CAT-RACING IN BELGIUM & THE BRITISH CAT-RACING HOAX
A widely reproduced quote from the Pictorial Times describes “cat racing” in Liege, Belgium, although the contest would be better described as a cat homing contest. The quote was included by “father of the cat fancy” Harrison Weir in his book “Our Cats And All About Them” (1892).
"On festival days, parties of young men assemble in various places to shoot with cross-bows and muskets, and prizes of considerable value are often distributed to the winners. Then there are pigeon clubs and canary-clubs, for granting rewards to the trainers of the fleetest carrier-pigeons and best warbling canaries. Of these clubs many individuals of high rank are the honorary presidents, and even royal princes deign to present them banners, without which no Belgian club can lay claim to any degree of importance." But the most curious thing is cat-racing, which takes place, according to an engraving, in the public thoroughfare, the cats being turned loose at a given time. It is thus described: " Cat-racing is a sport which stands high in popular favour. In one of the suburbs of Liege it is an affair of annual observance during carnival time. Numerous individuals of the feline tribe are collected, each having round his neck a collar with a seal attached to it, precisely like those of the carrier-pigeons. The cats are tied up in sacks, and as soon as the clock strikes the solemn hour of midnight the sacks are unfastened, the cats let loose, and the race begins. The winner is the cat which first reaches home, and the prize awarded to its owner is sometimes a ham, sometimes a silver spoon. On the occasion of the last competition the prize was won by a blind cat." - Pictorial Times, June 16th, 1860.
Although The Pictorial Times article quoted by Weir says that the blind cat won, this isn’t clear. A translation from the Polish bi-weekly “Cieszyn” suggests the first cat home in 1860 was “dead,” and refers to the release of a blind cat by its owner on a cold winter night as an act of sadism.
According to that Polish bi-weekly “Cieszyn” (New Era) No. 26, June 30, 1883, while the people of Spain considered bull-fighting entertaining, and the English loved horse racing, the Belgians held cat-races during the Liege carnival held in January. At midnight some locals would be partying wildly, while other were trying to sleep, but if a visitor looked to the outskirts of the city he would see a large number of cats in baskets. Each pet had on its back a starting number, and each was annoyed at its unexpected journey. If cats could speak, they would ask one another why they were shut behind bars and deported to the outskirts of the city. Exactly at midnight, the cats were released to find their way home. As befits progressive Belgians, the sport was egalitarian. Women could compete alongside men. In a display of cruelty, one owner let loose a blind cat on a cold winter night, hoping it would find its way home. Although The Pictorial Times article quoted by Harrison Weir says that the blind cat won, this isn’t clear. A translation from the Polish suggests the first cat home in 1860 was “dead.”
The first cat home was the winner. Its owner received a prize hamper of hams, sausages, cigars and other goodies. Some years, the prize was a silver spoon. According to the report, most of the animals found their way home (it doesn’t mention the fate of the blind cat). Being made irritable by the long journey in carts, the cats scratched their handlers mercilessly in their eagerness to escape confinement and scattered in all directions. Despite this, in the nineteenth century, cat racing apparently gained popularity in other Belgian cities.
A similar “sport,” termed “cat chucking” was described by The Daily Republican, November 14, 1903 in its article “Where Cats are Handy,” which it credited to The New York Herald:
“Got a great new game up our way,” said the gentleman. “Beats golf, ping-pong or automobiling all hollow. What is it? Well, for lack of a better name we call it ‘cat chucking,’ and, as this name suggests, an important element in the game is felines. No spot in the wide, wide world is so replete with cats as Washington Heights. Some of these pussies are valuable and are highly prized by their owners. But the swarming and yowling majority is not, and so when it comes to playing a game of ‘cat chucking’ the participant usually captures stray animals, else surreptitiously borrows his neighbors’.
