History of the Greyhound

The greyhound belongs to that class of dogs usually referred to as sighthounds – dogs that hunt mainly by sight rather than by scent. The greyhound’s stamina and speed are provided by its lean body with well-developed musculature, its deep chest allowing plenty of heart room, and its long limbs. Historically, sighthounds have been bred in regions where there is open country for them to hunt down their prey: Arab countries, Russia, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Great Britain among others. It is likely that the Asiatic wolf is the ancestor common to sighthounds such as the greyhound, Saluki and Afghan Hound. Depictions of the greyhound from 2500 years ago show that the physical characteristics of the breed have not changed much since that time. This is because the function of the greyhound has not changed - to chase the hare (whether real or artificial) and other quarry.

It is unclear how the greyhound got its name. The most obvious possibility – though not necessarily the most likely – is that greyhounds were originally grey in colour. The Roman writer Arrian refers to a greyhound he owned as having grey eyes and a grey coat. However, it has been suggested that the name dates back to the Middle Ages, and comes from the old English term ‘grei-hundr’, meaning ‘dog hunter’. Or it may derive, via the Anglo-Saxon word’ gre’, from the Latin ‘gradus’, referring to the greyhound’s ‘first rank’ among dogs. Another theory is that it is from ‘Greek-hound’, since the greyhound was known to be used for hunting in Ancient Greece.

Ancient Egypt

It is thought that the greyhound originated in Southern Arabia, and may have been imported into Egypt with the incense caravans. The greyhound was highly valued in Ancient Egypt. Many Egyptians considered the birth of a greyhound to be almost as important as the birth of a son, and their deaths were mourned like those of humans. When a greyhound’s owner died, the dog was often mummified and buried with him. Many of the Pharaohs, including Cleopatra, lover of Marc Antony, were known to have kept greyhounds.

Biblical reference

Dogs in general get a bad press in Jewish and Christian literature, The greyhound, which is the only breed mentioned by name in the Bible (Proverbs 30: 29-31, King James version), fares better; King Solomon says:

There be three things which do well, yea,
Which are comely in going:
A lion, which is strongest among beasts and
Turneth not away from any;
A greyhound;
A he-goat also.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks probably bought their greyhounds from Egyptian merchants. There are depictions of short-haired hounds almost identical to the modern greyhound on coins, vases and oil bottles, as well as carvings of stone and ivory. The Greek gods were often shown with greyhounds: Hecate, goddess of wealth, was sometimes accompanied by a hound, as was Pollux, protector of the hunt.

Ancient Rome

The Romans would have got their greyhounds from either the Greeks or the Celts. The Roman authors Ovid and Flavius Arrianus (Arrian) refer to them as ‘Celt-hounds’. The Romans used greyhounds for the sport of coursing, in which the greyhound’s speed and agility are pitted against that of the hare. In AD124 Arrian wrote about a greyhound bitch that he bred: ‘a swift, hard-working, courageous, sound-footed dog, and she proves a match at any time for four hares.’ Arrian’s ‘Treatise on the Greyhound’ was discovered in the library of the Vatican, and published in English in 1831. This is how he describes the ideal greyhound: ‘First, let them stand long from head to stern….let them have light and well-knit heads…let the neck be long, rounded and supple…Broad breasts are better than narrow, and let them have shoulder blades standing apart and not fastened together…loins that are broad, strong not fleshy, but solid with sinew…flanks pliant…Rounded and fine feet are the strongest.

It is said that Diana, Roman goddess of hunting, gave a greyhound named Lelaps to her friend Procris. Out hunting, Lelaps and Procris spotted a hare and Lelaps gave chase. However the gods, watching from above, didn’t want the hare to be caught, and so turned Lelaps and the hare to stone. This story is commonly depicted in Roman art.

Arab tradition

Arabs have kept greyhound-type dogs for thousands of years. The Saluki, which almost certainly derives from the same gene pool as the greyhound, is revered. The Koran permits the followers of Islam to eat game killed by hawks or Salukis, but not by other dogs. The Saluki was the only dog allowed by the Arabian Bedouin to share their tents or ride on their camels.

