Farewell To The Wimbledon Dogs

By Steven Downes Last edited 86 months ago

Last Updated 24 March 2017

Farewell To The Wimbledon Dogs

All photos © Lee Townsend

"Where were you when we needed help to keep this place open?" one particularly grumpy bookie on the rails grumbled at a film crew last week, when the Wimbledon Stadium was busier than it has been lately for its usual Saturday evening's racing.

"You didn’t want to know then, did you?" the bookie barked, with more of a snarl than anything to be seen all evening from the 70 or so greyhounds who were paraded by the handlers in their dazzlingly white coats under the floodlights.

The bookmaker will probably be sadder than angry not long after 10.35pm this Saturday, when they stage the last dog race at the capital's most famous dog track.

It's glib to portray the end of greyhound racing in London as some aspect of the end of working class culture in the city. Thing is, the closure of Wimbledon is as much to do with property prices in the capital and the steady march of the internet than any other 'cultural shift'.

Catford and Walthamstow, Harringay, Wembley and White City, evocative venues of a now bygone era, were all bulldozed as the result of one property deal or another. In many respects, that's what's happening at Wimbledon, too. The old dog and banger racing track which opened in 1928 is to make way for a modern 20,000-seater football stadium and homecoming to Plough Lane for AFC Wimbledon, but will also see built 500 homes — which on the south London property market could be worth at least £150million to developers Galliard.

And even William Hill isn't going to argue with that.

For nearly a century, the dogs have been a mainstay of the bookmaking business in Britain. On their carefully manicured tracks, the dogs would always run, whatever the weather, whenever the horses or football might be snowed off. And the dogs have always provided a steady stream of income for the bookies — 12 races a night, as at Wimbledon last week, means 60 opportunities for punters to fritter away their cash on losers.

It was the change in betting laws which began the demise of greyhound racing, rather than any perceived change in fashion.

After the second world war, around 50 million people went dog racing each year. There wasn't much on the telly then. The track, whether for the horses or the dogs, was the only place where, legally, you could place a bet. The alternative was to inhabit the shady world of Brighton Rock's Pinkie Brown and back-street bookies.

Come the 1960s, and the law was changed to allow high street betting shops. And while the flat cap, flat beer and Woodbines image of greyhound racing has done it little favours, it has been the changes in betting habits which has had a bigger part in the demise of the dogs, from 28 tracks in London 50 years ago to one (Romford), once Wimbledon closes its turnstiles one last time.

In 1992, the government ended the levy bookmakers were obliged to pay towards the cost of staging greyhound racing, and the 2007 Gambling Act allowed bookmakers' shops longer opening hours, into the evenings, providing committed gamblers with even less reason to go to the dog track.

The decline has been accelerated, too, by the arrival of online betting exchanges.

"It used to be that you’d go to the dogs for a night out, and you’d have waitresses bringing your lagers and steak and chips, and they'd come round from the Tote, too, for you to have a bet on each race," one bookmaker who worked at Catford and Wimbledon said.

"But by the time Betfair arrived, the punters were betting there, and the betting windows at the tracks were taking less and less money every week."

According to our bookie, "The big firms looked at the dog tracks as betting factories, with each greyhound providing an excuse for people to hand over their money. You look at the volume of dogs and the number of races at some of the tracks: it was a money-making machine."

According to the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, bookies made £239m in profits in 2015-2016. But unlike horse racing, where the bookmakers contribute to the sport through a levy, betting shops make only a voluntary contribution of their retail betting turnover to greyhound racing. Last year, that donation was 0.6% of their betting take.

But there are signs that the big bookmakers aren't making the money they used to from the dogs any longer and are moving away. Football's the focus of the betting industry now. "Who does the football pools any more?" the bookmaker said. "But the marketing that goes into online football betting by all the major firms is huge." Other sports, like greyhound racing, therefore get less attention. William Hill, who have title sponsorship of the Wimbledon track and the Greyhound Derby, recently sold the tracks that they own, at Sunderland and Newcastle.

In a confidential auditors' report for greyhound racing's governing body in 2013, it said, "Greyhound tracks continue to be significantly under-utilised, tracks had experienced a decline in Tote revenues, and significant increases in operating costs against a background of falling attendances had adversely impacted profitability."