“About once a month a lot of us get together for a game. We meet at the upper end of Manhattan, where the woods are a trifle thick, each of us bearing a thick paper bag in which is confined a tabby or Thomas, according to taste. These bags are deposited at the foot of a tree and then all hands bolt for home. The bags are but insecurely fastened, and the imprisoned animals have little difficulty in breaking their bonds. Once released, where do they go? Why, each dashes off at once, as a rule, for the home of the ‘cat chucker’ who has brought it to the foot of the aforementioned tree. The ‘cat chuckers’ have had time to reach their places of abode long before the felines have solved their various and intricate problems of direction, and that player whose animal is first to arrive is declared winner.
“When first we began to play a man might enter the same cat time and time again, but it was soon discovered that two or three old and experienced pussies were coming in first every time (fine household pets they were, with superior education and training), to the exclusion of other pussies which had been picked up at random and installed in the homes of the players but a few days, merely for ‘chucking' purposes. So now each player must enter a feline that has been in his possession no more than ten days, or two weeks at most, in order to compete.”
Backtracking a few years, The Scranton Republican, 29th October, 1891 has an advert for Prof. Walten’s Great Cat Circus. Consisting of forty performing cats, Acrobatic Cats. Clown Cats. High and Low Jump Cats, Racing Cats. Boxing Cats, Dancing Cats, Cats that make you laugh, and cats that astonish you by their antics.
Also from the 1890s, I found this report in The Chicago Eagle, 23rd February 1893 and The Cincinnati Enquirer, 9th February, 1895. The reports are identical and must have come from the same original source. While plausible, I haven’t been able to verify these.
Down at Panama the great holiday game is cat racing. In several of the gardens there are houses or sheds, about 100 yards long, and in the center of these are boarded off spaces like a bowling alley, but wider. From end to end of each of these are stretched tightly ten thin steel wires, and at the extreme end of each is a number, which on being touched flies up. When the races take place each cat is fitted with a leather collar, at the top of which is an eyelet, through which is threaded one of the wires, so that each wire has one cat on it. Firecrackers are attached to the tail of each cat and fired simultaneously. The cats give a despairing howl and rush away in the only direction possible, namely, straight ahead, guided by the wire. The further they go the steadier the crackers explode and the faster the poor cats fly, until one of them passes under the wire, or rather the eccentric which works the numbers and sends up the winning signal. Some of the cats have split second records, but they cannot be worked very often or they lie down and let the fireworks have all the fun.
The photo below, of a cat race in Peru, shows that this tradition persists.
Now we come to The Great British Cat-Racing Hoax which is cited as fact even to this day.
The story runs thus: In 1936 at Portesham in Dorset, England a 4-lane cat racetrack similar to a greyhound track was opened by an enterprising hotelkeeper. The course measured 220 yards (202 metres) long, and was equipped with a mechanical electrical mouse for the competing felines to chase. Early races used a hand-cranked mechanical mouse because the track was initially not connected to the electric grid. Up to 50 of the 150 village moggies participated in the races, which were attended by up to 500 wildly cheering people. Female cats were the best racers and tailless cats were not allowed to enter. Later reports mentioned that the dwindling success of cat racing resulted in the new sport fading out after 10 years.
Any cat-lover would immediately smell a rat (and not a mechanical electrical one), or at least a cunning piece of advertising by a Dorset hotelier conveniently located for Weymouth. How do you persuade 4 cats, even ones with a strong chasing instinct, to stay on course in front of a cheering crowd? This did not stop newspapers from the USA to Australia from printing reports of this new sport to illustrate “the crazy things Brits do.” In 1987 The Dorset Village Book, written by Harry and Hugh Ashley (published by Countryside Books), revealed that the news story about cat racing at Portisham was a hoax during a slow news week. The cats photographed being “weighed in” for a race were actually local strays hastily gathered and placed onto a pub’s scales for a photo-shoot. Here’s what the Ashleys wrote:
”The [national] newspapers of earlier times indulged in 'silly seasons' when there was a lack of news. And the reader certainly couldn't rely entirely on the old adage that 'a photograph doesn't lie'. Photographers with an eye for a story often contrived pictures -and in a news-less week in 1936, my father's colleagues filed a story saying that cat-racing was taking place, with an electric mouse, in the village of Portesham. The friendly landlord of the local pub agreed to admitting that it had happened, should he be challenged. Unfortunately, the Daily Express thought it a good enough yarn to warrant sending a photographer, so several stray cats were quickly organised and lined up at the inn, with kitchen scale, as if they were being weighed in. When published, the picture caused a minor uproar in the village. This is mentioned because Portesham is a quiet, dour village.”
