Track-life: Damon's day at the races

The biggest spectator sport after football. The face of city sports is changing, says Decca Aitkenhead
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Damon Albarn, toothsome star of Britpop band Blur, bought a greyhound last month, the improbable purchase was widely regarded as another piece of mockney posturing. A nice middle-class boy from the Home Counties, Albarn's pseudo-romance with the working-class East End, assumed cockney twang and all, is infamous. But if, in buying the dog Honest Guv, Albarn hoped to buy into a bit more cockney credibility, he was sadly mistaken. For the sport always billed as horse racing's poor relation has now grown into its hip younger brother.

"I really haven't got a clue what's going on, but it doesn't seem to matter," says Alex Poirides, 25. "All I know is, every few minutes the lights go out and I shout like mad. Well, a load of people shout like mad, actually, and I know it sounds funny, but it really is a good laugh."

Poirides is out drinking with friends on a balmy Thursday night. Young doctors from Hampstead and London's West End, they are the kind you would expect to find in the bars of Covent Garden or Camden. To encounter them deep in the East End on the terraces of Walthamstow Greyhound Stadium is startling. More remarkable still, they look not one bit out of place.

The pink and green neon of Walthamstow stadium glows like the diner in Grease, a monument of kitsch drawing crowds of well over 2,000 on this Thursday night. "The Stow" is on the scale of a lower league football ground, but as we make our way through to the Paddock restaurant it becomes clear that the venue offers something very different from a midweek spectator sport. We pass a restaurant on the other

side of the track, private boxes below, and a bar and a function lounge upstairs, before reaching our table in the crowded and rowdy restaurant overlooking the track.

The tables are tended by impressively patient waitresses, happy to guide you through the bewildering complexities of the betting system. In no time we've picked our numbers and laid our bets, the lights have dimmed, six dogs spray out from the traps and the room erupts into cacophony of roars. By the first bend I'm shrieking like Eliza Doolittle.

"I'd like to say I knew what I'm doing, but the truth is I've had seven losers in seven races. I guess you could say I'm a trifle unlucky - but that's not what matters. It's just a really good night out." Martyn Price, 31, is entertaining some clients. They've travelled 50 miles to get here and it's not a cheap night out: dinner averages maybe pounds 20 a head, and he's betting pounds 20 a race. But spirits are high: "It's more entertaining than going down the pub, isn't it?"

Greyhound racing began in Manchester in 1926, a time of few leisure entertainments for working-class people. As an urban sport, run at night, it also offered them the only opportunity to bet, for there were no bookmakers' shops.

"That was the heyday of the dogs," explains Geoffrey Thomas, chief executive of the National Greyhound Racing Board. But by the 1950s it had acquired an unsavoury reputation while television was providing alternative entertainment. And, in 1961, off-track betting shops opened.

In 1985, greyhound racing's total national turnover stood at pounds 63m. By the early 1990s, however, it had risen to more than pounds 100m. In marketing parlance, it had begun competing for the leisure pound as well as the gambling pound - introducing proper restaurants and facilities, squiring a few celebrity dogs such as Ballyregan Bob ("every sport needs its stars," sighs Thomas), and shedding the last vestiges of the seedy dog track image. After football, greyhounds are Britain's second-biggest spectator sport.

"I don't understand odds or how the betting works," admits Poirides, "but every quarter of an hour I give that bloke over there a quid, and somehow I seem to be winning. It's brilliant." Sure enough, Poirides's dog comes in again. It was, mind you, the choice of practically every punter in the place - and with a name like Camilla's Prince, this is probably unsurprising.

Shoulder to shoulder with the uninitiated stand the serious punters. Tara Elliot, 21, has been coming here with her boyfriend David, a shop assistant from Essex, once a week for as long as she can remember; he and his family recently bought a dog, Wallaby Boy. "You'd think the best thing about owning a dog is the feeling when it wins," he explains. "It's a brilliant feeling, all right - but still not as good as the feeling you get when you take it for a walk on a Sunday and everyone's looking."

Wallaby Boy and Honest Guv are trained by Chris Duggan, one of the official trainers for the track. The dogs don't come cheap; trainers' fees are about pounds 150 a month, and the best dogs can fetch up to pounds 20,000. But as the sport becomes more fashionable, the disparity of wealth and style among those involved is beginning to pose a threat. For some, like Albarn, it may be a fashion; to others, like David and Tara, the dogs are an abiding passion.

"You see, greyhound racing has really reached a crossroads. Do we cater for the aspirant market - people who don't come often, but spend more when they do? The corporate entertainment potential is huge, but how do we do that without forgetting our roots?" worries Thomas.

"Dog racing may be back in vogue, and that's great. But we have to be careful. The heart and soul of greyhounds have to be accommodated."

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