Even the most casual of horse racing observers know that the Epsom Derby is the most prestigious race on the flat, and yet the Greyhound Derby is still something of a mystery to sport lovers.
But this is an event that has a lineage dating back to 1927, and in 1939 a staggering 92,000 people turned out at the White City Stadium to watch the action unfold.
Unbeknownst to many, sadly, the Greyhound Derby is still being run each year to this day, and with a new home at the Towcester Greyhound Stadium the future of the renewal still looks bright enough for those still enraptured by the sport.
When Was the Greyhound Derby First Run?
The Greyhound Racing Association wanted to introduce a race that was considered the pinnacle of the sport, and so they hit upon the Greyhound Derby to rival horse racing’s version of the event that was first run way back in 1780.
In a bid to attract the fastest dogs and their owners to the event, the GRA put together a timetable of regional heats and promised the Derby winner a top prize of £1,000 – remember, this was the 1920s, when such sums were considered sizable to say the very least.
The first ever Greyhound Derby was held at the White City Stadium on October 15, 1927, with Entry Badge – a dog trained by local man Joe Harmon – taking the spoils.
Growing in Popularity
As word spread of the prize money on offer, the Greyhound Derby continued to grow in prestige – by the 1930s, hundreds of owners were entering their dogs into the qualification process.
But it was in 1929 that the first landmark Derby was held. Mick the Miller was brought over from Ireland for qualifying, and after dismantling the field in his heat a bookmaker, Albert Williams, immediately made an offer to buy the dog for 800 guineas. That was accepted by his former owner, Father Martin Brophy, who decided to sell his prized animal there and then.
Mick the Miller went on to win the Greyhound Derby in both 1929 and 1930, becoming the first back-to-back champion – an accolade not matched until Patricia’s Hope in the 1970s.
The 1939 edition of the Greyhound Derby was the most attended in history, and if we apply historic inflation to the totalisator taking – £114,780 – that equates to an incredible £7.5 million.
But as the Second World War broke out, a temporary new home was needed, with Harringay Stadium stepping up to the mark for the 1940 edition.
As the ravages of war took hold, it would not be until 1945 that the Greyhound Derby would return – thankfully, White City Stadium was able to host once more.
It was at this time that the dominance of trainer Leslie Reynolds began. He won five editions of the race in a span of seven years in the 1950s….with five different dogs, no less.
By the early 1970s, the prize money was up to £13,5000 for the winner, and now the Greyhound Derby was being televised by cult favourite Word of Sport.
That popularity continued into the 1980s, where the prize money near doubled to £25,000. But with attendances dwindling, and a change of venue required, most trace this period to the beginning of the Derby’s downfall…
It was to much dismay that the White City Stadium was demolished in 1985 to make way for a contemporary development that would include a new site for the BBC.
That left the Greyhound Derby seeking a new home, and Wimbledon Stadium picked up the slack. But its out-of-town location, and the continued diminishing appetite for dog racing, meant that the race started to lose some of its pizazz.
Wimbledon would play host to the Greyhound Derby for the next 30 years, but crowds continued to fall and the Stadium, needing significant renovations, was not the most welcoming of venues.
But on the track, at least, the action remained red hot, with Charlie Lister starting his remarkable run of seven victories – Rapid Ranger becoming just the fourth dog to win multiple Derbies.
Nick Savva collected four wins of his own in the late 1990s and the noughties, including his own multiple champion Westmead Hawk.
Without a permanent home, it can be very difficult for a race in any sport to really capture the imagination of the public.
Since leaving Wimbledon in 2016, with the stadium sold and turned into Wimbledon FC’s New Plough home, the Greyhound Derby has had a nomadic existence.
Towcester took on hosting duties in 2017 and 2018, but when that venue fell on hard times the Derby was shifted the Nottingham Stadium in 2019 and 2020.
But maybe all is not lost. Towcester has reopened, and its owners are very bullish about the future.
Perhaps the Greyhound Derby has a long-term home once more… central to the chances of this fine race continuing to be a key date beloved by many.