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The King of the Track

A NIGHT at the dogs is no longer the social and cultural phenomenon it was during its infant years in the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, at a time when a small wager could earn high dividends for the poorest punter and might even put food on his family’s table that week. There has also never been another greyhound like Mick the Miller.

No one can imagine a Greyhound that was famous outside of the sport to the extent that he wasn’t just a star and a celebrity but a sporting icon; and few have heard his remarkable story… but now they have the chance. It has been told by Michael Tanner in a new book on the subject, The Legend of Mick the Miller — Sporting Icon of the Depression.

For Tanner, the legend was the starting point, and deconstructing some of the myths with forensic research is one of the achievements of the book, but the story doesn’t depend on the legend for its magic. The story is much bigger than the legend.

The facts of Mick’s achievements are themselves legend: from his 68 races on the track he won 51, putting together a sequence of 19 wins in 1930 that stood as a record for 34 years. He won two English Derbys and was denied a third title in the most dramatic circumstances.

Two other dogs have equalled Mick’s haul of two Derbys but he remains the only dog to have won the treble of Derby, Cesarewitch and St Leger.

He set or equalled nine track records, six of which were world records and four of them in an unstoppable 40-day period in 1930. His records were established at six different tracks and at three different distances.

Mick was born in Ireland, bred by Father Martin Brophy in County Offaly. Fr Brophy liked a drop and was fond of a punt, but he had a keen eye for a dog too, and was a careful student of the breeding journals. Though Mick was the smallest in a litter of 10, his bloodlines were impeccable. His father was a direct descendant of Master McGrath, the Irish dog who bestrode the coursing circuit in the 1860s and who was a superstar of his time, in a way we would find unimaginable now in these politically correct times.

The peculiar thing about Fr Brophy is that he kept trying to sell Mick the Miller and, at the seventh attempt, he finally did, after Mick won a first round of the 1929 English Derby at White City in a world record time. The deal was struck for £800, more than enough to buy a house in the Shepherd’s Bush area of London where the deal was done.

The sum of money was extraordinary but at the time greyhound racing was growing at a mind-boggling rate. There were very few greyhound tracks in the sport’s first year, 1926, but the following year there were 30 venues drawing attendances of 5.6 million people across Britain. By Mick’s pomp in the early 1930s, attendances had reached 17 million — against four million now. On the night Mick won his first Derby 40,000 people crammed into the famous White City stadium – an attendance that would never be reached nowadays even if Greyhound racing were televised as frequently as football.

"He basically turned greyhound racing from numbers into names," says Tanner. "Greyhound racing would still have taken off without Mick but he had that special quality that Ian Botham had in cricket or Muhammad Ali had in boxing. People who weren’t greyhound fans wanted to see Mick."

Strictly speaking he wasn’t the fastest greyhound of his era, but what he had above all else was an amazing racing brain. Animal psychologists absolutely reject the notion that dogs act on anything except instinct but there was a pattern to Mick’s races, which demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that he had the game worked out.

Mick had identifiable and regularly repeated manoeuvres — if you won’t allow us to call them strategies. The first concerned the critical first bend. Mick often didn’t break well from traps, which meant that he was never going to lead round the first bend, and if he tried to make up ground immediately he was only asking for trouble. The first bend is where most bumping and jostling occurs, so Mick used to hold back and, when the other dogs were taken wide by the speed at which they were trying to take the corner, Mick would cut across to the inside and take the rail.

"Then in the back straight," says Tanner, "he would move off the rail to the middle ground. The dogs behind would either have to go wide to get round him or go again for the inside.

But all he was doing was dangling a carrot. As soon as they went for the inside he veered across and stopped their momentum. It was as if he had wing mirrors. That happened so often that you’re forced to think, ‘There’s something going on here.’ At the time it was often said that it was like he had a jockey on his back."

His career was a drama on the track and a romance off it. His first Derby win went to a re-run, which had to be staged within the hour. The first race was voided because of unacceptable interference between a couple of dogs at one bend. Mick won the original and the re-run.

Two years later, in his final season, racing notably more slowly against younger dogs, he reached the Derby final again without winning any of the three previous rounds. He won only for the race to be voided, again for interference. Repeating the trick an hour later was too much, to the despair of his fans.

But that wasn’t the end of Mick’s career. With incredible courage he came back to win the St Leger, over a longer distance, beating his Derby conqueror three times in the process.

That was the night he retired. Tanner thinks there’s a movie in Mick, if there’s someone with the courage the make it and not romanticise or anthropomorphise it.

Move over Lassie – here’s a dog who really did the business!

The Legend of Mick the Miller, by Michael Tanner is published by Highdown, £17.99