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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Days of bookies, fast bucks and foot soldiers at the Powderhall Sprint

Days of bookies, fast bucks and foot soldiers at the Powderhall Sprint

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/dec/22/powderhall-sprint-professional-running?newsfeed=true

Days of bookies, fast bucks and foot soldiers at the Powderhall Sprint

If the turf accountants told you to lose, you'd do it. Their heavy features and dead eyes carried the promise of a fractured skull.

By Harry Pearson
guardian.co.uk,
Thursday 22 December 2011


In 1996 I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the Powderhall Sprint, the 143rd edition of which will be run at Musselburgh racecourse a week on Sunday. Fifteen years ago the event – officially known as the New Year Sprint – was staged at Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium. The heats took place in a freezing mist, the final in a blizzard with the result that in my memory the whole day plays out in blurry black and white, like watching TV back in the 60s.

The Powderhall Sprint is one of the scattered remains of what was once a lucrative business in the north-east, Cumbria and Scotland – professional running. When I told my old next-door neighbour, John, what I was writing about, he disappeared into his cottage and came out five minutes later clutching a small sheet of blue card. "You might not believe it," he said, looking ruefully down at the bulge of his stomach, "but I used to be a bit nippy myself."

The blue card was the programme for the 1949 80-yard sprint at Mickley Horticultural and Agricultural Society's annual show. It drew 250 entrants from across the north. Mickley is a village in the Tyne Valley (Bob Stokoe was born there) and while it would be an exaggeration to say that this influx of athletes doubled the population, it wouldn't be that much of one.

What attracted the runners wasn't the joy of competition, the music of the Annon British Legion Pipe Band ("Champions of Dumfries and Galloway"), or even the teas ("supplied by Spencers of Denton Burn"), but the prize money. The winner of a race at the Mickley show grabbed £70. At that time John was a junior police constable. His take home pay was £3 and 10 shillings a week.

At the trackside in Mickley a row of bookmakers chalked up the odds on the races. Albert Spence from Blyth was the favourite. Spence was the most celebrated pro of the era. A short man – he'd served in submarines in the second world war – he was working as a painter and decorator when, in 1946, news of his speed reached two backers from Carlisle, who took him away to train at Silloth on the Cumbrian coast. They put Spence up in digs, worked with him on a two-lane cinder track every day and fed him steak for breakfast, paying his expenses with cash won at the card schools they ran on inter-city trains. It was money well spent. That winter Spence won the Powderhall and his backers returned home flush, having allegedly slapped £1,000 on him to take first prize.

Mickley was part of a circuit of dozens of professional sprint meetings. At nearby Throckley the first prize at the flower show sprint was £100, at the Morpeth Olympics £150, at Croft Park, Blyth, £100, at Burradon flower show ("The Best Grass Track in The North") £60. A man such as Albert Spence might have been expected to win a fortune. And if professional sprinting had the same rules as amateur sprinting he would have done. But it doesn't. Professional foot races are run using a handicapping system similar to that in horse racing, or golf. In professional sprint racing the handicap is measured in distance rather than in weight or shots. For example, the fastest runners will start a 120-yard sprint at the 120‑yard line, slower runners at 110 yards, 100 yards and so on. As in horse racing the handicap is based on previous races and times. At Mickley my next‑door neighbour ran off a handicap of 12 yards, Spence off four.

Professional running was never polite or genteel; it did not foster the Corinthian spirit. Runners might do their best to fix handicaps in their favour and the men who paid their keep – bookies and publicans mainly – sometimes saw advantage in betting on a less favoured adversary at longer odds. A programme for the 1909 "Xmas £100 Sprint Handicap" held at the Victoria Grounds, Newcastle, features photos of many of the north-east's leading turf accountants. If they told you to lose, you'd do it. Their heavy features and dead eyes carried the promise of a fractured skull.

Alfred Downer was the fastest man in Victorian England (he once covered the singular distance of 128.5 yards in 12.4 seconds). In his book on running – which includes useful advice on diet, such as the need to avoid fresh vegetables and drink plenty of port – Downer summarised the attitude of the professional: "When the race starts there is no man worth his salt that will still be stationary. If there is anything about him he will already have covered five yards at the call of 'Go'."

Shortly after running at Mickley Albert Spence sailed to Australia to run in the Victorian Athletic League series that culminated with the world's richest foot race, the Stawell Gift. Spence finished third. Nobody knew if his backers were disappointed with the result, or pleased. "Handicap sprinting," my old neighbour John said with chuckle, "was the only game in the world where you could get rich by losing."

Between them the Amateur Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee wrote the professionals out of the record books, and mainstream sporting history. The programme from the Mickley Sprint is sitting on my desk as I type this, a flimsy, creased reminder of a largely forgotten world.

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