CHAPTER XIX. THE WHIPPET
For elegance of style, cleanliness of habit, and graceful movement, few dogs can equal the Whippet, for which reason his popularity as a companion has increased very greatly within the past decade. No more affectionate creature is to be found, yet he possesses considerable determination and pluck, and on occasion will defend himself in his own way.
Too fragile in his anatomy for fighting, in the ordinary sense of the word, when molested, he will “snap” at his opponent with such celerity as to take even the most watchful by surprise; while his strength of jaw, combined with its comparatively great length, enables him to inflict severe punishment at the first grab. It was probably owing to this habit, which is common to all Whippets, that they were originally known as Snap-Dogs.
The Whippet existed as a separate breed long before dog shows were thought of, and at a time when records of pedigrees were not officially preserved; but it is very certain that the Greyhound had a share in his genealogical history, for not only should his appearance be precisely that of a Greyhound in miniature, but the purpose for which he was bred is very similar to that for which his larger prototype is still used, the only difference being that rabbits were coursed by Whippets, and hares by Greyhounds.
This sport has been mainly confined to the working classes, the colliers of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland being particularly devoted to it. As a rule the contests are handicaps, the starting point of each competitor being regulated by its weight; but the winners of previous important events are penalised in addition, according to their presumed merit, by having a certain number of yards deducted from the start to which weight alone would otherwise have entitled them. Each dog is taken to its stipulated mark according to the handicap, and there laid hold of by the nape of the neck and hind-quarters; the real starter stands behind the lot, and after warning all to be ready, discharges a pistol, upon which each attendant swings his dog as far forward as he can possibly throw him, but always making sure that he alights on his feet. The distance covered in the race is generally 200 yards, minus the starts allotted, and some idea of the speed at which these very active little animals can travel may be gleaned from the fact that the full distance has been covered in rather under 12 seconds.
In order to induce each dog to do its best, the owner, or more probably the trainer stands beyond the winning post, and frantically waves a towel or very stout rag. Accompanied by a babel of noise, the race is started, and in less time than it takes to write it the competitors reach the goal, one and all as they finish taking a flying leap at their trainer's towel, to which they hold on with such tenacity that they are swung round in the air. The speed at which they are travelling makes this movement necessary in many cases to enable the dog to avoid accident, particularly where the space beyond the winning mark is limited. For racing purposes there is a wide margin of size allowed to the dogs, anything from 8 lbs. to 23 lbs., or even more, being eligible; but in view of the handicap terms those dogs which possess speed, and scale 9 to 12 lbs. amongst the light-weights, and over 17 lbs. in the heavy ones, are considered to have the best chance.
Probably there is no locality where the pastime has maintained such a firm hold as in and around Oldham, one of the most famous tracks in the world being at Higginshaw, where not infrequently three hundred dogs are entered in one handicap. The Borough grounds at Oldham and the Wellington grounds at Bury are also noted centres for races. It is a remarkable but well recognised fact that bitches are faster than dogs, and in consequence the terms upon which they are handicapped are varied. The general custom is to allow a dog 2-1/2 to 3 yards advantage for every pound difference in weight between it and the gentle sex.
One of the fastest dogs that ever ran was Collier Lad, but he was almost a Greyhound as regards size. Whitefoot, whose owner challenged the world, and was considered to be quite unbeatable, was a Whippet in every sense of the word, and was a nice medium weight, though probably Capplebank's time of 11-1/2 seconds stands alone. The best of the present-day racing dogs are Polly fro' Astley (15 lbs.) and Dinah (11-1/2 lbs.), and of those which promise well for the future, Eva, whose weight is only 9-3/4 lbs., is most prominent.