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Training Cats to Race

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In the 1930s, a couple of British men cooked up what they thought was a brilliant scheme to get cheetahs to race each other. After all, they are the fastest land animals in the world. Should be awesome. However, the cheetahs were not so keen on the idea.

In short bursts, cheetahs are amazingly fast.

In short bursts, cheetahs are amazingly fast.

Gentlemen of the British Empire

Raymond Hook went to Kenya with his father in 1912 and fell in love with the place. Helpfully, Daddy Hook bought an estate for his son. Actually, the land was undeveloped and the Masai, who used it to graze their cattle, were simply booted off to make way for agriculture. In addition to planting coffee, Hook had a side business of providing wild animals to zoos in Europe.

Kenneth Gandar-Dower was what was known as a gentleman adventurer. That means he was wealthy enough to not have to bother with the sordid business of earning a living and could spend his time indulging his hobbies and pursuits.

He was given to dangerous exploits such as flying from England to India with very little piloting experience and climbing active volcanoes. He was also a top quality tennis and squash player as well as an accomplished cricketer.

Big game hunting was a suitable occupation for gentlemen of means.

Big game hunting was a suitable occupation for gentlemen of means.

The Search for the Marozi

In 1934, Kenneth Gandar-Dower had gone to Africa on a hare-brained search for the spotted lion, or marozi. It may or may not have existed in the past but it’s pretty much accepted that it doesn’t exist today.

The marozi is thought to have been a hybrid of lion and leopard ancestry. A farmer shot and killed two spotted lions in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya in 1931. They may have been simply immature, garden-variety lions that had not lost the spots typical of young cubs. Even with the expert guidance of Raymond Hook, no marozi were found.

However, chats around the campfire at night after another fruitless search turned to talk of cheetahs and their phenomenal speed. The idea was hatched to introduce cheetah racing to the great British public.

This is a stuffed jaglion, a jaguar/lion hybrid. It is thought to be the closest representation of how the marozi might have looked, if it ever existed.

This is a stuffed jaglion, a jaguar/lion hybrid. It is thought to be the closest representation of how the marozi might have looked, if it ever existed.

Greyhounds or Cheetahs?

If horse racing is the sport of kings then greyhound racing is the sport of workers. The two hunters in Africa reasoned that cheetahs were faster than greyhounds so racing them would be something of a spectacle. Add the frisson of excitement created by a top predator at full throttle. Irresistible.

The two men captured a dozen cheetahs, crated them up and shipped them to England in December 1936. After six months of quarantine, the big cats were taken to a greyhound track just west of London for training.

An exhibition was set up for an invited group of dignitaries. The electric hare was set loose with a juicy chunk of Argentinean beef attached and the cheetahs released. They showed no interest in the hurtling steak and milled about before walking over to the bookmakers who dispersed faster than cheetahs.

Hook could see the flaw in the project―as anyone who has a tabby cat in the house knows they aren’t the easiest critters to coach. He sold his share in the venture to Gandar-Dower who believed more training was needed.

In June 2012 a cheetah named Sarah set a new 100-metre record by covering the distance in 5.95 seconds. Usain Bolt holds the current human record of 9.58 seconds.

In June 2012 a cheetah named Sarah set a new 100-metre record by covering the distance in 5.95 seconds. Usain Bolt holds the current human record of 9.58 seconds.

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The Cheetah Versus Greyhound Race

By December 1937, the undaunted Gandar-Dower felt his felines were ready for the big time. By an unhappy coincidence the greyhound racing business was in the doldrums and promoters were looking for novel ways to get bums into their empty seats. Gandar-Dower’s high-speed kitties were just the ticket and an event was set up for the stadium in Romford, east of London.

The notion of cheetahs racing against greyhounds drew a sell-out crowd. There may have been one of two among the assembled throng hoping for the cats to go bush and eat a few of the dogs. People can be like that.

The fastest greyhounds can reach a top speed of 70 km/hour, while a cheetah can manage short bursts of 120 km/hour.

The fastest greyhounds can reach a top speed of 70 km/hour, while a cheetah can manage short bursts of 120 km/hour.

The first race featured Helen who left the dogs behind, crossing the finish line in a track-record time. The next race featured James and Gussie who, it turned out, were poor students at cheetah-racing school.

Gussie shot into the lead by jumping the inside fence and cutting the corner. James immediately lost interest in the race and decided to take a close look at the spectators in the grandstand. However, the big cat responded to his trainer’s calls before snacking on any of the punters.

Other races were organized but soon the public’s appetite for the spectacle wore off. Cheetahs, it seems, are highly intelligent but not the slightest bit competitive. If one of their number takes the lead in a race the others are smart enough to not waste energy in a futile race; they are just as likely to curl up and have a nap.

Predictably, cheetah racing did not go into a second season and remains an exclamation point in sporting history.

Postscript

History does not record what happened to independent-minded tabbies.

Raymond Hook returned to his farm in Kenya, dying there in 1968.

Among his many other accomplishments Kenneth Gandar-Dower was a good writer, publishing five works of non-fiction. During World War II, he signed on as a war correspondent and was sailing from Kenya to Ceylon (Sri Lanka now) on the SS Khedive Ismail in February 1944 when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Indian Ocean. The vessel sank in two minutes and carried to a watery grave all 1,297 on board. Gandar-Dower was just 36.

Bonus Factoids

  • Queen’s Club in London is a private retreat for sporting people. Kenneth Gandar-Dower once caused a flutter among the members when he took one of his cheetahs into the bar on a leash.
  • The greyhound racing business in Britain has fallen on hard times. There are now just 21 tracks operating while in the 1940s there were more than 200. The sport has almost disappeared in the United States.
  • There are fewer than 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild, making it Africa’s most endangered big cat.
  • In a new low in bad taste, sprinter Ben Johnson, who lost his 100-metre gold medal at the Seoul Olympics of 1988 for cheating through steroid use, appeared in a commercial for Cheetah energy drinks with the line “I Cheetah all the time.”

Sources

  • “The Great Romford and Harringay Cheetah Races!” Vaguely Interesting, February 23, 2013.
  • “Penguin no. 198: Amateur Adventure by Gandar Dower.” Karyn Reeves, A Penguin a Week, February 26, 2011.
  • “Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports.” Edward Brooke-Hitching Simon and Schuster, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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