According to popular lore, some unidentified pubs around the country have held informal cat races, and I’ll hazard a guess that this was most likely in the skittles alley (a feature of some pubs before American-style ten-pin bowling alleys arrived) and it is said that the last recorded formal attempt to race cats was in Kent, England in 1949 and it was “no surprise” that all attempts to race cats competitively failed.
It’s interesting to see how the press reported this story. It was picked up from the Daily Mail by Australian and American newspapers.
The Sydney Morning Herald (30th June, 1936) reported the cat racing story: “The enterprising village of Portesham, near Weymouth, proposes to startle Britain with cat racing. Forty-five cats are already in training for their debut In August. The promoters plan to open the track when the electric-grid system reaches the village. They will use an electric mouse, and there will be four traps. Already they have had two preliminary meetings. Betting facilities will be provided, and an entrance fee of half-a- crown for each cat will be charged. The first mouse was run on an endless rope worked by a winch, but it was not fast enough. It is suggested that a further development may be to use mice to chase electric cheese.” This report was also printed in numerous papers in the USA. Note that the racing was planned for some unstated future date when the village got on the electric grid.
The Ogden Standard Examiner 14th July 1936 told its readers “British Build Cat Race Run: While cat racing may never displace the “sport of kings” in England, a determined effort is to be made next month. At the village of Portesham in Dorset, a cat racing course is being built. The course, which will have four “traps," will be 440 yards long, and the encouragement for the chase will be an electric mouse. Fifty out of the 150 pets in the village already are in strict training. There are no listed age limits nor classes. But careful observation has proved that the best racers age between two and three years. One experimental meeting has been held in which there were six races. At this meet, a dummy mouse which was on an endless rope worked by a winch proved too slow for the “puss in seven league boots.” Identification is made by red, white, blue and yellow ribbons tied about the racers’ necks. Nothing has yet been done about seeking scientifically bred runners, but one man, on leaving the new race-course, expressed himself as interested in training a breed of mice to chase an electric cheese. “
The fact of the lack of electricity was dropped in many versions and the story suggested that cat-racing was already taking place in the village. According to The Evening News (an American paper, not the British one), 24th July, 1936: “British sport fans are to be asked to go to the cats, says a London International News Service. The enterprising village of Portesham, near the south coast seashore resort of Weymouth, is responsible. Forty-five local cats, selected from the cream of the feline inhabitants of all varieties, are in training for their debut in August upon the very first cat-racing track to be laid down in Britain, or perhaps in the world. The project is to be run on modern lines, with a fake mouse propelled by electricity around a property laid out track, and four traps to hold the cats while they have their natural appetite for chasing whetted by the sight of the mouse scurrying round the track. In theory, the cats will get so mad at this that, when the traps are opened, they will rush out and attempt to catch the mouse. The first cat to cross the finishing line will be declared the winner. Betting facilities will be provided so that fans will be able to place bets on their favorites. Owners will be charged the equivalent of sixty cents to enter a cat for the races. “
The Townsville Daily Bulletin, 8th September, 1936 didn’t debunk the Portesham cat races, but it did print details of the Belgian cat races/homing cat contests of the 1860s: “Following the recent report that cat-racing (trained cats chasing an electric mouse) is to be introduced by a hotelkeeper near Weymouth, Dorsetshire – a report which astonished England – the editor of “Cat and Kittens” has thrown further light on the “sport” in a letter to the “Daily Mail,” in which he states: The following extract from the ‘Pictorial Times,’ June 16, 1860 describes a form of cat-racing at one time popular in Belgium.” It printed the quote already given earlier on this page.
