Spiridon Louis

SPIRIDON LOUIS was born to be a champion – and then named to be a champion. He did not disappoint.

Bred by the ‘Best of British’ in Nick Savva at the famous Westmead Kennels the year before kennel flag-bearer and superstar of the sport Westmead Hawk won the first of two Greyhound Derbys at Wimbledon, Spiridon Louis was a rare Savva blue-blood to leave the legendary handler’s Dunstable base to ply his trade elsewhere.

Of course, he had Savva’s blessing in that, with owner Gail May striking a deal to buy a pup from the great man and opting for one from a December 2004 litter by Droopys Vieri out of Early Flight. May chose wisely – albeit the odds were in her favour, as she recalls.

“Nick had bred champions for years, so you were always hopeful. I’d always favoured proven dam/sires and this litter fitted the bill and proved to be very special – remember Dilemmas Flight was amongst them, too, a fantastic bitch who won the Oaks and made a Derby final behind Westmead Lord.

“However, we weren’t to know then, so it was a case of using my eyes! The first one I picked was sold, but that proved fate once I set my sights on this quiet, long and lean black dog with a white collar and legs. That’s when I chose Mike – naming him after the legendary runner Michael Johnson.

“The racing name was easy. I was watching the Olympic Marathon in Athens in 2000 and remember the commentator saying, “this is a far cry from when Spiridon Louis won the first Olympic Marathon in 1896”. The name just struck me and I remember saying that it would make a good name for a greyhound.”

This was a good time for Savva’s Westmead Kennels. The doyen of the British breeding scene was preparing Westmead Hawk for his first Derby campaign, playing host to Irish trainers Seamus Graham and Fraser Black. “There was certainly a real buzz around the kennel and the sport – and we were a small part of it. Great times,” adds May.

Spiridon Louis’s early days schooling were not plain sailing, however, and May was given a choice to swap her pride and enjoy. “I trust Nick with my life and he was concerned that Mike wasn’t progressing and also the fact there was no stud potential given Mike had no testicles – but our bond was strong by now. He was mine!” she remembers.

With new pups and litters on the ground at Westmead Kennels, some of the older runners were being sent to other trainers and Spiridon Louis went to Mick Puzey’s kennel at Walthamstow where he went through qualifying trials ahead of his first race in a puppy P8 contest over 475m at the Stow in April 2006.

A staying-on third showed promise and victory came at the second time of asking. Then, after a couple of defeats but showing plenty of stamina, Spiridon Louis created a real buzz when running away with an A6 in 29.27sec. He was looking like a stayer but was kept to four bends given his age and, upped in class, won a heat of the Graphite (UK) Derby.

Beaten into second in the semis, he was nevertheless clear to the pick-up, and finished a creditable third in the final. It was clear his future lie over a test of stamina and it was time to take the plunge.

Upped in distance for the Puppy Cesarewitch at Peterborough, he won a prep race before producing powerful efforts to win heat and final. Spiridon Louis had won his first competition and, after defeat over four bends in an open back at the Stow, starred again in a six-bend puppy open on Grand Prix Final night.

The following week, Spiridon Louis really made his mark. In beating the Grand Prix champion January Tiger, giving that classy sort a start and a beating, this precocious talent was now mixing with – and defeating – the best. Owner May knew she did indeed have a very special greyhound on her hands.

However, the best was to come. Still a youngster, Spiridon Louis broke the 640m track record in the heats of the Racing Post Festival Puppy Stayers at Walthamstow and, while beaten in the final at long odds-on after first-bend bumping, had proved himself a real staying prospect for 2007.

Indeed, Racing Post greyhound journalist Jonathan Kay opted for this young star when asked for a canine candidate for a ‘Ones to Watch in 2007’ feature alongside jockeys William Buick and Noel Fehily and horses trained by Sir Michael Stoute and Godolphin. He was in good company.

Kay wrote: “In the shape of Spiridon Louis, a December 2004 son of Droopys Vieri and Early Flight, it could just be that a superstar is on the verge of appearing in a distance division where dominance has tended to be fairly transient in recent years.

