The bizarre history behind cheetahs once racing against greyhounds at Romford Racecourse

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Greyhound racing was one of the most popular pastimes for working Britons in the early twentieth century, with many people still attending the races to this day. But the popularity of the races once fizzled out, so bosses had to come up with new ways of bringing punters in - one of which was to bring in the fastest land animal.

Romford Racecourse was born when a Mr Archer Leggett and his brother-in-law rented a small piece of land opposite where the track is now situated in London Road, Romford , Essex in 1929. They put down £400 to equip the land and opened for business on June 21 - but the venture only lasted one year because the landlord increased the rent to £4 a week which resulted in the decision to relocate the greyhound operation to where it is situated now.

It included a hand-operated totalisator and a electric operated hare. The first meeting took place on September 20, 1931 with regular attendances in excess of 1,000 people frequenting each meeting. The greyhound industry boom allowed Romford Stadium to thrive and greyhound racing itaself became a big business - but Archer Leggett decided that he was going to bring Cheetah racing to the UK.

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Twelve Cheetahs arrived from Kenya in December 1936 courtesy of explorer Kenneth Gandar-Dower. After six months of quarantine, the cheetahs were given time to acclimatise before Romford trialled the experiment with the cheetahs running for the first time on Saturday 11 December 1937.

The experiment failed with just one further race held; the racing stopped because although the cheetahs were able to better the greyhound times they had to be let off first when racing greyhounds. When they raced against each other, they became disinterested and stopped chasing the hare.

The Times reported that: “Helen raced against two greyhounds but did not appear to like their [cheetahs] company a great deal, for she left them far behind and made them look slow. She covered the 355 yards in 15.86 seconds, easily a track record, and at a speed of 55mph.”

The crowds were astonished, and the article went on to report that: “Most people had never seen a cheetah. At first people were apprehensive, but the moment the trap opened they were amazed by the flash of the cat. They were just so fast and, if you looked round all the mouths were open.”

According to Almost History, in the second of the cheetah races, two males, James and Gussie, were set to race against each other. To add to the excitement, hurdles were added to the track. Gussie decided to ignore the obstacles and instead leapt the inner barrier to cut the corner in pursuit of the electric hare.

Now though, cheetahs are no longer raced at the racecourse, but Romford's greyhounds racing is still going strong to this day.