harmonious. In 1968 Watford centre-back Walter Lees picked up a virus from a training session at the ground, which doctors ascribed to greyhounds. This saw him nearly lose a leg, the limb becoming swollen with infection and, for a time, seriously threatening his life. However, it wasn’t Walter’s leg that forced racing to cease in 1969. The Hornets promotion to Division Two saw plans to extend the Main Stand, with the new section situated where the kennels and offices stood. It wasn’t strictly an eviction, but with attendances at meetings dropping below 500, and the need to move their buildings, in the words of Richard Southwood, the long standing track manager since 1932, it was “time to call it a day”. What many thought was the final race was held on 28 June 1969.
As was often the case at Vicarage Road, success on the football field was short-lived. Relegation back to Division Three saw gates and revenues plummet. When it became known that his employers would be sympathetic to the dogs returning, Les Simmons put together a consortium, with a proposal to run the operation at Vicarage Road. However, the GRA also approached the Watford board, once again with bold plans for their ground. These included an impressive stand and dining facilities built on the Vicarage Road terrace, as well as further investment over the following decade. This was the favoured bid, and was underpinned with a lucrative BAGS (Bookmakers Afternoon Greyhound Service) contract, which would see the races at the ground streamed to bookmakers nationally.
Racing resumed in 1974 on a purpose built sand track running around the pitch, with kennels and related buildings now situated behind the Rookery stand. Just five contracted trainers would supply the dogs, and on the 14 October, Lee’s Lucy was the first winner at the newly revamped track. From the outset it was clear that things were far from perfect. The new track running around the pitch had created four very tight bends, which would earn the Vicarage Road venue the nickname ‘The Wall of Death’. It generated a high rate of injuries among the racing dogs, as they careered into each other or the fencing. As the racing continued, there was little sign of the new stand, or any investment beyond what had been essential to reinstate the sport at the ground. The venue gained a reputation for unpredictable results, as doping allegations and finishing times varying dramatically from previous races dampened the faith of punters who weren’t ‘in the know’. Tales of betting irregularities proliferated, with one scam apparently involving ‘time travel’, whereby races were being completed before actually being relayed to betting shops, with unscrupulous punters placing off-course bets on known winners.
Popular wisdom has it that it was Graham Taylor who cleared the dogs out of Vicarage Road, but according to reports at the time, by 1978 the track had lost its BAGS contract, a doping scandal had tarnished its reputation, and crowds had dwindled. It was already over. Chad Supreme would win the last race ever held at Vicarage Road on 30 October 1978, but as Watford forged ahead to reach new heights on the football field, all traces of greyhound racing at the ground would be gone within months.
This article is from Volume 7 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below: