Vicarage Road at 100: The Race of the Century
Colin Payne tells the story of a thrilling day at Vicarage Road in 1946
During Vicarage Road’s 100-year history, the numerous uses of the stadium have been well documented. Ranging from pop concerts to Girl Guide jamborees, boxing bouts to the filming of Murphy’s Mob, horse shows to a makeshift Covid vaccination centre, our home has seen many events occur, but none would appear as bizarre as the races staged on 28 December 1946.
Following an inconvenient world war, Watford Football Club welcomed back League football to their ground. The board, all too conscious of the financial effects that six years of inactivity had had on the books, were keen to return to ‘normality’. However, gates were low, with the early visits of Mansfield and Bristol Rovers failing to top the 5,000 mark.
Football was, at the time, competing for an audience. The thrill of speedway was seeing attendances surpassing that of the national sport, with people finding the excitement of the roar of the engines, the dust in the wake of the powerful bikes, and the evocative smell of the two-stroke machines, more alluring than 22 men kicking a pig’s bladder.
Led by the esteemed Mr T Rigby Taylor, the directors wanted to offer those attending one of the Christmas games something special before kick-off. And they had decided on the visit of Queens Park Rangers for a grand statement, to entice more spectators. Mr McGregor suggested a rousing performance from the Watford Silver Prize Band, stalwarts at performing at Vicarage Road in the past. The band were extremely popular locally, being the foremost purveyors of music within the town. Mr Soutar favoured an exhibition greyhound racing event, as he was partial to the sport, had shares in the GRA, and felt it would both promote and thoroughly entertain supporters. However, Mr Grimsdell proposed bringing speedway to the ground with an exhibition meet to attract both motorcycle-enthusiasts and the curious alike. Rigby Taylor was said to have considered the options long and hard, sucking on a rosewood pipe thoughtfully, before declaring: “By Jove, let’s do them all! Man v beast, the ultimate challenge, a best-of-three event. It will surely capture the imagination of the whole town, may even make the national newspapers! In fact, let’s go wild! I have a friend who is a director of the London Zoological Society – he may be able to wangle us an antelope or a gazelle! Just imagine!”
Those present recall a dumbfounded silence, lasting several seconds, before all three of his fellow directors burst into spontaneous applause.
The idea did indeed capture the imagination of the Watford public. The Watford Observer led with a front-page headline of THE RACE OF THE CENTURY! before declaring: ‘Never in the town’s sporting history has an event whetted the appetite as much as the prospect of man and machine taking on the might of the animal kingdom. Supporters will be sure to take their places early to witness the trio of races involving nature’s swiftest creatures competing against the roaring glamour of Tommy Thompson, ‘The Tottenham Tornado’, astride his 500cc Triumph speedway bike…’
As the event neared, the fledgling Whipsnade Animal Park surpassed expectations and agreed to furnish the club with a cheetah, with two handlers, totally free of charge as a way of promoting their own attraction. Local trainer Bob Badgekiss would supply a greyhound by the name of Glorious George, whilst the aforementioned alliterative biker Tommy Thompson would represent the speedway world. The Watford Silver Prize Band would play throughout the races, regaling all with rousing tunes appropriate to the occasion. The board were thrilled, what could possibly go wrong?
28 December 1946 will forever be remembered by anyone present as the day lots went wrong.
It all started well, a crisp sunny afternoon saw the renowned silver band assemble in the centre circle to play a medley of Christmas carols. By 1:30 the ground was filling up, with the crowd singing along, continuing the festive cheer in good spirits. At 1:50 precisely, the trumpeters from the band delivered a shrill fanfare, and the crowd cheered as the roar of the ‘Tottenham Tornado’s’ Triumph engine kicked into life, and he appeared from the tunnel to slowly give the crowd a glimpse of his machine as he did a lap of the dog track he would be racing on. Closely following was Misha, the cheetah, being led by her two handlers, each four feet either side of her with chains acting as leads. She looked majestic as she sauntered around the grass track, seemingly ignoring the awestruck gasps and oohs as she went. Finally, Glorious George bounded out, led by Bob, his trainer. An all-England champion, he was a fine specimen.
As scheduled, two o’clock saw the first race commence. A bell sounded and a pound of sausages (kindly donated by Mr Goodman, the butcher in the Vicarage Road precinct), which replaced the electric hare in order to encourage Misha to chase, was sent flying around the rail. Immediately, the traps flew open and Misha and Glorious George sprang forth, with Tommy Thompson kicking his bike into life. The roar of the crowd and the din from Thompson’s 500cc unit were a noise to behold, whilst the band in the centre circle added to the occasion by playing Rossini’s William Tell Overture at breakneck speed. As the three racers approached the first bend all was even, it was as if they were perfectly matched. The second bend saw the odds defied as the dog took a narrow lead, but on the third bend Thompson’s front wheel clipped the doomed Glorious George, sending the hound flying.
It was a horrendous sight. Misha reacted as if it were all in slow motion. As the greyhound flew in the air, she caught the unfortunate creature in her powerful jaws, tearing at its throat. Before anyone could react, she was slinking back to the Main Stand with the now-dead canine hanging limply from her mouth. The band fell silent, before playing the theme from Laurel and Hardy as the handlers came and put the chains back on the wild cat, although it was to be a further two minutes before they were able to retrieve the half-eaten dog from her eager feasting.
Race two saw Bob Badgekiss offer a second dog to compete, Royal Blue. It was said the board had generously compensated him for his loss, and although reticent he was convinced it would be OK, as Misha had now been muzzled, something that, on reflection, it would have been wise to have done in the first place. Under the strains of a speeded-up In the Mood, the traps flew open again. This time, Misha darted to the front, with Thompson appearing to hold back slightly. However, at the first bend she leapt the corrugated-iron fence that bordered the track and the railings keeping the crowd from the field, and ran into a packed Vicarage Road End, snapping and snarling at all. In scenes not to be repeated until the visit of West Ham’s hooligans in September 1979, the crowd scattered, leaving a void of terracing which the big cat paced around. An eerie quiet descended, with no sounds but the purring and breathing of Misha the cheetah, as young and old alike cowered in fear. Fortunately, Captain WR Wren of the Bedfordshire Yeomanry was on hand, having stopped off on his way to Southampton as part of a journey to Palestine, his latest posting. With a service revolver precisely aimed (ground regulations were not as tight back in 1946), and without any further ado, the dashing young officer dispatched the wild beast back to its maker.
The stadium remained silent. Nothing could be heard bar a few sobs and the odd cough. Rigby Taylor watched from the Directors’ Box, sucked on his pipe, shook his head, then turned to Mr McGregor, saying no more than: “There must be at least 18,000 out there today. On the whole I think that went alright.”
There was no third race. There were to be no further grand gestures involving motorcycles and big cats in the ensuing 76 years at Vicarage Road. The match that followed saw the Blues defeated by their near-neighbours from West London, and was played in front of the best crowd so far that season. Captain Wren was given a complimentary season ticket, which he was unable to use due to later being killed in the Holy Land by members of the notorious Stern Gang. A bronze life-size statue of Misha the cheetah can be seen as you enter Whipsnade Animal Park, to the right of the main entrance. Representatives of Watford FC still place a small bouquet upon its plinth every Christmas. No one knows what happened to the remains of Glorious George.
The Race of the Century… on the whole it went alright.