Sunday morning at the Blue Anchor Hotel, Blindley Heath, Sussex. Pints and half-pints of brassy bitter ale are swiftly and professionally sloshed up onto the bar for the inhabitants of this comfortable, middle-class, mock-Tudor, mock-Georgian village on the London/Brighton road (not quite suburbia, not quite country), who then teeter off for their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and folding of the hands in sleep.
A Sunday nap is not on the program for all of us, though. Not for Christine and Peter, Sylvia and Freddie, Ruth and Geoffrey, to mention but a few. Look carefully at the cars parked outside the pub, gleaming after their ritual Sunday morning wash. From a dozen of them, long doggy faces glower impatiently through the rear windows. And here's Mike opening up the old TR 6 to be instantly smothered by six feet—tip to tip—of Afghan hound with a tongue as big and wet as a house painter's brush.
"Down, Bentley! Down, sir! Down, you great hairy booby!" Mike's tone is concerned. "He'll be all flaked out by the time the racing starts," Mike explains. "Very, very nervous dog. But he's stopped eating cars now. We called him Bentley after he'd gobbled up the back seat of one. Very nice old vintage 1938 model it was, too."
Not many of the Afghans that are soon cavorting around their loving owners have such cozy names as Bentley. The dogs are called Khyber or Kaftan or Khan; the bitches run to slinky names like Leila or Tiger Doll. All are strikingly beautiful with the huge liquid eyes of the sight hounds and long legs that seem clad in elegant pajamas of soft, fluffy fur. No wonder models choose Afghans to totter along Bond Street with: models and Afghans have the same slightly dotty-looking style about them.
It is not a good idea, though, to mention this to serious girls like Christine, Ruth and Sylvia. To them Afghans are still the princely hounds that hunted the snow leopards of the High Pamirs ahead of the horsemen of Genghis Khan, and most certainly not elegant, live fashion accessories. The girls can discourse knowledgeably about the desirable length of an Afghan's shoulder blade and the right degree of tail-feathering but above all they, and male Afghan worshipers as well, have this romantic view of the breed. Their thinking is echoed by the Afghan Hound Association magazine, Think Afghan, which recently advised readers that it was organizing a Land Rover safari to Afghanistan "for the adventurous and fairly hardy" that might well provide sightings of Afghans in their natural habitat. It even published a somewhat hazy picture of an Afghan-like beast taken by an adventurous member who had pioneered the trail last year. The picture would have been better, the article said, had this member's telescopic lens not been filched by a tribesman.
Grooming dogs for the show ring hardly could have satisfied the obsession of such Afghan fanciers and so, since there have never been any confirmed sightings of snow leopards in the hills of Surrey, another outlet that would give expression to the hunting instinct of the breed, its bounding speed and its great powers of endurance, had to be found.
The outlet turned out to be racing. Afghans do not have the speed of greyhounds over a short distance—roughly speaking they can get up to maybe 75% of the greyhound's pace—but they have much more staying power. Traditionally they were hunted in pairs, being carried on horseback until a leopard was sighted and then released to pursue it over miles of broken, rocky ground. Thus normal greyhound racing tracks, which provide for distances up to not much more than 700 yards, are not ideal for Afghans. But they are the only tracks available in Britain at the moment.
There is another difference, too, between racing greyhounds and Afghans. Members of the AHA shy away from the idea of betting like a snow leopard takes to its heels before a host of Tartars.
"This is just an extra activity for members," says David Paton, the society's secretary. "No bets. No bookies. We try to keep away from that sort of element."
And indeed the Surrey meeting this Sunday proves to have all the characteristics of lily-white amateurism in a rather endearing style. The track, comfortingly near the Blue Anchor, is about as basic as it can be—a training site that greyhound owners utilize for a dollar a session. And it does not look as if it will be there much longer. Half-built houses fringe it; cement mixers and other construction paraphernalia lie around.