Style: Saturday Night: Losing track of money

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ASK ANYONE about Wimbledon: it's all verdant centre court, strawberries and cream, millionaire athletes in white tracksuits. On the other side of the tracks is Plough Lane, once home of Wimbledon FC, the pub side that elbowed and nutted its way to the top, overwhelming mighty Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final.

Times are hard for 'the Dons'. They now play at Crystal Palace, while the perimeter of their former ground - a line of stunted outhouses connected by a low wall - is crumbling into disrepair.

These two sporting images dominate. Yet several hundred yards along Plough Lane stands another stadium, spacious, well- designed and brightly lit. It has modern facilities and an inviting ambience. On Saturday nights it can attract more than 2,000 people. The media almost totally ignore both it and the sport it caters to - after football, the second most popular spectator sport in Britain, attracting more than 4 million people every week. This is the Wimbledon dog track.

Entering warily, I am immediately surrounded by a frenzied gang. Not one is older than 10. They are wearing shell-suits and hugging a greyhound which has just won the second race. 'Tony, lovely Tony,' they coo.

Six women in blue anoraks each hold a dog's lead. They are 'paraders', officials who walk the dogs around the track and into the starting traps. 'Go round the other side, I'll see you in there,' says Tony's parader to the children. 'They have trouble getting baby-sitters on Saturday nights,' an affable security guard tells me, 'so they bring their kids along.'

A 460m greyhound race offers 30 seconds of minimalist intensity. The stadium lights are dimmed, except those directly illuminating the track. The orange neon winning post seems to hover in the night air for a second. A flurry of late bets are placed with the bookies who work the enclosure. A bell rings, then silence. A metallic crack splits the air, the traps snap open, and a blur of colour shoots past. By the time you focus on your money it's a third of the way around the track. People are screaming: 'Come on, Singing]' and 'That's it, Jill, G'on Jill]'

Anne the vet, wearing jeans and a grey sweater, watches the fifth race on a television monitor. Behind her, on the other side of a glass wall, is the paddock where the dogs are kennelled before each race. Security is tight at Wimbledon. Nobody can tamper with the dogs. Anne inspects the dogs for injuries before and after a race, weighs them and, if they are badly injured, puts them down. She will watch all 13 races tonight, in case a dog is hurt or bitten. 'They're model patients,' she says. 'If you treated 700 dogs, you might find two nasty ones.'

Singing Forever wins easily. Anne had predicted as much, but she never bets: 'I'm not allowed to.' But she teaches me how to read a form card. I scan the card until I come across a dog called Bet With Surrey. Suddenly, remembering that Anne's practice is in Horsham, which I think is in Surrey, I decide this is an omen, and put three quid on the nose. It comes in second. Later I find out that Horsham is in Sussex.

The Grandstand Bar is a cross between a working man's social club and a railway terminus booking hall. Behind the wire-mesh screens of the tote windows sit little grey-haired ladies wearing red cardigans and bow-ties. Children chase each other through the crowds. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a youth club, but with parents, gambling and alcohol.

The Diamond Room is the upmarket bar, decorated in a style you might call Gatwick Departure Lounge. It is air-conditioned, and drinks are a bit dearer than next door, but it's packed, and everyone seems to know everyone else. Anne introduces me to Mike Flaherty and Mark Sullivan of the Sporting Life, who are sitting with Geoff Piper, of the rival Racing Post.

'Greyhound racing has not sold itse1f for the past 10 years,' says Mike. 'If you walk down Tooting or Wimbledon high streets, you'll see endless posters for stock-car racing. But you won't see any for greyhound racing. It must be one of the most undersold products in the world.'

There was a burst of unsolicited interest around 1988, says Mike, when loud, arrogant yuppies would descend on Wimbledon and throw their money around. Thankfully, their patronage is over; sadly, nothing has replaced them. 'What's needed is someone who'll tell the world, look, you can come down here with a few quid, have a bet, have a drink, enjoy yourself without a care in the world, and go home safe.'

Whatever the marketing requirements, greyhound racing continues to thrive at Wimbledon; on a decent Saturday night the track takes more than pounds 100,000 on the tote. Meanwhile, the merchant banking group Rothschild is behind a recent bid for Hackney Greyhound Stadium. Perhaps 'the dogs' is about to shed its cloth-cap image, after all.

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