“When I was a young pro at Nottingham Forest, I lived literally 200 yards away from the local dog track. I liked a punt and I soon became a regular visitor.
I was a single lad so I’d often turn up for the Monday, Thursday and Saturday night meets and I became quite friendly with a guy called Chris Brooks, who had been in the game for more than 20 years. He’d had big winners in the sport, as well as finalists in both the Derby and the Irish Derby, and he asked whether I wanted to get more involved. With few commitments at the time, I decided to take the plunge and I persuaded a friend of mine, Dave Willans, to join me.
Dave owns a string of bars in Nottingham and our first dog, a bitch, was called Sam Fay Lady, after one of his establishments. She only cost £250 and was absolutely useless, but just owning a greyhound got me hooked. The winner in me wanted more, so we paid £2000 for our next dog, No Matter How, which raced in meets all over the Midlands and Sheffield and was much more competitive. She had great potential but just as we were getting somewhere with her, I moved to Middlesbrough. Far from letting my interest wane, though, I became even more hooked.
It was then that I was introduced to a top trainer called Ted Soppitt – if I compared him to a football manager, he’s probably at the same level as Gerard Houllier – and we started buying from a group of people in Ireland called the Droopys, who are widely regarded as the top breeders. The top dogs you see running in England are usually Droopys, and they tend to be named after famous people or sportsman. For instance, we recently bought Droopys Okocha for £15,000 and, like the player, he’s doing very well.
Since my Forest days, I must have owned about 12 dogs and the more involved I’ve got, the more expensive and, therefore, the more competitive the dogs have been. Five have been Droopys, but the most successful dog I’ve owned to date was Ted’s Joe, which won 13 of the 15 races we entered him in. I think the biggest win we had with him was £6,000 but if you’re in this to make big bucks, you’re wasting your time. The money I make with Chris we simply put into a pot, which goes towards buying another dog.
My most memorable moment came with a dog called Frisbee Forte, which I owned with Chris and Crystal Palace striker Dougie Freedman. In 2001, we got to the semi-final of the Derby, the biggest race in the UK greyhound calendar. It’s held at Wimbledon, the Wembley of greyhound racing, and you have to get through seven rounds to make the final. The heats are run over a number of weeks, there’s £100,000 at stake for the winner and with up to 10,000 people turning up for the final, it really is a big thing.
I remember the buzz on the night of the semi was incredible. Frisbee Forte – our dog – was favourite. I know it sounds strange to an outsider, but I was sick with nerves, just like I used to be when I first started playing for Forest. I wasn’t just nervous because of the race, I was nervous because I wanted him to come off the track safely as well. Unfortunately, he got crowded out at the first bend, so he didn’t make the final, but I was just relieved he was safe.
In the past I’ve had dogs that haven’t been able to race again and that’s really upset me. You’d be surprised how attached you can get. Ted’s Joe career ended when he broke his leg and I was so upset that I was on the verge of packing it all in. But greyhounds are in my blood now and since I bought my pups, Droopys Okocha and Droopys Sinatra, I’ve got the buzz back.
The bug seems to be spreading in football circles too. When I was at Boro, I’d sometimes do an eight-hour round trip straight after training to watch just one race at Wimbledon and the lads thought I was absolutely mad, but the tide’s turning.
While I was in the North-East, I got Craig Bellamy involved and he now owns Droopys Shearer, which you wouldn’t be able to buy for less than £75,000 because it’s worth so much in breeding rights. Lee Bowyer and Francis Jeffers also own dogs while Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips had dogs when they were at Sunderland.
Footballers have plenty of money at their disposal and it’s certainly a better way of spending your money than just blowing it down the bookies. Who knows, as time goes by, maybe greyhounds will become more popular than owning racehorses for footballers? Although I part-own a horse with Stuart Pearce, the dogs certainly gives me a much bigger buzz.”
Mark’s Top 5 Greyhounds of 2004
1) Premier Fancy
“The top dog in Ireland at the moment. A favourite for the Irish Derby in July.”
2) Drop Goal Johnny
“Owned by my Geordie friend ‘Beefy’ – the big guy you see on TV who has NUFC tattooed across his belly. His times have really improved.”
3) Droopys Sinatra
“My dog who recently won his first race. And I forgot to put a bet on at 4/1!”
4) Droopys Okocha
“My other dog, who is trialling really well. Big things are expected of him too.”
5) Droopys Shearer
“Greyhound of the Year runner-up behind Tim’s Crow. Has been injured of late but big things are expected.”
From the July 2004 issue of FourFourTwo.