The British are fond of ferrets. There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Hatfield House holding one on a collar and lead. For Yorkshire miners in the 1970s, tales of ‘ferret-legging’ – an endurance test whereby two of the rodents were put down competitors’ trousers – were legendary. (The world record is held by Frank Bartlett, a retired headmaster, who managed to endure the bites and scratches for five hours, 30 minutes.)
So it feels a little odd that ferret racing was invented in the United States. Rather than being conceived in the backroom of some raucous Jacobean tavern, it was a Friday night distraction for rednecks laying oil and gas pipes through the North American wilderness. Racing was also an after-work gig for the ferrets whose instinct to explore dark places made them quick and useful assistants for threading cables down pipes.
Today in the UK, there are several rent-a-ferret companies you can turn to if you want to set up a race. A race night will feature dozens of the animals running eight or ten contests over the course of a few hours, but the stakes are not high – usually £1 a time. Winning tickets share the total proceeds minus a cut for whatever cause is being sponsored.
In my tiny Somerset village of Huish Champflower at the end of last year we decided to hold our own ferret race for the first time. We erected a temporary bar which encouraged a good pre-race braggadocio: mock form-studying, loud predictions on outcomes and nonsensical betting strategies.
Five pipes were laid on the polished pine floor, each one a different colour, a box with a trap door at one end and an open exit at the other.