Heritage: What is the truth behind cheetah racing in Romford?

General view of racing at Romford Greyhound Stadium

Cheetahs once raced against greyhounds at Romford Stadium - Credit: EMPICS Sport

Historian Andy Grant wades through the myth to take a factual look at the true story behind cheetah racing in Romford in the 20th century. 

During the late 1930s, cheetah racing took place at a number of venues.

Much has previously been written about these events, but in many respects, fact has become merged with fiction. So what is the true story behind the accounts?

Millionaire Kenneth Cecil Gandar-Dower (1908-44), a leading sportsman, aviator, explorer and author, had embarked upon an unsuccessful expedition to Kenya in 1934 to find evidence for the marozi, a spotted lion rumoured to exist there.

Returning in December 1936, he brought back to England 12 cheetahs, captured in the woods by farmers.

Rumours abounded that they were for coursing live game and in February 1937, questions were raised in Parliament about his intentions. Public opinion was outraged and two cheetahs were subsequently found dead in their cages by their keeper.

Gandar-Dower gave assurances that he was doing nothing illegal or inhumane and set about training the cheetahs to race with the help of Raymond Hook – the anglicised name of Hooku, a ranger from Kenya.

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In June 1937, after acclimatisation to their new environment and six months' quarantine at Hackbridge Kennels in Surrey, an Australian friend, Ruby Henderson, was enlisted to train and care for the cheetahs at Harringay Stadium.

It had been noted that cheetahs respond more readily to females. By the time she became involved, only nine cheetahs remained; these were named Helen, Gussie, Maurice, Luis, Pongo, Sita, Gypsy, James and Michael.

The owner of Romford Greyhound Stadium, Archer Leggett (1900-89), enthusiastically seized upon the opportunity to host events using cheetahs.

With the cats prepared for the course and duly accommodated at Romford for their first racing season, a series of events were scheduled to take place throughout the week commencing Saturday, December 11.

On the first night, three races were included on the race card and the stadium was packed to capacity. The first race, over 265 yards, was between Helen and two greyhounds. She bounded out of her cage leaving the dogs standing, reaching 50mph within two seconds and finishing the tack in 15.86 seconds, breaking the course record.

The astounded audience had never witnessed anything like this before. The national press eagerly published stories about Helen’s success, nicknaming her Queen of the Track.

However, the second race, between Gussie and James, was a portent of the shortcomings of racing cheetahs. With Gussie taking the lead, James simply ceased running and lay down, refusing to finish the course.

In another event, the course was extended to 355 yards and Luis was unable to maintain his pace over the greater distance. It became clear that cheetahs were not suitable for competitive racing.

The earlier excitement generated by the races diminished as predictability of the outcome dawned upon spectators. Although Romford Stadium continued to hold further occasional events involving cheetahs, it was more for spectacle, rather than competition.

The cheetahs also appeared at numerous other stadia and events during the following year. Betting had not been allowed on any of these events.

With hindsight, cheetah racing had been ill-considered. Cheetahs are solitary hunters and expend a phenomenal level of physical exertion when catching their prey, usually necessitating that they lie down and recuperate afterwards.

They will only chase prey where there is a high likelihood of securing their next meal, readily giving up if there is strong competition – they lack the will and doggedness necessary for competitive racing.

By April 1938, bored with the predictability of racing against greyhounds, Gandar-Dower devised another spectacle – racing cheetahs against a motorcycle. In May Harringay Stadium witnessed the first such race with live radio commentary.

Not long afterwards the cheetahs were sold to circus veteran Jack Harvey. They continued to tour the country until the outbreak of war, but what became of them thereafter is unknown.

As for Gandar-Dower, he lost his life in 1944 on a troopship sailing from Mombasa to Ceylon when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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