FAST trappers are all the rage in the heart of the once mighty south Lancashire coalfield.

Speed is on top of the menu among a dedicated band of dog lovers who meet in sleepy Gin Pit village midway between Astley and Tyldesley and just a stone's throw from the giant Higher Fold housing estate at Leigh.

For the men, women and youngsters who form the nucleus of Astley and Tyldesley Whippet and Dog Racing Club, who meet in the A & T Miners Welfare Club built by local pitmen during the 1926 strike, their sport is steeped in local tradition.

And over the past few weeks they've staged successful dog and ferret show events that have brought enthusiasts from all corners of Britain.

On Monday morning club members were tidying up after holding a racing weekend that attracted runners and their owners from as far afield as Scotland and the south of England. And the club is ready to hand over the proceeds of its lurcher, terrier and ferret show to the St John Ambulance, A & T Miners' Junior footballers, North East Greyhound Rescue and Macmillan Nurses.

One noticeable absentee from the successful weekend was the late Graham Cooper, a founder member of the A & T dog club. But relatives ensured Boothstowner Graham's spirit will always be at future events.

His grand-daughter Vicki Harper said proudly: "We scattered my grandad's ashes on the finishing line before the start of racing and the overall winner was presented with the Graham Cooper Trophy."

Enthusiasts arrived at Gin Pit from as far afield as Arbroath in Scotland and Leigh-on-Sea in Essex.

Winners on Saturday were Kenny Madison's Fly Baby from Hartlepool and midlander Mick Buckingham's Classic Rock. Supreme Winners on Sunday were John Gill's Prada from Durham and Astley man Tony Taylor's Bobby Dazzler.

Now we'll take a look at how the sport evolved and look back at some of the top dogs and village characters involved.

The phrase 'going to the dogs' is a familiar one but going 'dog racing' in these parts hadn't used to mean nipping down to the nearest greyhound track.

Lancashire was once the hotbed of whippet racing and miners and millworkers were enjoying this sport by the middle of the 19th century.

Whippet enthusiast Keith Woodward a key lead member of the A & T RDC explained: "The popularity of the whippet arose because the ordinary working man was prohibited from keeping a greyhound that might put him a bit of meat on the table - that game was reserved for his lordship - so the ordinary bloke could only have a greyhound if it had been purposely lamed."

But the lawmakers reckoned without the craftiness of the working class who promptly set to creating an animal that was small enough to escape the greyhound classification but fast enough to put a rabbit or a hare on the table.

The whippet was born.

Some say it evolved from crossing a pure Greyhound with a Manchester Terrier. Others say the Greyhound was crossed with a smooth-haired fox terrier.

Keith's personal opinion is it was a cross between a Bedlington Terrier and a Greyhound which was then crossed back to a Greyhound to get the smooth coat on the dog that is recognised as a whippet., a breed first recognised by the Kennel Club back in 1890.

Keith continued: "My personal experience stems from being brought up in Boothstown, an area along with Astley Green and Tyldesley, that was well-known for its dog men.

"Up until 1926 greyhound racing had been about coursing, the dog tracks we know today then began to take the limelight, whereas whippet racing had generally been about slipping a dog which would sprint over a measured 200 yards straight to get to the 'catcher', usually the dog owner who would wave a rag which was the dog's target.

"Clubs sprang up all over the country and though greyhound racing has been the mainstay of the sport of dog racing for the past 80 years there is still a diehard core of clubs, including our own club at Gin Pit, that keeps the whippet flag bravely flying.

"It might have been a working class sport but there were some impressive winnings to be made.

"Astley man Pe Fiendley ran a dog called "Fiendley's Daft Jimmy" and he and Bill Cooper's "Cooper's Daisy" struck a challenge along a section of Green's Line - a disused railway line that ran from the Yew Tree Pit at Tyldesley to the canal at Astley.

"The wager in the late 1920s was £100 a side!

"The dogs dead-heated twice, so Bill and Pe decided they'd run against each other, but that ended in a dead heat too.

"So they decided they'd fight for the money and then the police arrived to break it up. I'm not sure where the money went!

Astley character Tommy Cooke who lived down Ann Lane by the side of the 'Top House' (the Grapes Inn that stood opposite Manor House Farm at the East Lancs Road junction)was a well-known local dog man.

Keith, who in his youth went on many a racing expedition with Tommy, recalled: "His famous dog Double Six was given to Tommy by a coal mine owner's son whose Welsh Baptist father threatened to disown him when he told him he'd got a running dog. Something to do with gambling I presume!

"For reasons you'll have to work out for yourself Cookey called himself 'Mr Salt' whenever he ventured out of Astley for a day's racing.

"They're still celebrating the day Double Six won the Lord Lonsdale trophy at Blackpool football ground.

"Winning prize money was said to be £1,000 and they reckon Tommy sold the trophy!

"Double Six ran at 19 and a half pounds and was an even timer at 12 seconds for 200 yards. Unfortunately it ended its days in the 'cut' (the Bridegwater Canal that runs through Astley) having developed an illness and that was how dogs were 'put to sleep' in those days.

"Back then if you had a dog under 30lbs weight that would do 150 yards in 9 seconds you'd very likely got a champion. Nowadays selective breeding means they're half a second faster.

"A 28 lb dog is as fast as anything but classes range from 18lb to 32 or 35 lbs depending which rules you are running under.

"Nowadays there are less than 20 clubs nationwide, at one time there were 50, but there are still a lot of whippets. Go to a meeting and its not unusual to have 120 dogs - it's a real family affair.

"The whippet racing season begins in March and runs to September but we still have a big Boxing Day event at Barrow which features about 150 dogs.

"The whippet is a very intelligent animal and quiet except when at the track!

"As a pet you can't fault them. A pedigree whippet will cost you about £450 but a racing dog will set you back between £150 and £250."

*If you want to find out more about the sport the club meets at the Gin Pit club on Wednesday evenings throughout summer from 6.30pm at Gin Pit and all breeds are welcome.