6. Tortoise-Racing is just as exhilarating as it sounds
Watching horses and greyhounds attempt to outpace one another is a thrilling spectacle. But tortoises? Incredibly, when Tortoise-Racing slowly raised its scaly head in 1938, there were some who feared it could become the next big betting lure. As Hitler’s armies moved across Europe, the Reverend Ralph F. Allport of Weymouth, Dorset, was so appalled at seeing tortoises carrying small, plastic jockeys across tables in search of lettuce that he wrote to The Times to raise awareness. âHow would the people who watch them crawl across a billiards table amid ribald laughter and jeers like to be similarly treated?’
Tortoise-trainers in the locality were soon tracked down and interrogated. Whilst denying Allport’s accusations of cruelty and betting syndicates, they were happy to share some pearls of wisdom. Owners of champion Dorsetshire tortoises variously advised singing to the animals, tempting them with bread and jam, or feeding them exclusively on lily of the valley to turn them into rapid-waddlers. Tortoise-Racing seems to have declined in popularity when World War II broke out, but there are records of bored British soldiers racing them on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Greece during the war, using shade and lettuce as lures.
The undisputed home of Tortoise-Racing is the University of Oxford. Each year, Corpus Christi College hosts the Tortoise Fair, in which colleges race their champion sprinters across the quad. The riveting afternoon is not without its controversies, alas. Early in the current century, Balliol College’s multiple race-winning Rosa was kidnapped the night before a race, never to be seen again. Fingers were pointed at neighboring Trinity College, but nothing was ever uncovered. Ever since, Balliol has elected a student every year as Comrade Tortoise, whose job is to take care of the entrant’s training and diet, and prevent any thefts.