Then things went quiet until – predictably – the next summer season when The Daily Herald of 1st July, 1937 (and others) reported “ Portesham, England (American Wire) - The only cat-racing course in the world was opened here recently. Cats chase an electric mouse over a 220-yard track. The cats run about half as fast as greyhounds, but are more intelligent and maneuver cleverly for position. “ and The Express (USA) of 10th July, 1937 told its readers “Cat racing has been introduced in England this Summer. The feline speedsters race over a 220-yard circular course and chase a mechanical mouse instead of the old familiar rabbit.” Just in time for the holiday season!
The Charleston Daily Mail of 31st July, 1937 gives us this version “And Now Cat Racing. From The Readers’ Digest. The first cat-racing track in the world was opened recently in the village of Portesham, England. The technique used is similar to that of greyhound racing, but Instead of a hare, the cats chase an electric mouse over a 220-yard course, each cat wearing a colored ribbon round its neck. At the first meeting, with bookmakers present to lay odds, a crowd of 500 became wildly excited over a card of six races. At the second meeting, attendance doubled. The cats run at about half the speed of greyhounds, but are more intelligent and maneuver cleverly for position. Tabbies [in the USA this term meant a female cat] are considered the best racers. At present ordinary pets are used, but if the sport grows, scientific breeding may produce faster cats for racing purposes only.”
From then on, the Portesham cat races are only mentioned in brief. For example Shamokin News Dispatch, 11th July, 1949, wrote of another apparent eccentricity of the British: “Mouse racing - with wagering and a regular program of races. That’s what they have in England now. The mice propel wheels of transparent material by running inside them. The course is on a table four yards long. As previously reported here the British have cat racing. The cats chase an electric mouse on a straightaway course. It is always claimed the Greeks are the world's greatest gamblers. I think the British rate that title. They will bet on anything. “
In December 1951, the Medford Mail Tribune (2/12/1951) wrote “The mutuel machine wagering industry continues to grow. California is to have regular quarter horse race meets with mutuels. So now in the U. S. A. we have mutuel wagering on running horses, harness horses, quarter horses and greyhounds. Still all the possibilities for mutuel machine gambling have not been exhausted. There is cat racing with an electric mouse, which is popular in England. In Denmark pigeon races with mutuel wagering are conducted. In France snail races are becoming popular. Incidentally, there has already been a snail racing scandal in France. It was found the winner of a race at one French snail-drome had been doped. The owner was ruled off. What a blot on a man’s record; to have been found guilty of doping a snail.” (Pari-mutuel, better known as the Tote, is a form of trackside betting, in which those holding winning tickets divide the total amount bet in proportion to their wagers, less a percentage for the management, taxes, etc.)
Cat racing, albeit of the impromptu sort, is mentioned in the play “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” (by Keith Waterhouse) about the real-life journalist Jeffrey Bernard best known for his weekly column "Low Life" in The Spectator magazine. Bernard was an alcoholic and also a gambler. The play recounts an instance in which, with nothing to gamble on, he and an equally dissolute companion raced cats down a hallway in order to bet on something.
According to The Bridgeport Post, 14th April, 1957: “Tolosa, Spain - A local shepherd is introducing a new sport at the Tolosa fair - cat racing. But he's using an ancient animosity to get the cats running. They’ll be chased by dogs. “ Again, this is unverified, but it is from a country where bull-fighting is considered family entertainment.
In January 2015, a cruel form of cat-racing was uncovered in the village of La Marina near Tulua in Colombia. The cats were dragged to a back-street by their necks and a balloon was burst in their faces to make them run, while youths banging dustbin lids chased them down a narrow road in front of a crowd. Instead of running down the course, the cats tried to scatter, but ropes around their necks were tied to the legs of the men racing them, so the cats couldn’t escape. A complaint against this illegal sport was made to the mayor of the village, who had turned a blind eye to the event. Animal rescue organisations became involved in tracking down the organisers.