According to figures in the report, Wimbledon was making annual losses of £1.4m "and has made losses of this order for many years… the lack of any suitable alternative revenues have led to significant accumulated losses". Even renting out the track's car park for Sunday markets and for use by a local hospital was never going to be enough to save the stadium.

Wimbledon always used to be one of the classier of tracks, the home of the Greyhound Derby after all. On a spring evening, with the multi-coloured Totaliser board in operation, the lights would shine bright in the dusk. Showing the odds alongside the colours of each dog's racing jacket, it could be an exciting sort of place, almost straight out of an Ealing Studios film, full of Jack-the-lads with rolls of £50 notes and Arthur Daleys on the rails in their Crombie coats, ready to offer better odds for anyone who fancied their chances taking on the bookmakers.

20 years ago, Wimbledon Stadium would have so many race-goers they would open up both sides of the stands for the big meetings. "I still remember the Derby roar," the bookie said. "It could stop the best dog."

But Wimbledon's decline as a venue has been steady for years, the loss of levy money seeing the stadium suffering from under-investment, the sport under-promoted against rival attractions, and now the pot-holed car park leads through to a place which seems to be a relic of a bygone age.

The magic returns once the dogs are pushed into the traps and the stadium lights dim, leaving just the track floodlights to focus on. The hum and buzz from the crowd quickly dies down. The only noise to be heard is the mechanical hare rattling its way down the back straight, picking up speed before triggering the traps to fly open with a crack, releasing the dogs in a blur of sand in their pointless pursuit. In almost a hundred years, they have never been allowed to catch their quarry.

The collateral damage caused by Wimbledon's closure includes the stadium staff who will have to find alternative work, the independent bookies on the rails who will have to find somewhere else for a Saturday night pitch, but probably most of all, it will be the dogs.

The Retired Greyhounds Trust estimates that 7,000 racing dogs are retired each year, and they are only able to re-home half of them. The closure of a track like Wimbledon, clearly, puts more pressure on the network of animal welfare charities in the area.

Dawn O'Brien runs kennels at Horsham which have been re-homing retired racing greyhounds from Wimbledon for a decade. She reckons the closure of Wimbledon will affect 200 dogs, with only half of those being taken by trainers to race at other tracks, such as Romford, Crayford or Hove.

"I was gutted when I heard the news that they were closing the track," she says.

"I used to have dogs racing there. It's a safe track, safer than some others, with fantastic staff and some of the best trainers in terms of dog welfare." With fewer nights of racing at Wimbledon, O'Brien explains, this puts less stress on the dogs, who would not be raced so often.

Closures of other tracks, such as at Oxford, have seen owners abandon their dogs, with one trainer left with 14 greyhounds for two years without any income to pay for their upkeep. "Without any racing, owner syndicates just fall apart, and it's left to trainers to try to find homes for the dogs, which becomes more difficult the older they get. People are less likely to want to take on a dog that's eight or nine years old."

Some ex-racers have been turning up at Battersea Dogs’ Home. "That's the easy option for the trainers, it's a charity, they will take any that walk through their gates."

Since midweek racing at Wimbledon ended last year, O'Brien and her kennels has taken on 45 dogs, what she's calling her "In-betweeners", without any financial aid from the racing board or the Retired Greyhounds Trust. Hersham has staged golf days and sponsored walks and raised £25,000 towards the costs of preparing some of Wimbledon's soon-to-be-retired greyhounds for re-homing.

"The closure will affect us in the future — we always got a lot of free publicity from Wimbledon, Sky would always feature us whenever they televised a meeting and William Hill and Betfair have been generous to us in the past," she says. But with 80 hounds' mouths to feed, that's a lot of dog food for O'Brien to buy while looking for people to re-home the dogs, which are known for being quiet, often dozing, gentle pets.

Doubtless, there will be some fuss and tears shed on Saturday night, after the winner of the last dog race at this renowned dog track is recovered by its handler and led back to the van for the journey back to its kennels. Because that greyhound, and the other dogs running that night, will only be real winners if they are fortunate enough to be found safe and secure new homes.