Forty years of terrier racing in Yarcombe

The first ever racing event

The first ever racing event - Credit: Archant

Farmer John Salter talks to Sue Cade about the history of terrier racing in Yarcombe.

Barbara and John Salter

Barbara and John Salter - Credit: Archant

John Salter is a typical Devon character who will regale you with a wealth of delightful anecdotes about life in the village of Yarcombe, where he has lived all his life.

For 40 years, John has been helping to organise the village’s annual ‘Yarcombe Terrier Racing’ which takes place on the first Saturday in August, when hundreds of people descend on this traditional Devon village to enjoy a taste of amateur dog racing.

It all started in the 1970s when villagers held an exhibition of Parish history in local church, St John the Baptist. The community get-together proved extremely popular, and in the third year someone had a bright idea.

“I can’t remember who suggested it but we all took our dogs into a field, they were taken to the far side and let loose while we called and whistled to see which one was the fastest back,” John explains.

Barbara and John Salter

Barbara and John Salter - Credit: Archant

“Then, in 1974, local man Frank Bond went on holiday to Yorkshire with his wife and saw organised terrier racing across the fells. On their return, Frank suggested trying something similar in Yarcombe.”

Over at the Yarcombe Inn, a group of keen locals discussed the possibilities of dog racing as a way to attract visitors to the village and raise money for the church at the same time. They approached David Meyrick, trustee of the Yarcombe Estate, to see if he would allow them to use one of the estate fields for the race. David is distantly related to sea-faring hero Sir Francis Drake and showed himself equally heroic when he agreed to the use of the field.

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The inaugural event was a Heath Robinson affair with a unique contraption devised to tow the lure. “It involved a pulley attached to a tractor, driving a twin bicycle wheel that could be lifted on or off the pulley to control the speed of the lure attached to one of the wheels with a towing cord,” says John. The original dog traps were created from tea chests donated by the vicar, Rev. Lloyd Jones, who had recently returned from Gibraltar – there was some concern that they might not last the evening.

Although described as terrier racing, collies, spaniels, whippets and greyhounds all take part, the latter having a separate race due to their innate advantage. “In the early days, the greyhounds ran so fast they crashed into the pickup, so we built a barrier with bales,” John remembers. This year there will also be a human race, too, when the Yarcombe Young Farmers sprint for glory.

Each dog taking part has a coloured ribbon attached to its collar to help the judges identify the winners. “There are three judges, usually from neighbouring parishes; one to look out for the winner, the others to call second and third place. There’s been the occasional dead heat, in which case we re-run the race, which not all the dogs appreciate.”

Race entry is not restricted to local dogs. When spaces are available, holidaymakers love to race their beloved pets, which can add a bit of extra entertainment. John has fond memories of past races. “Some of the owners can become overexcited and the dogs can get a bit feisty – we have had cases of amorous canines stopping a race, and dogs running off. Sometimes, dogs won’t come out of the traps at all, or face the wrong way. And the odd overly keen terrier has even managed to slip through and jump on to the winch truck to grab the lure.”

The event now attracts around 1,500 people, some coming from London or making detours from their holidays every year just to join in the fun. The whole village gets involved, putting up marquees, baking cakes and making the racecourse. Families love the carnival atmosphere, bringing picnics and enjoying traditional sideshow games such as hoop-la, skittles and a china smash.

The organisers run what is known as a 10p tote, so betting on races can be done legally without the need for a special licence. Every adult attending the races buys a programme for £5, giving them temporary membership of Yarcombe Terrier Racing and the chance to place a bet. All money raised is donated to St John the Baptist church, over the last few years in the region of £6 – 8,000.

Terrier Racing is on August 2 at Yarcombe Village from 6pm.