Middle Ages

It is believed that the Celts introduced the greyhound into Britain from Asia, though the precise date is not known. A ninth century AD illuminated manuscript in the British Museum has a picture of a Saxon chief, Elric of Mercia, accompanied by a pair of greyhounds. What we do know is that in the early years of the tenth century King Canute brought in the Forest Laws, under which large areas of Britain were reserved for hunting by the aristocracy. Only nobles could own a greyhound; any ‘meane person’ (commoner) caught with a greyhound would be severely punished, and the dog’s toes mutilated so that it could not hunt. Commoners brave enough to break the Forest Laws tended to favour greyhounds whose colouring made them difficult to see: black, fawn or red (a bronzy fawn). Greyhounds were used for hunting not only small game, but wolves and wild boar. Their value to their aristocratic owners was such that the intentional killing of a greyhound was considered to be ‘equaly criminal with the murder of a fellow man’. Greyhounds were also accepted in lieu of debts: in 1203 King John received payment of a fine made up of money, horses and greyhounds.

The greyhound, though highly esteemed, was not immune to the privations of the Middle Ages; in times of famine the breed suffered and at times was close to extinction. The monasteries played a role in their survival: monks protected greyhounds, and bred them for the nobility. In the thirteenth century Vincent of Beauvais identified three types of dog: hunting dogs with drooping ears; guard dogs; and greyhounds, ‘the noblest, the most elegant, the swiftest, and the best at hunting’. Greyhounds were depicted on tombs with their owners, symbolising knighthood and the aristocratic way of life.

The greyhound is the first breed mentioned in English literature. The monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales kept greyhounds:

‘Greyhounds he hadde as swift as fowel in flight
Of prickyng and of hunting the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare’

The Renaissance Period

In the Boke of St Albans, dating from the late fifteenth century, Dame Juliana Berners, thought to be the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, near St Albans, listed the ideal traits of a greyhound:

‘A greyhound shold be
heded lyke a snake
And necked lyke a drake
Backed lyke a beam
Syded like a bream
Footed like a catte
Tayld like a ratte

There seems to have been both long-haired and short-haired varieties of greyhound in Britain during the Middle Ages. The NRGC Book of Greyhound Racing, in its entry for the Early History of the Greyhound, quotes the Elizabethan writer Gervase Markham’s opinion that the long-haired ‘gagehound’ was better suited to hunting wild boar, deer and wolf, whilst the short-haired greyhound was ‘best for pleasure’; in other words, coursing the hare.

During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries coursing became a popular sport in Britain. Dr John Caius, physician to Queen Elizabeth 1 and responsible for refounding Gonville Hall as Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, wrote of the greyhound in his book ‘Englishe Dogges’. Elizabeth asked Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to draw up formal rules for competitive coursing. It was stipulated that a hare was never to be coursed with more than two greyhounds at a time, and that the hare was to be given a start of twelve score yards before the hounds were slipped. The Duke’s rules were still being used when the first official coursing club was founded in 1776 at Swaffham, Norfolk.

Coursing was the favourite sport of King James 1 (1566-1625). He was so impressed by the strength and agility of the local hares around the town of Newmarket in Suffolk that he built a hunting lodge there. It wasn’t long before races between the horses of King James’s court followers became as popular as the coursing matches between the king’s greyhounds. This was the start of competitive horse racing at Newmarket, now the Headquarters of British Flat racing.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) refers to greyhounds in a number of his plays. In Henry V, in his speech to his troops before the Battle of Harfleur, Henry says:

‘I see you standing like greyhounds in the slips
Straining upon the start
The game’s afoot.’

The end of feudalism towards the close of the sixteenth century resulted in greater freedoms for the common man, and ownership of greyhounds became more widespread. Forests were being cleared as the demand grew for land for both agriculture and the growth of towns. The need for the control of foxes, hares, badgers and other small animals perceived as pests led to an increase in the breeding of greyhounds and other breeds for hunting.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the eighteenth century Lord Orford attempted to improve the greyhound breed by introducing several other breeds into the bloodlines, including the bulldog. He had been impressed by the persistence and determination shown by the bulldog when fighting in the pit. Deerhound, Italian Greyhound and lurcher crosses were also tried. Opinions are divided as to what extent Lord Orford’s experiments influenced the breed, but most believe that the bulldog strain improved the greyhound’s stamina and courage, as well as introducing the previously unfamiliar brindle coat. Certainly, greyhounds with bulldog blood excelled in the coursing field; three times Waterloo Cup winner Master M’Grath was descended from King Cob, a sire from the bulldog cross.

The greyhound remained popular with the aristocracy in the nineteenth century. Prince Albert was often portrayed with Eos, his black and white greyhound. Coursing went from strength to strength as the expansion of the rail network made it easier to attend meetings. The first Waterloo Cup – named after a Liverpool hotel and considered for over 100 years to be the supreme test of the coursing greyhound – was held in 1836 on the estate of Earl Sefton near Southport. It was won by a bitch, Milanie, owned by Earl Sefton’s son, Viscount Molyneux and loaned to William Lynn, owner of the Waterloo Hotel.

