Living Treasure of Dorset – Cliff Standing, Greyhound trainer, Sturminster Newton
Portrait by Millie Pilkington, pen-portrait by Liz Pope.
Published in April ’16
With 35 years’ experience as a professional huntsman and hunt service for 9 different packs over that time, it was no wonder that Cliff Standing was feeling ‘pretty lost’ when he retired in 1988. He got a couple of greyhound puppies so he could pursue his already keen interest in coursing and within a short time he was persuaded to take out a trainer’s licence, to train dogs for others. At the peak of his career, before the hunting ban of 2005, Cliff Standing had sixteen greyhounds in training. You forget how huge these majestic dogs are, like walking coffee tables with muscles that would make them the envy of any regular gym-goer.
A dog’s potential is evident from approximately two years old; pace is the essential ingredient. ‘They have to be able to turn too, but speed, that’s the most important thing,’ says Cliff. Now he has only two dogs in training and goes over to Ireland for about four meetings a year to course, where an English championship was set up so those keen on this ancient sport can meet in Ireland, where coursing is still legal.
Completely wild hares are driven by beaters. Once spotted by the slipper (who holds the two competing dogs, one in a red woollen collar, one white) he assesses it to make sure it’s a good strong hare then he gives the hare a 100 yard start. He then slips the dogs who chase it until, nearly always, the hare escapes through a hedge and the dogs stop. ‘No-one wants to see a hare killed,’ said Cliff, ‘the hare is free, it goes off and that’s it. A few are caught, but only the slow or the sick.’
Points are given by the mounted judge to each dog based on its chase and ability to turn, and at the end he waves red or white to show which dog has won. The winner then goes on to the next round in a knock out competition. Apparently the structure of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis tournament was based on hare coursing, with 64 competitors in a knockout tournament. There’s a certain amount of betting, not so much at club level but maybe at the bigger meetings. There are approximately fifteen professional trainers nationwide but anyone can train their own dog and enter the stakes.
Cliff explains all this with great patience and care in his deliberate, gravelly voice. Clearly a real animal lover, his charges are kept in immaculate kennels. They do have one dog who lives in the house but is never run: ‘She’s difficult to handle, but then she’s been spoiled!’
Cliff is proud of having twice won the Swaffham Cup which was first presented in 1744, “that meant an awful lot”. He has also won the great Waterloo Cup – the blue riband of the sport – although Cliff admits the prize money isn’t great in coursing, that’s not what you do it for. ◗
Abridged from Great Faces of Dorset, published by Dovecote Press at £20, ISBN 978-0-9929151-0-0, www.dovecotepress.com