Pete Vernon 1
Cinders n Shale to Grass n Sand
Blackbird Road. Leicester. Tap it into your satnav and you’ll be transported to an avenue of pre-war, tree-lined semis just past Abbey Park. A 54 bus from the Haymarket may be easier, but either way, you’ll find no evidence of ‘The Stadium’. I was born a stone's throw from ‘The Stadium’. However, at 5 years old, my stone could barely reach Mrs Reed’s sweet shop across Willow Bridge St. At 5, that was good enough for me, and ‘The Stadium’ remained a mystical location. In those seemingly endless summers, every Saturday evening became a ritual. Tea, Juke Box Jury, and other monochrome magic, would be followed by a mad scramble for pole position on the ‘gate’ to welcome home the ‘Skeggy Express’ as it thundered down the track running parrallel to Syston St and into Belgrave Rd station, thereby transporting the locals back to civilisation after the week-long expedition into ‘Darkest Lincolnshire’. It was the events that transpired afterwards, however, that I found more fascinating. As the melee of prams and pushchairs disintegrated into the descending dusk, along with the lingering air of locomotive smoke, a familiar sound and smell took over. The sound of motor bikes n smell of cinders. Buzz. Crescendo. 4 times. Silence. Repeat. 13 times. ‘That’s the Hunters’, Dad would say, nodding, as dad’s do. My imagination ran wild. It does at 5. Big game hunting on motorbikes? Motorised jousting? A sort of mediaeval Harry Potter? Mm…… The nearest I got to these gladiators were the grainy pictures of Norman Hunter (capt) and Ken McKinley sliding into the bends clad in leather, with horseshoes adorning their chests. No spears or wands though…… Heroes…. I never witnessed. Apparently, I had sort of discovered aural Speedway. I soon grew up though and at the ripe old age of 7, after Dr. Beeching, in his wisdom, flicked the switch on the train set outside my house, we moved.
The summers remained long. ‘The stadium’ remained a mystery. Leicester’s Colosseum. That is, until 1970.when, by now, the ’Hunters’ had become ‘Lions’. Apparently, they were good. I wasn’t too sure what at, but the ‘Sports Mercury’ said so, and therefore I was a fan. So, one obscure Tuesday in March 1970 changed my life. Whilst Ray Wilson, Jonnie Boulger, and Swede Anders Michanek thrilled with their antics on the shale, I became aware of the circuit on the outside of the fuel powered action . A track draped in tarpaulin, poles and bricks. A greyhound track., As I became more and more a speedway follower, so much so as to go on coach away trips, I became more and more familiar with the slabs and tarpaulins of Monmore (good gallop but slabs at 3rd bend a bit tricky for wides),Swindon(tarpaulins and tyres) etc………and Coventry……..mmm.
‘Can we go to the dogs,Dad?’…….If ya like.
It was strange. Didn’t smell right. Didn’t look right. No fuel soaked shale smell, no heavily badged fans armed with programme boards with lights on. Only hot dogs, and men ‘armed’ with ‘hot’ dogs. 6 machines, of the canine variety, came on parade. Red. Blue. White. Black. Orange, and Black n White striped racing jackets replaced the Red, Blue, White, and Yellow/Black helmet colours. The racing surface, however, was reminiscent of a snooker table, the lush green replacing the red shale. Yes, there was GRASS under those tarpaulins. The dogs were loaded into the traps and this, along with the sounding of a bell, seemed to be the signal to a great deal of those present, to deposit large sums of legal tender into the satchels of half a dozen men down the front. The lids went up and the race was on, the chase was on. Bit of jostling, scrimmaging at the 1st turn , 2 beat 5. In a photo. Magic! After the race the men down the front didn’t seem to give much of what entered their satchels, back. I saw eight races that night. ……….I had discovered greyhound racing.
I still followed the Lions but my visits to Blackbird Road took a huge swing in frequency in preference of 4 legs to 2 wheels, this being despite there being less races, and less in my pocket at the end of the night. I was hooked. Ron Gilbert. Stan Lea. Nan Bradford. Doug Kenney. The trainers. No Sailor, Fairview Bella and punters fave Hey Up. The dogs. It was great . However, watching Ally Turner carry his Flower Grange off the track in his arms after she broke her hock revealed the down side of the sport early on. £2,000 in 1973 was a lot of money, eh?………..My favourite dog though was a Fawn fella called Heacham Tim. Apart from the owner I’m probably the only person who remembers him, but, hey, to a young lad on £22 a week, to be the only person in the stadium to collect the tote win dividend of 49 to 1 and have all 10p units to a £1 it felt like a pools win (no lottery then!). It was belting down and the big fella lolloped round the outside to stunned silence. I don’t think he won again. What’s more, I don’t care. I hope he had a happy retirement! ……………..Then all was gone.
Within a week, both White City, the Greyhound Derby’s home, and Blackbird Rd were closed.
It was 7 years before I saw another race.
I started to go on the free bus to Derby. Tight track; 420 metres; Inside hare; Handicaps. Got talking to Ally Turner who persuaded me to buy a dog of his called Pacey’s Account. He was by Special Account out of a bitch called Rocky Lady. He was a strapping brindle fella. His trainer , Rita Sperry, was keen to keep him so away my brother and I went. First race off scratch. Got up and won a short head. Kiss of death! You never forget your first winner, and I can remember every second, every maneouvre he made as if it was yesterday. He won us a little handicap competition and we went to Italy on the proceeds. It was a sad return , however. ‘Rocky’ suffered a heart attack when we got back. Felt sick. The Sperry’s got me a little bitch. Derby Claire. (Cathy’s Fugitive-Five Crosses). Trialled in well. Couple of races. In season. Went to see her trial back. Now I’m not sure what she’d been thinking about while she was resting but, when the traps opened, she strolled out the boxes, walked round behind the traps and waited for the hare to come round to her. Far too clever. Ups n downs eh? Ah well, there you go. She ended up racing round Coalville and Hinckley, in between sleeping permanently on my sofa. She won a fair few and I had her till she died at the age of 11. ………….Then Derby closed.