In Portesham, Dorset, a four lane racetrack was built similar to a greyhound racetrack. It was opened by an enterprising hotelkeeper. The course was about 200 meters (220 yards) long. Greyhounds chase hares. Cats chase mice and so the racetrack was fitted with an electric mouse to get the cats to run as fast as possible. The track proved wildly popular to locals. Moggies and purebred cats qualified for the races and lavish prizes were presented by the mayor! Then gradually the fad was over and the sport faded away after about 10 years.
Does that sound believable? It sort of does and it sort of doesn’t. The fact of the matter is that this story was run in local newspapers in 1936 but it was a hoax dreamt up on a quiet news day.
The trouble is that such a racetrack would not be practical and any thinking cat caretaker would probably come to that conclusion. However, many newspapers in 1936 did not come to that conclusion. They were fully taken in by the hoax and wrote extensively about it. There were photographs but they were fake in that they were not photographs of cat running around a racetrack but cats being weighed in for a race. Maybe the races where handicapped just like horse races!
Other newspapers were happy to latch onto this crazy story because perhaps they too were having quiet news days. The UK Daily Express (the paper still exists) thought it was a good enough story to send a photographer down to Dorset. As a result several stray cats were quickly rounded up together with a set of kitchen scales to present the idea that they were being weighed in for a race. It is said that the photograph caused a minor uproar in the village of Portesham.
The Daily Mail reported on it and their report was picked up by Australian and American newspapers. The Sydney morning Herald on 30 June 1936 reported on the cat racing story. They wrote:
“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.”
Other American newspapers picked up on the story. The next summer, the Daily Herald of 1 July 1937 reported:
“The only cat racing course in the world was opened here recently. Cats chase the electric mouse over a 220 yard track. The cats run about half as fast as greyhounds, but are more intelligent and manoeuvre cleverly for position.”
The Express (USA) of 10 July 1937 reported to its readers:
“Cat racing has been introduced in England this summer, the feline speedsters race over a 220 yard circle course and chase a mechanical mouse instead of the old familiar rabbit.”
In December 1951, the Medford Mail Tribune wrote:
“The mutuel machine wagering industry continues to grow. California is to have regular quarter horse race meetings with mutuels. So now in the USA 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 France nail races are becoming popular…” (note: the word “mutuel” means: a totalizator or a pari-mutuel – a sort of bet
You can see that the idea of cat racing in Britain became quite fixed in the mentality of reporters in the international press. Even today it is still reported on as fact.
The sake of clarity, it is never happened and as I’m sure you can imagine it will never happen for practical reasons. In addition, in the 21st century, the RSPCA would probably come down on anybody trying to organise a British cat race with a ton of bricks.
Many thanks to Sarah Hartwell for providing me with this story. Sarah as you may know runs the well-known messybeast website.