The great Romford and Harringay cheetah races!

The Greyhound Racing Association faced a grave problem in the late 1930s. The British seemed to have fallen out of love with dog racing, leaving stadia half full and the former cash cow looking as thin and exhausted as, well, a greyhound. Promoters came up with a breathtaking array of ideas to revitalise interest but none were as startling as the plan devised by Archer Leggett. If dogs could be raced, then why not cats? Big cats. Very big cats. If anything could rekindle interest in the track, surely cheetah racing would?

Greyhound racing was one of the most popular pastimes for working Britons in the early twentieth century. Sixty years ago, no fewer than 77 stadia across the country attracted packed crowds for regular meets. London alone boasted 33 tracks, including world famous stands at White City, Walthamstow and Harringay Stadium.

A cheetah racing a greyhound from contemporary press coverage of the events

Most are gone now; fewer than 30 survive in the UK and London has just two – Romford and Wimbledon. One of the saddest losses came with the demise of Harringay Stadium. The stadium had been at the heart of an entertainments complex that included the Harringay Arena and boasted a packed calendar of events.

Harringay Stadium survived until the 1980s, finally closing as an entertainments venue in 1987. The site still attracts thousands of visitors every day, filling up its extensive car parks and flocking to the attractions. But, instead of spectators for dog racing or speedway at the stadium or boxing and ice hockey at the arena, they are shoppers.

The stadium was replaced by a Sainsbury’s supermarket and the arena became the Harringay Arena Retail Park. It is hard to argue that the area lost its glamour when the venue for Britain’s first televised boxing match was replaced by an Argos, Homebase and Poundland. The closest the modern arena comes to sporting glory is in the upstairs branch of Fitness First. The nearest it gets to races are the undignified scenes at a Next Christmas sale.

Sainsbury's Harringay is not quite as exciting as the old stadium

The industry faced a similar crunch in the 1930s, when the enthusiasm for going to the dogs was, in fact, going to the dogs. Promoters were faced with a glut of venues, including some recent purpose built stadia, and not enough punters to fill them. Novel entertainments were introduced including motocross, speedway, stock car racing and amateur athletics.

As exciting as these attractions were, surely none could compare with the spectacle unleashed on Londoners on 11 December 1937. It was a Saturday night and Romford Stadium was packed. It had rained heavily days running up to the event, making the going particularly heavy. The race card featured three additional races and there was palpable excitement in the air. The promoters had blended the best of greyhound racing, the zoo and the circus to develop the cheetah races.

Surely the speed, athletic grace and sheer exotic danger of the racing cheetahs would make this a winning proposition. The promoters had high hopes; they had invested heavily in the scheme and would stage races at both Romford and Harringay.

Greyhound racing not exciting enough ... By AngMoKio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

And the initial crowd response and press attention seemed promising. In the first race involving a cheetah, a female called Helen was instantly proclaimed ‘Queen of the Track’. The Times reported that: “Helen raced against two greyhounds but did not appear to like their company a great deal, for she left them far behind and made them look slow. She covered the 355 yards in 15.86 seconds, easily a track record, and at a speed of 55mph.”

The crowds were astonished, and the article went on to report that: “Most people had never seen a cheetah. At first people were apprehensive, but the moment the trap opened they were amazed by the flash of the cat. They were just so fast and, if you looked round all the mouths were open.”

In the second of the cheetah races, two males, James and Gussie, were set to race against each other. To add to the excitement, hurdles were added to the track. Gussie decided to ignore the obstacles and instead leapt the inner barrier to cut the corner in pursuit of the electric hare. Was this the first sign of some of the problems that cheetah racing would bring?

... add a cheetah! The ultimate racer? By Wegmann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The animals had, in fact, been brought to Britain twelve months earlier. During the intervening time they had acclimatised and been trained to chase the hare.  A hint at the problems to come was seen in this training period. The cheetahs weren’t particularly interested in a mechanical hare. Strap a decent chunk of tasty red meat to its back, however, and the big cats suddenly took note.

The cheetahs were also difficult racers to gauge: if the hare was released too early, the cats quickly caught it and devoured their speeding treat. Release the hare too late and the cheetahs were frustratingly reluctant to do anything.

A more disturbing trait only became apparent at the first races. Greyhounds could be relied on to race the entire track and scream through the finish line. Betters could get odds on dogs to finish first or second, or to place. Cheetahs were immune to the demands of the Tote. If one of their number took an early lead, the others would stop – sensibly saving their energy if selfishly denying the crowds their thrill.

Cheetah racing as reported in the Metro on 5 December 2011

Here was the nub of the problem. Cheetahs are intelligent creatures, cunning hunters and devastatingly uncompetitive. The Argus, reporting all the way from Melbourne, Australia, noted that: “Unlike the greyhound, a cheetah is attracted solely by the bait and cares nothing for racing glory”, before ruefully concluding that: “may be, however, that the racing spirit in the 12 cheetahs now in England has not yet been fully developed.”

After a few sessions, the spectacle of seeing big cats in the arena wore off and the spectators were left watching bored cheetahs wander around and even curl up for a nap. Whether cheetah racing stopped because it was no longer as interesting, because of pressure from rival greyhound stadia or complaints from locals afraid of the big cats in their backyard, it didn’t last beyond its first season.

Romford’s race promoter had got his publicity and big crowds and cheetah racing would be consigned to become one of the curios of sporting history. It is an arresting enough story to be dug out by local history enthusiasts and appear in occasional newspaper columns.

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