Sam Locking’s job is unusual. Most evenings of the week, the 20 year-old drives the ‘hare’ at Sheffield’s Owlerton Stadium.
But it is not a real hare, It is a ‘hare sock’, which mimics the movements of a real hare and moves on a rail at the side of the oval racetrack.
Sam says: “The greyhounds need something to focus on in order to race, but if it was a real hare they might attack the animal. With this, it doesn’t matter, as it is just a sock filled with air.”
His perch is high above the track, overlooking the racing. But getting there is not easy.
“We just need to climb these ladders to get there,” he says, grabbing an enormous pair of almost-vertical ladders,
At the top of the ladders is an attic with a long corridor. At the end of the corridor is a tiny door. Yet somehow, several nights a week, Sam – all 6ft 6in of him – manages to find his way through the Alice in Wonderland-like labyrinth.
The controls are relatively simple.
There is a speed dial and a stop and a start button.
But, while crude in operation, Sam’s job is the lynchpin of Owlerton’s dog racing – without the hare, there would be no race.
If the hare travels too quickly, the dogs will lose interest. If the hare travels too slowly, the dogs will attack it.
Sam says: “I respond to how fast the dogs are running, so I moderate the speed as the race goes on.”
There are only six dogs in a race, but, says stadium manager Pete Clarke, the crowds attracted to see the half-a-dozen slender hounds is astonishing.
Pete says: “We get all manner of people coming for a night out. We have hen dos, stag dos, we have a waiter service and a table betting service so that people can place bets while they are eating and we get a lot of families here as well.”
A quick glance around the eating area of Owlerton’s restaurant and snack area is a testament to Pete’s claim. There are pensioner greyhound enthusiasts, flat-cap clad and suited, alongside young people dressed to the nines.
“It’s amazing how many people come here for a night out,” he says. “We can often have up to 300 people in the restaurant. The other night someone came here on a visit from Australia and they had such a good night that they posted loads of positive comments on Facebook the day after.”
However, race manager Sam Tweed says the food and fun belies the complexity of the sport.
He says: “There’s a lot more to this sport than people think. Every dog is put into a class from A1 to A8 - A1 being the fast class - and each dog is identified with a chip, but also with their physical markings.”
But this is no mean feat.
Sam says: “We have a photocopied sheet of a drawing of a greyhound from the side and the front, with a separate diagram of their paws. We mark off on the sheet the characteristics of the dog, for example, if they have a white patch on their face.”
This rigorous identification is not in vain. Years ago, greyhound trainers would paint dogs with hair dye in order to enter them into extra races.
As a greyhound lover, Sam is in the right job.
“We always had greyhounds as kids and they are such lovely creatures,” he says. “But many of them are really lazy, which you’d be surprised to hear. We even had a greyhound who wouldn’t even stand up to drink from his bowl, he’d drink it while lying down.
“They make great pets, but they do struggle with stairs because their legs are so long and streamlined.”
It is not only Sam with a soft spot for these elegant hounds. Pete says: “We get a lot of people who come up to see the retired greyhounds or take them for a walk. The dogs are so friendly.”
That is until, of course, they spot the ‘hare’.
“Once they’re on a track they’re like nothing else,” says Pete. “The animal instinct kicks in and they just run.”
But it is the animal instinct that makes the sport all the more mesmerising.
Peye says: “Greyhound racing is like no other sport, because there is no room for human tampering. With horse racing there’s a jockey, in car racing there’s a driver and mechanics, but with dogs they’re just doing what’s natural.
“And now the rules are so strict that it’s almost impossible to cheat.
“If a dog is looking to be going much faster than he should be we will pull him in afterwards and take a urine sample. There have even been occasions where our staff had stayed up until 11pm waiting for a dog to have a wee.”
The next meeting is tomorrow night. The turnstiles open at 6pm, with the first race at 6.38pm.
For information on dog-racing at Owlerton stadium, see www.owlertongreyhoundracingstadium.co.uk