Greyhound coursing was originally a blood sport for the wealthy upper classes, and was especially popular in the mid 19th century. The object of the sport was to pit two dogs against each other, in either an open or an enclosed paddock, to chase a live hare. A judge followed the greyhounds on horseback, who was in turn was followed by the spectating crowd. Coursing was intended to test the speed, agility and endurance of the dogs, who hunted the hare by sight (not smell), although extra points were awarded for a kill. There was provision for the hare to escape (similar to a hunt), and if this happened, the match was declared finished.
One of the main promoters of greyhound coursing in Sydney was Walter Lamb, a businessman and pastoralist. He introduced a more regulated form of coursing in the 1850s, called Plumpton coursing, named after his estate near Rooty Hill. In this type of coursing, the dogs competed against each other in a rectangular field, and the judge presided from a tower set at one side of the track. This change in the rules meant that coursing became more of a ‘spectator and gambling’ sport. And in 1906, in a bid to regulate gambling, coursing was restricted to licensed grounds and there were a limited number of racing dates. These restrictions were also applied to trotting and racing horses.
In 1927, so-called mechanical ‘tin hare’ racing was introduced to NSW by the shady figure of Frederick Shaver Swindell. The American born impresario was more commonly known as ‘Judge’ Swindell. The ‘tin hare’ had been invented by Owen P. Smith in 1910, and was popular in America and England following the First World War.
Instead of the dogs chasing a live animal, they instead chased a mechanically propelled lure which was mounted on a track. The greatest change to the sport was that it became a race, not a hunt, with up to eight dogs competing against each other.
With the introduction of mechanical lures to replace live hares in 1927, greyhound racing became an immensely popular working class pastime. Former Premier of NSW, Jack Lang, called the greyhound the ‘working man’s racehorse’. For breeders and trainers, the greyhound was easy to keep in small backyards in the inner city, the dogs were cheap to feed, groom and train, and they offered the opportunity of wealth to the everyman. For animal welfare groups, the innovation let the rabbits and hares off the hook.
Swindell formed a proprietary company, whereby shareholders received profits, to promote the new sport. The first race using the ‘tin hare’ lure was held ‘under lights’ at Harold Park in May 1927. It proved immediately popular, attracting crowds of up to 30,000 people, with over 180 bookies on the grounds to take bets. In 1928, a second greyhound track was opened at Mascot, known as Shepherd’s Bush.
Greyhound racing, especially evening race meetings, appealed to the largely working class crowds because it didn’t eat into their work hours. Moreover, there were no toffee upper classes in attendance to ruin their fun, the admission prices were cheap and punters were able to bet in small amounts.
But this ‘sport of the masses’ quickly drew critics. For the conservatives, this criticism was based on moral outrage at the gambling habits of the working classes, although the Australian Jockey Club were none too pleased by the competition with its audience for horse racing.
In October 1927, the incoming Bavin government made gambling after sunset illegal which meant that there could be no evening greyhound races. The government also restricted the number of licensed venues in Sydney. The sport languished somewhat, although it is likely that unofficial coursing was taking place throughout Sydney. Jack Lang was re-elected in 1930 and legalised gambling at greyhound race meetings. But his government’s associations with Swindell, who had been implicated in allegations of bribery and share manipulation in his proprietary company, led to a Royal Commission in 1932 into both greyhound racing and fruit machines.
Lang was dismissed from office soon after, and although the new government vowed to crack down on the gambling associated with the greyhounds, the sport continued and became increasingly popular. A second greyhound track was opened at Wentworth Park in 1938. Between the 1950s and 70s, the race meetings at both Harold Park and Wentworth attracted crowds of up 8,000.
The last greyhounds were raced at Harold Park in 1987, when operations were moved to Wentworth Park. Although a large grandstand was built here in anticipation of ever increasing crowds, the legalisation of off-course betting – which meant that you didn’t have to go to the track to place a bet – meant that the crowds vanished almost overnight.
While you won’t see the crowds of yesteryear at the ‘Wenty Dogs’ these days, the sport of greyhound racing continues to put over $50 million into the NSW state coffers each year. Pity they are not nicer to the dogs!