Wimbledon: no longer going to the dogs

Andrzej Ryan

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From the outside, it would be easy to believe it had long closed. It was minutes before the start of the Friday night races and Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium stood in darkness; it was hard even to make out the entrance. The walk through the pot-holed and almost empty car park makes for an unpromising approach to the last venue of its kind left in London.

‘It’s the worst stadium in the world’ declared Pascal Taggart, an Irish greyhound racing tycoon, at the recent hearing into the future of the stadium. Taggart is promising a £60million plan to turn Wimbledon into ‘the Royal Ascot of dog racing’. Stadium owners Galliard Homes have worked with AFC Wimbledon on a proposal to convert it into a football stadium.

No one has taken the time to remove a dead Christmas tree from the centre of the track. Taggart and others have accused the owners of wilfully running it into the ground and the grandstand is certainly dated if not quite dilapidated. A little attention could make the stadium a little less charmless but the setting doesn’t stifle the atmosphere. With a race every quarter of an hour and the greyhounds taking just 30 seconds to tear around the track, there’s relatively little spectating to be done. This leaves the crowd to pass most of the evening chatting and drinking, giving trackside the buzz of a busy pub.

I place a bet with the only bookie without an electronic board, who frantically scrawls down the rapidly changing odds by hand. A flat-capped old man standing on a soap box accepts my bet with an ‘of course sir’, while his bespectacled colleague records it in his ledger. Their method hasn’t changed in years; the quiet dignity with which they practise their trade makes them seem more permanent than the aged stadium around them.

‘Come on King Tony, you little bastard.’

Watch a greyhound race without having put a bet on and you realise that you need a slip in your hand to make this a spectacle. It was never the sight of running dogs that brought close to 60,000 to the old White City stadium. Gambling is central to greyhound racing’s appeal while payments from the large bookmakers help keep it viable.

Gambling, however, needs greyhound racing less than ever before. The William Hill branch next to the track provides relief for those for whom a bet every fifteen minutes isn’t enough. Punters here are betting on a sport that’s in direct competition with the races outside. The odds for a race at ‘Brushwood, UK’ flash up. As the race starts, I realise that the reason I’ve never heard of Brushwood is because it doesn’t exist. I’m watching animated greyhounds race around a virtual track; but there’s lots of real money being staked.

There are still serious gamblers to be found at trackside. These veterans hunch over their desks and fiercely annotate their race cards. Many barely exchange a word all evening and their solemn manner suggests business rather than pleasure. The crowd is not, however, all serious gentlemen in macs. Several lively parties of twentysomethings are determined to start the weekend with gusto. The mass of mini-skirts, high heels and hair gel on show is proof that there’s still a younger generation who believes in a night at the dogs.

Yet, the enthusiasm of those few present can’t hide the absence of the many who used to come. This stadium that once dealt in thousands now scrapes together a few hundred. A beautiful new stadium cannot in itself save London’s greyhound racing; if they build it, will they come?

Andrzej Ryan is a writer based in London.

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