“There is no better sight than an off-the-pace greyhound roaring through the field in the latter stages and, while it is probably too much to expect a reincarnation of the running style of the legendary Scurlogue Champ, Spiridon Louis’ final step up to eight-bend marathon distances could be one of the highlights of the greyhound year.”

They proved prophetic words, although the early part of the year failed to go to plan. Defeats on the road at Wimbledon and Monmore had dented connections’ confidence and cracks appeared in the relationship between owner and trainer. Spiridon Louis was moved to Lorraine Sams, a friend of May’s, and another special bond was born between greyhound and trainer – and owner and trainer.

After a period of settling in and time in the hands of sports physiotherapist Ron Mills, Spiridon Louis made his debut for Sams at Wimbledon in February 2007 on Springbok Final night live on Sky Sports and, while beaten then and subsequently defeated again at Hove, the plan remained the Coral Regency – and a run of form which would end in the ultimate accolade.

Lorraine Sam recalls: “He took a while to find his form. We had one or two setbacks, such as wrenching a dew claw at Hove which meant another fortnight off, but he ran on really strongly in the heats of the Regency and we knew the real Mike was back, but it was still amazing to see him then win the semis and final of the Regency, a famous event. We were thrilled.”

The Regency provided a first title of 2007 for Spiridon Louis and plenty of others would follow including the Dorando Marathon at Wimbledon, the Betfred Select Stayers at Nottingham supporting the Select Stakes and the VCbet Marathon – the last named event on one of the Stow’s major festival nights in front of a packed house. Happy days.

However, the highlights were undoubtedly the TV Trophy at Yarmouth and St Leger at Wimbledon. His style of running was thrilling racegoers and he became a crowd favourite in the mould of those whirlwind finishers such as Westmead Hawk and Scurlogue Champ, his marathon formlines drawing comparison with the latter.

Nevertheless he boasted the speed to win six-bend Classics such as the St Leger and Regency and it was that speed which took him him clear in those eight-bend races at Yarmouth for the TV Trophy with a track record in a trial stakes, before victories in heats and final in front of the Sky Sports cameras, the decider producing a cracking duel with outsider Wise Susie.

It was after that success on the east coast when his relationship with an adoring greyhound public was sealed when trainer Sams brought the new TV Trophy winner into the bar area after racing to join the celebrations led by winning owner May along with her father John and mum Beryl, Mike’s biggest fans.

The Yarmouth wins featured in a nine-race summer streak of success which included wins on major nights at Hove and Wimbledon, famously when breaking the 872m clock at the Plough Lane track when winning the Dorando Marathon.

More wins were to follow, but a career highlight was on the horizon as connections now eyed a drop in distance to tackle the best stayers in training in the William Hill St Leger at Wimbledon – a Classic four-round test of speed and stamina which would also produce one of the great training performances, too.

Wins in the first and second round were followed by a third place in the semis – and for a few days it was debatable whether Spiridon Louis would be fit enough to line up for showpiece, let alone win it. However, some TLC at the hands of Sams and physio Mills righted any wrong and Spiridon Louis was imperious on final night.

As Richard Birch detailed in his report in the Racing Post, “. . . no greyhound on the planet would have beaten Spiridon Louis that night. Fears that an extensive eight-bend campaign had blunted Spiridon Louis’ speed proved totally unfounded. He needed pace, stamina, trackcraft and heart to land that St Leger title at Wimbledon.

“Not for the first time in an illustrious career, he showed an abundance of all four qualities. Spiridon Louis made relentless headway to give himself a realistic chance. Lenson Joker, who boasted proper Derby pace, had blazed a furious trail in front and wasn’t stopping. Yet somehow Spiridon Louis, prepared to perfection by his trainer, summoned the strength of both body and mind to pass Tony Collett’s charge in a memorable finish which crowned the most golden of careers with a much-cherished success in the sport’s premier six-bend event.