North America was the destination of large numbers of British and Irish greyhounds in the nineteenth century. The reason was not, at first, the sport of coursing, but to control the population of rabbits which threatened to overwhelm the farms of the mid-west. They were also used to hunt coyotes. But by the last decades of the twentieth century hare coursing with greyhounds was becoming a popular pastime.

In Great Britain the first steps leading to the development of track racing were taken in 1876, when the first coursing meeting was held that took place on an enclosed, or ‘park’ course. These courses were reduced in distance from the normal three miles to only 800 yards. Enclosed courses were, in part, introduced because it was felt necessary to control the vast crowds that came to watch the coursing. In the same year a greyhound race was staged at Welsh Harp, Hendon, when six dogs competed over a straight 400 yard track behind a mechanical lure. However, it didn’t engage the public’s interest, probably because it wasn’t felt to be a test of the greyhounds’ skill or agility, and the experiment wasn’t repeated.

Enclosed coursing meets were the foundation stone of the modern sport of track racing. The breakthrough came in 1912 when an American, Owen Patrick Smith, invented a mechanical lure that could be used on a circular track. He opened the first greyhound stadium in Emeryville, California, and within six years he was running twenty five tracks in the USA, including ones in Oregon, Montana and Florida. Smith, however, wasn’t a gambling man, and initially he didn’t allow betting at his tracks. His moral stance could well have dealt a death blow to the burgeoning sport, and his business partner, George Sawyer, had to work hard to get Smith to change his mind. The subsequent introduction of betting to the greyhound tracks ensured that the sport captured the imagination of the public.

In 1925 American businessman Charles Munn negotiated with Smith and Sawyer for the right to tap the potential of the greyhound racing market in Great Britain. He went into a partnership with Major Lyne Dixon, Brigadier General Alfred Critchley and Sir William Gentle to form the Greyhound Racing Association Ltd. On July 24th 1926 the first greyhound racing stadium, Belle Vue in Manchester, opened its doors. The first race, over 440 yards, was won by a greyhound named Mistley, by eight lengths at odds of 6/1, and in a time of 25 seconds. Around 1700 paying customers attended this first meeting, resulting in a loss of £50 for the promoters. But within weeks the meetings were attracting crowds of 10,000 and more, and shares in the company rose from their initial price of one shilling (5 pence) to over £37.

Photo(s) Courtesy www.thedogs.co.uk

The financial success of Belle Vue prompted the GRA to open a new track in London. The venue chosen was White City, one of several stadiums built for the 1908 Olympic Games. It wasn’t long before huge crowds were filling the White City terraces. In 1927 the first Greyhound Derby was run at the track, with prize money of £1000. It was won by a dog named Entry Badge.

The popularity of greyhound racing soon spread. By the end of the year there were over thirty greyhound stadiums open for business around the country. People were attracted by the location of the tracks in areas of dense population and by the evening meetings. Where there is money to be made, however, there is the potential for sharp practice. In 1928 the National Greyhound Racing Council was formed to draw up and enforce a set of rules for greyhound racing that would deter corrupt influences.

Meanwhile, canine stars such as Mick the Miller, winner of the Greyhound Derby in 1929 and 1930, were attracting a huge fan-base to the tracks. Greyhound racing received a further boost in 1934, when the Betting and Lotteries Act allowed stadiums to operate their own pari-mutuel betting, in the form of the Totalisator, or Tote.

Attendances naturally fell during World War 11, but the good times returned after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, and lasted until the 1960’s. Then competition from off-course betting shops, legalised by the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, as well as the TV broadcasting of live horse racing, caused numbers to decline significantly. Many tracks became financially unviable and were forced to close. Others continued to do well, their attendances bolstered in the 1980’s by the publicity attracted by brilliant greyhounds such as Scurlogue Champ (an amazing stayer who won 51 of 63 races in Great Britain, starting favourite on 60 occasions) and Ballyregan Bob (won 42 of 48 races, including a world record 32 consecutive victories). Since then greyhound racing has not only survived but thrived, helped by modernised stadiums and marketing that has been both innovative and enthusiastic.

In 2007 the Greyhound Board of Great Britain was formed, taking on the functions and responsibilities previously shared by the British Greyhound Racing Board and the National Greyhound Racing Council.

Greyhound : Juliet Cunliffe (Interpet Publishing 2005)
History of the Greyhound: www.gulfcoastgreyhounds.org The NGRC Book of Greyhound Racing: NGRC and Roy Genders (Pelham Books 1990)
The Legend of Mick the Miller: Michael Tanner (Highdown 2003)

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