Going to the dogs

Vague musings on the past and present of hare coursing and greyhound racing in Spain.

Greyhound near Villanueva de la Jara, Cuenca

Greyhound near Villanueva de la Jara, Cuenca

A certain novel of La Mancha, of which I cannot remember the name, introduced to the world

one of those old-fashioned gentlemen, who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound.

There is excellent hare-hunting to be had on the plains of La Mancha, and greyhounds make a couple more marginal appearances in Cervantes. A more technical analysis from 1837 suggests that northern dogs are not up to chasing a hare on an Andalusian summer’s day, that Scottish hounds are particularly brutish, and that the Italians and Turks may be playing a peculiar game of their own:

Esta es otra tribu muy noble entre los perros de caza. En cuanto á simetria está generalmente admitido, que es el mejor modelo entre todos los cuadrúpedos. Su arquitectura es la mas lijera que pudiera imaginarse, y con todo, es estremamente muscular; la elasticidad de su espinazo es tan singular, que no hay animal ninguno que pueda compararsele. El gato, es verdad, puede arquear mucho el espinazo, pero es solo eccitado por pasion, haciendo esfuerzo, y por consiguiente solo por un breve rato. El galgo no solo arquea su espinazo acia arriba y acia abajo, mas juegan sus vertebras y coyunturas de los miembros de un modo tan facil como hermoso. El caracter general del animal corresponde naturalmente con esta elasticidad de movimiento, no habiendo cuadrúpedo que le iguale en la celeridad de sus arranques. La figura del galgo es tan peculiar, que no puede equivocarse con la de ninguna especie de perro.

Hay galgos en todos los paises; los mas hermosos son los de paises calientes, como los de España, pero no son de tanto aguante como los de paises menos templados. Esta es la opinion general, mas nosotros opinamos que no depende la mayor ó menor fatiga de un galgo, de su forma, sino de la temperatura del pais. El galgo mas lijero y sufrido del norte persiguiendo á una liebre en la vega de Carmona ú otra parte de Andalucia, en un dia de julio ó agosto, se cansaria mas pronto que el galgo Español.

En Escocia hay una especie de galgos, animales fuertes y fieros, muy lanudos en el cuerpo, particularmente en el pezcuezo y rabo; la cabeza larga, y el hocico muy puntiagudo. La mezcla con otras especies, aunque le ha dejado la apariencia de galgo, le ha hecho animal feroz, y mas propio de ser empleado como mastin que para correr liebres.

El galguillo Italiano es muy bonito en sus proporciones, y aunque muy vivo, es estúpido y de poco apego. Tiene poco mas de un pie de alto, y sus miembros proporcionados a su tamaño. No sirve mas que de juguete, y por su singularidad es el favorito de algunas personas.

En Turquia hay otra especie de galguillos muy estraños; tan chicos como los mencionados de Italia, pero con el pellejo de color negro, y tan poco pelo que estan medio desnudos. Estos son perrillos de falda en Levante, y de una naturaleza muy fría.

Of galgo the DRAE says “Del lat. vulg. GallÄ­cus [canis], [perro] de la Galia”, but the notion that it is Iberian dogs that are the genuine article is shared by William Graham in his Travels through Portugal and Spain, during the Peninsular War, who nevertheless would perhaps not have climbed over an English dog to cavort with a lady of Spain:

We had frequent horse races near this town; the Spaniards would bet very high on these occasions, and even run their horses against ours, but they never won a race, as our horses were too swift for them. Now I am speaking of horses, let me remark, that the Portuguese and Spanish greyhounds are infinitely superior to the English; this we assigned to the heat of the climate, which enervated the limbs of our English dogs, while the natives were inured to it. I had two greyhounds, one English, and one Portuguese, and though my English dog was counted an excellent light foot in England, yet he was always left far behind hy the Portuguese dog. The Engljsh dog died, on our march, before the battle of Vittoria, and I lost my Portuguese a little after, though I found him again on my arrival at Bourdeaux, in France, he having followed the army in the train of General Sir L.C.____ I afterwards gave him to the General, and I believe he has him still, or may have transferred him to Lord W________ , in whose pack I am inclined to think I have seen him. Many of the officers had their dogs abroad with them. Lord Wellington had a complete pack with him, for hunting, for which amusement no country in the world could afford better materials than Spain, though the Spaniards never hunt in the northern parts on horseback.

During the whole time I have been in Spain, I have scarcely ever seen one truly handsome female; they are all either too fat, or complete skeletons, neither of which can exhibit fine proportions. The inhabitants of the kingdom of Navarre have very bad teeth, which, in general, are rotten. Their breath smells frightfully of oil, which to an Englishman is a very nauseating dose, as the oil they use is not that pure Florence which is used in France, but a rank kind, similar to that which is made in Portugal. The reason why the Portuguese oil is not as good as the French, is imputed to the Portuguese beating the olives off the trees with a stick, which bruises them in falling; while the French pull them off with the hand, so as not to injure, and without hurting them. This creates a material difference when the oil is made, of 100 per cent in the price :—but the Portuguese can not be prevailed upon to relinquish their method for a better.

Aficionados I met before the Barcelona stadium was closed down by a greedy regional government in tandem with animal rights nutters showed the greatest of respect for the British industry, so maybe some things have changed for the better in Europe since Wellington.

I wanted to go to the races at Casasimarro, but the fiesta mayor programme and the notes pinned on walls were not agreed as to the time and day of the event, and the Ayuntamiento was never at home, so I gave up. In his excellent bullfighting blog, Azul, Noche y Oro – El Rincón de Triana, José Luis Arribas writes that the most entertainment at the novillada in the village was had from the drag-ponies, so maybe the dogs wouldn’t have been worth the effort either. As José has commented elsewhere, the companies contracted to deliver sporting spectacles to small village fiestas rarely provide much bang for the limited bucks on offer.

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