The tracksuited punter dug into a paper bowl of chips at Towcester in the glorious late-spring sunshine, ‘Look at it, all of it. Who would go abroad if England is like this?’
The Northamptonshire racecourse is a glittering gem of a spot, created as a toy for the Empress of Austria in 1882 as a point-to-point course when she wasn’t hunting. Since that time it has grown to be one of the country’s finest jump courses with an innovative policy of not charging racegoers.
Surprising then that this tweed and hunter paradise has become the epicentre of a revolution that hopes to initiate a renaissance for British dog racing.
At its heart is Alexander Hesketh, the aristocrat who has become the unlikely champion of possibly the country’s most working-class sport. Hesketh’s life to date has been a mix of a sense of what is right, lashings of fun and a deep-seated concept of patriotic duty and fair play.
His conversion to the joys of greyhounds epitomises all of that. The Greyhound Derby is the blue riband event in the sport’s calendar, with a purse of £175,000. But in recent years has been peripatetic as dog tracks started closing down.
Historically based at White City the Derby moved first to Walthamstow, then to Wimbledon and when that track closed (the last of what used to be 23 tracks in London), it was picked up by Hesketh and Towcester in 2017. With the support of the independent bookie Ben Keith of Star Sports, the Derby has dropped into the welcoming arms of bucolia, surrounded not by corrugated iron and brick, dust and concrete, but by rolling fields, lakes, cattle and woodland. It’s as if Lowry had left Salford and relocated in Constable’s Stour valley.
Hesketh himself is no longer the bubbling mini-maestro that gave the world James Hunt, who raced for his Formula One team in the 1970s, and Hesketh Motorbikes, nor is he the politician who as chief whip in the Lords drove Maastricht through the upper chamber. Now the tall, rather languid peer, wearing sports shoes, high-waisted trousers and longest braces in the world, is leaning on the balcony of his private box at Towcester, watching over the quarter-finals of the Derby.
For Hesketh, hosting dog racing is a mix of hard-nosed belief in the business possibilities and a tinge of romance. ‘I’ve always liked a challenge,’ he says. ‘Every time an aficionado told me that James Hunt couldn’t drive, it just to encouraged me to do the exact opposite. I was never an expert, but I knew that he could drive.’
He adds: ‘The experts have had their day, and the same sort of people that said that about James have said the same about the dogs here. I’ve never had much time for experts, and as Michael Gove put it, the country is pretty fed up with them as well.
‘I had no intention of getting the Derby, but if we’d not brought it to Towcester, Greyhound racing would be stuck in the doldrums.’
Hesketh has seen the possibilities of sports gambling in the States post the recent Supreme Court decision to legalise sports betting, and Towcester like a Premier League football club has a dedicated TV channel licensed to betting shops and available to the general public around the world through live streaming. ‘In Nairobi, there’s even a music producer who takes the feed live and splices through with local Nigerian rock and roll, then distributes it across Nigeria,’ he says with evident glee.
It’s not just the technical advances that Hesketh is proud of. The biggest threat to dog racing in the UK are concerns about animal welfare, including the deliberate killing of thousands of retired and injured dogs every year. This has lead to campaigns against racing and encourages councils to sell tracks. A parliamentary report in 2016 stated that self-regulation of the industry was failing, and The League Against Cruel Sports has begun to campaign for an outright ban on the sport. In America, 40 states have introduced bans and only five still have an active racing industry.
Hesketh has, as is his wont, his own response to these problems and sees himself, and his track as a gold standard for future welfare, not much caring for the approach of the Greyhound board. This is not without opposition in the industry. He has introduced what he calls ‘Towcester standards’.
‘I’ve put my hands in my pocket to ensure these standards which consumers want. These are not some sort of demented fashionable nonsense, but proper ethics,’ he adds.
‘We’ve achieved a complete overhaul of welfare here. When we built the track we knew that welfare was the biggest issue. I’ve announced compulsory rehoming for all contracted dogs that race here. We are working with the Greyhound Trust, to rehome these retired dogs, we are even going to build our own kennels here, and we have already achieved a point where there are no dogs waiting to be rehomed that have raced here at Towcester.’
‘To address injuries we have a full-time vet, who will have an assistant soon, unlike any other track, we are also building a facility for their care within 18 months. We have also announced a reporting system, where we have unilaterally decided to issue a compilation of all injury statistics. In the global marketplace full transparency is necessary.’
Will it work? Well, they all told him James Hunt couldn’t drive.