RAIN'S again stopped play. Football's waterlogged, horse racing squelching on its bets. When there's nothing else on, however, it's a sure thing that they'll be off at Brough Park.

"We've never lost one in the three-and-a-half years I've been here," says Alan Hutton, managing director of the 73-year-old greyhound stadium at Byker, Newcastle. "It would have to be unbelievably bad for us not to race here."

The 50 or so punters dotted round the place on Wednesday morning were unlikely to witness pedigree sport, mind - a case, more often than not, of the slow must go on.

"When's the Teletubbies coming on?" asks a little girl of two or so, confronted by a bank of 13 screens in the new on-course betting shop.

"Watch the nice doggies," says her mum.

"Betting now on Fairyhouse," says one of the screens, though it may not be peak viewing.

It's what's termed a BAGS meeting - heavily underwritten by the Bookmakers' Afternoon Greyhound Service not as an altruistic gesture to Tyneside's two flies on a window fraternity but to ensure that there'll always be racing in the betting shops.

The first race is at 11.29 and synchronised to seconds. You could put your watch, if not your wallet, on it - doing things, as it were, by the bookmaker.

Brough Park has 74 BAGS meetings in the current racing calendar, the action beamed back not just to Britain's betting shops but across half of Europe. Ladbroke's alone reckon to take between £25,000-£35,000 on each Brough Park race.

The bookies pay the course to stage the meetings. "It's very lucrative for us," admits Alan Hutton, though he declines to reveal the figure.

"We have to put in a tender each year," he says. "The money's re-invested in the track and its facilities."

One of the group which helped save Brough Park from possible closure, Hutton is a greyhound racing enthusiast but hopes to return the stadium to the all-round good old days when it also staged football, rugby, foot running and Freddie Mills.

On one memorable evening in the 1950s there was cheetah racing too, the experiment deemed a failure after one of the contestants got through a hole in the fence and spent a couple of hours roaming round Byker, seeking whomsoever it might devour.

A small coach load from Carlisle helps augment Wednesday's attendance, diverted when an early inspection at Catterick races confirmed worst forecasts. "It's a day out, innit?" someone says.

Four bookies are on the steps outside, the sun shining on them, righteous or otherwise. None smiles, as if there's a by-law. None makes his fortune, either.

Alan Hutton explains that the races are "graded" from A1 to A8, and restricted to trainers attached to Brough Park. There's nothing above A5, though last Saturday's open "All England" final attracted almost 2,000 spectators and was shown live on the Internet - or Interbet, as doubtless soon it will be known.

Wednesday's track, heavily salted sand, looks in remarkable shape. "It's like the beach," says Alan. "Tide comes in, goes out, but you can still play football on it."

The first race is an A7, won by Guard The Ball. "A September 94 dog," which means it's a bit long in the muzzle, explains a gentleman known universally as Stopwatch Tommy. Fifty years a Brough Park betting man, has been around a bit, too.

Since the BAGS events began, Brough Park now stages around 230 meetings a year. Tommy not only never misses one ("I have to be in bed dying"), not only never goes anywhere without his stopwatch ("I wouldn't know what to do with my hands") but, a lone spectator, turns out for Thursday night trials, too.

"The standard of BAGS racing isn't very high but I wouldn't want you to knock it," he says. "If people get a hundredth of the pleasure that I've had out of greyhound racing, here, they won't go very far wrong."

The 12.14 is run as we speak; Tommy swears he'd have been on the winner, but professes unconcern. "I always say you'll never get skint not backing a winner, just backing losers."

The 12.44 is won by Pyrenees Racer, trained and bred by Angela Burn from Chester-le-Street. Angela wins £44, has had another £1 on the Tote but still doesn't much care for VAGS meetings. "Too quiet," she says.

Last of the day, the 1.14 is an A8, the canine equivalent of the Crook and District League division four. "Not worth a bet," says one of the Carlisle contingent, though they're betting on it all over Europe.

It's won by Clint Flash, against one or two dogs who appear to have eaten most, if not all, of the pies.

It's not as if the Shady Begonia bar is the last chance saloon, however. In the synchronised betting shop they've had a lunchtime's sport out of Brough Park and switching seamlessly to the 1.18 at Hove.

"Now can I watch the Teletubbies?" asks the little girl aged two.

CATTERICK fell again yesterday, a particular pity since a horse called Michael Finnigan was hot favourite in the Festive Season Classified Hurdle.

Another Michael Finnigan, one of the Echo's Saturday Sermon writers, is parish priest of Our Lady in Washington. Though the horse isn't named after him he has been made aware (shall we say) of its progress.

"Someone told me that it won last week," he says. "I'm not not a betting man; when I was in Wallsend we had a 10p yankee on a Saturday; I got quite good at working out the odds."

As the best runner in the street, he was also in demand as a nine-year-old in Sunderland - before betting shops became legal.

These days his wagers are largely restricted to the National, though the column had persuaded him to invest a couple of bob on his namesake - "not the Christmas fair proceeds, and you can quote me on that" - before the meeting was abandoned. He awaits another chance.

"If questions are asked at the pearly gates," adds Fr Michael, "I'm going to tell them it was you."

AS football managers are known to do, Whitby Town boss Harry Dunn went into the referee's room during half-time of last week's match at Leek Town, intending to have what is euphemistically termed a "word".

The referee told a joke. "Actually," concedes Harry, "it was a very good joke."

Harry - he of the Wembley tash - tried again to vent his wrath. The ref told another. So it continued until the official finally suggested that he and Harry walk out together for the second half.

"I got hoyed out before I'd got a word in," admits Harry, from Bishop Auckland.

As they emerged for the second half, he noticed that the referee had cotton wool stuffed conspicuously into both ears. "I couldn't even shout at him for the first 20 minutes, I was laughing that much," says ever been Dunn.

The gentleman's name? - Peter Whitby. "His crack's brilliant," says Harry, "but he's still a hopeless referee."

FROM the same source (the sedulous Mr Sixsmith) details of how Sunderland's joy was finally unconfined after Saturday's win over the Boro. Sunderland were being cheered off when the scoreboard rolled over from Arsenal 4 Newcastle United 0 to Arsenal 5. For reasons unknown, the disc jockey had been playing Paint Your Wagon. Immediately he changed track to Perfect Day.

AN eye still on Sunderland, Tom Purvis sends a long and ingenious poem by Kevin Cadwallender called The Magpie and the Sand Dancer, based on The Walrus and the Carpenter.

It's about the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle, accompanied in Tom's text - "courtesy of the computer's clip art facility" - by black cats and dancing penguins.

"Alas the clip art doesn't include a magpie, though the other black and white bird is perhaps a close relative," pleads Tom.

Alas, also, space allows the first verse:

The rain was raining on the street

Raining with all its might

It did its very best to make

Houses disappear from sight

And this is odd, because it was

The Stadium of Light."

The six footballers who by the end of 1999-2000 had scored 100 or more Premiership goals (Backtrack, December 12) were Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright, Robbie Fowler and Matt le Tissier.

Readers are today invited to identify the only player to score two penalties in the same FA Cup final.

The final word, and the last word for the year 2000, on Friday.