`You're in the syndicate, aren't you?'

 

Events of the past year have damaged many people's confidence in the banking system. Which is why recently, following independent financial advice, myself and a group of friends withdrew some of our savings and bought a greyhound.

I say "friends," but a better description might be "people I've never met before in my life". All I remember is being in the pub one night with a couple of mates when the subject of dog ownership came up; then the next thing I knew was a letter in the post congratulating me on joining "the syndicate", and enclosing a newsletter and a copy of the constitution.

And so far, I have to say the experience is restoring some of my faith in the banking system. By the time I joined, for example, the group had expanded to 12 members, reducing my stake to a mere 8.5 per cent. Added to the stake of the two members I knew personally, this still only amounted to 25 per cent, leaving no fewer than three of the dog's legs under the control of complete strangers - a recipe for disaster.

Since then, I've been meeting some of the other members, but this is a scary business too. What typically happens is you're at a party or something, introductions are being made, and then the complete stranger shaking your hand lowers his voice and says: "You're in the syndicate, aren't you?"

An awkward pause follows, meaningful looks are exchanged and then you shake hands again (this time in the way prescribed by article 12 of the rules of association) to indicate neither of you is the bank manager trying to infiltrate the group.

I haven't been to a syndicate meeting yet but the early discussions seem to have been dominated by procedural wrangles. There was a row over the position of God in the constitution (those damn PDs, they get in everywhere) and members have also voted to change the animal's name.

Since the rules commit us to racing greyhounds "for amusement and profit", I thought Capitalist Running-Dog would have made an excellent name; but the syndicate feared this would take longer to say than many greyhound races last, making us unpopular with commentators.

They didn't know it at the time, but in recruiting me, the group acquired a doggie expert. During my early teenage years, I was chief kennel boy to a local greyhound owner, so I'm completely au fait with terms like "whelping" ("we're gonna whelp your ass tonight" we used to tell rival owners); and in case anybody's asking, I also know how to calculate your dog's time when he's beaten in a race.

You do this by adding .07 of a second to the winner's time for each length between them. So say your greyhound loses by 25 lengths and the winner ran 29.74, that means that your dog's time is - let's see. . . well and truly up, I'm afraid.

And since I know something about it, I want to address briefly the dubious reputation greyhound racing has. A lot of this has to do with coursing, so I think it's important straightaway to differentiate between coursing and track racing.

Track dogs and coursing dogs are both members of what is termed "the greyhound movement", but the difference is track greyhounds do not engage in, or approve of, acts of violence against hares. They may under- stand what drives other greyhounds to violence, and they may even reserve the right to take up arms against hares themselves, if the hares don't stop running around flapping their big ears in the provocative way they do. But they don't actually attack them. What track greyhounds want, in fact, is a situation in which all the hares are taken out of Irish politics, so that we can all move forward in an environment of. . .

Okay, okay, maybe I'm overstating the position a bit. But the thing to remember is it's nothing personal between greyhounds and hares. As the success of track racing shows us, a greyhound will run after anything small, furry and fast-moving. A definition which, on one memorable occasion back in 1977, was met by our neighbour's cairn terrier.

I never liked that terrier, who combined the physical presence of a hamster with the self-estimation of a doberman. But anyone who thinks greyhounds have it in for hares alone should have seen the way our dog chased that miniature dog-cousin across the local football pitch. Greyhounds aren't stupid - they know hares don't bark! But the terrier escaped only by breaking the all-time cairn speed record, and never barked much thereafter.

If it can finally throw off its down-at-heel image, greyhound racing has a great future. Back in the 70s, it was a criticism of the sport that 30-second races were too short to enjoy. Now, thanks to two decades of pop videos and computer graphics, most young people have such short attention spans that a greyhound race to them is, say, like a one-day cricket match to people over 40. Which is why they are going to greyhound racing in their droves (I'm speaking as someone with an investment in the sport).

By now you probably want to know our dog's name, so you can back it and make some easy money. Unfortunately, I'm forbidden from disclosing this under the syndicate's vow of silence (at least I think that's what it is - this part of the constitution is in Italian and "Roberto Calvi, banchiere Vaticano" is the only bit I understand).

But I don't mind telling you I feel good about this investment. The omens are excellent: for one thing, we will soon be entering the Chinese Year of the Greyhound, according to the nice man who sold us the animal. And for another, there's the uncanny coincidence of our most recent trial run, beaten four lengths in a sprint where the winner clocked 19.83.

That means - let's see, four 0.7s is .28, added to 19.83, carry the one . . . that our greyhound ran a time of 19.99! As near as dammit! So let me wish a happy new year to everyone - except the bookies. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to see a man about a dog.