“A never-say-die effort saw him defeat Lenson Joker by three-quarters of

a length,” wrote Birch and the value of that form was underlined by the fact the runner-up, a brilliant greyhound, would become Greyhound of the Year himself in 2008 as he plundered a clutch of major six-bend successes the following year.”

Spiridon Louis had become only the third greyhound to complete the St Leger/TV Trophy following Lucky Hi There and Roxholme Girl. When it came to the six- and eight-bend scene, he owned it and finished the year with victories at ‘home’ track Walthamstow, wrapping up the Stayer of the Year Award, the Marathon Performer of the Year, the British Bred Greyhound of the Year and the top honour of 2007 Greyhound of the Year. In that particular contest, he edged out another champion in four-bend star Barnfield On Air.

Spiridon Louis won 18 races in 2007, including a winning streak of nine with track records at Yarmouth and Wimbledon, and a clutch of major competition wins – and his ‘battle’ for the ultimate accolade with Barnfield On Air was perfectly summed up by journalist Birch.

He said: “Spiridon Louis beat Barnfield On Air, who at the time was being spoken of by many respected members of the sport as the fastest four-bend dog they had

ever seen. He had an aura which only the most hardened of sceptics

couldn’t be excited by – the fact Spiridon Louis beat Barnfield On Air to the title speaks volumes as to how much greyhound racing embraced him.”

Spiridon Louis continued to win races into 2008 – especially in two live-on-Sky Sports victories at Wimbledon on Springbok final night, then at the Stow on Arc final night. He was made for TV.

Retirement came as connections eyed a defence of his St Leger title. His last race was a fifth place in the 2008 Dorando Marathon on Derby Final night.

In a piece in the Racing Post on his final race, Richard Birch described Spiridon Louis as “one of the most visually exciting runners of the modern era” and quoted Lorraine Sams, who said: “Spiridon Louis put me back on the map. I owe him so much. Last year was just unbelievable. I never thought I’d have a year like that in my whole life.

“Many dreams came true. He won so many races. The Regency was fantastic and to win the TV Trophy in the manner he did was spectacular. Perhaps the highlight, though, was the St Leger – he was brilliant throughout that competition and produced something really special in the final, in one of our oldest Classics.”

Reflecting on her pride and joy on the track, Sams added: “He was a one-off in every shape and form, unique. He loved the attention of TV and radio and was such a nice-tempered dog, a proper showman.

“I remember when I was working with John Coleman and had a real affinity with Kilcannon Bullet. You get that with greyhounds, they are gentle, trusting creatures, and I felt the same with Mike. The fun Gail, her family and we all had with him was incredible – plus the rivalry with Barnfield On Air in the lead-up to the Greyhound of the Year award was memorable! It was tense for everyone, but for us ultimately a wonderful compliment and experience.

“I must pay tribute to my late dad Bill, too. He was Mike’s head chef – his speciality was sirloin steak on the George Foreman grill and a special, secret ingredient of stewed apple –  but he was also one of his biggest fans on the track. However, he’d never watch him live – only a replay once I’d told him all was okay. He loved that adventure with Mike, as we all did.”

On his retirement, owner May said: ”We are so lucky. He’s in one piece, and I just can’t wait to have him home on my sofa – well, he did pay for it, after all! The last couple of years have been a dream. Spiridon Louis has given me so much and now it’s time to pay him back. He has given me experiences I never dreamed of. I am just so proud and privileged to own him.”

She added: “Obviously I owe Lorraine everything – the woman is an absolute genius – as well as Nick Savva [bred the dog] for the wonderful start he gave Mike and to Ron Mills for all the help he’s given us.”

Fast forward four years and, on the night of the St Leger Final night as Sams announced she was quitting the training ranks to take up a post as a stipendiary steward with the GBGB, May surprised her with an appearance with Spiridon Louis – and the pair led the parade for the Classic decider. A special moment for a special greyhound.

Spiridon Louis, or Mike, lived a happy retirement with May his death in December 2017. He was 13.