A brave new world is going to the dogs

Patrick Tooher weighs the odds against Hackney's stadium
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The Independent Online
DOWN a dimly lit street, opposite a caravan site in the middle of an industrial wasteland dotted with derelict warehouses, silhouetted figures stare as a bonfire rages.

It could be a scene straight out of Blade Runner. But this is the approach road to Hackney Greyhound Stadium, one of the most famous landmarks in London's run-down East End.

Inside Hackney's new, pounds 10m East Stand, however, a more relaxed atmosphere prevails. In a three-tiered, glass-fronted restaurant running the length of the home straight, diners sample a meal of pheasant and lentil soup, foie gras and sorbet served up by a Michelin star-winning chef.

Greyhounds flash past the winning-post, a few cheers go up, but there is not a cloth cap in sight. This could be the future of greyhound racing, a brave new world of shiny suits and mobile phones where liveried waiters take bets at your table.

Unfortunately, the biggest race now on is to find a buyer for the state- of-the-art stadium itself. Three weeks ago, on the very night of the grandstand's official gala opening, Hackney went into receivership after banks, led by the Bank of Scotland, and institutional shareholders refused to provide more money to keep the operation ticking over.

A for sale advertisement duly appeared in the Financial Times highlighting Hackney's 63 years in the greyhound racing business.

According to Alan Barrett of receivers Price Waterhouse, almost 100 inquiries have been received. He hopes to conclude a sale, and secure the stadium's 200 jobs, by Christmas.

But commentators say the receivers will be lucky to get pounds 5m-pounds 6m for the stadium - a fraction of the estimated pounds 20m spent since Fleetfoot Racing bought Hackney from the Brent Walker leisure conglomerate two years ago.

The idea for transforming Hackney into a super-stadium comes from Robert Parker, a greyhound bloodstock agent and former racing journalist. He was removed from his position as managing director of Fleetfoot last year just weeks before work on the new stand began.

Further boardroom upheaval followed; in the month before the new stand opened, both Hackney's finance director and and its operations controller resigned.

"Hackney had very big ideas," says a rival track operator. "The stadium materialised but the cash flow hasn't."

Hackney is one of several dog tracks currently on the market, the latest victim of the National Lottery scratchcard craze and of a local economy where property prices are still in free-fall. It is also in direct competition with two nearby tracks, Walthamstow and Romford.

But Hackney's problems go far deeper than that. Apart from the doubtful economic viability of staging evening meetings four times a week, prospective buyers are concerned about the commercial wisdom of charging pounds 40 a head for cordon bleu cuisine at a dog track in a bleak post-industrial wilderness.

"What is the primary motivation for going to Hackney?" asks Paul Austin, a spokesman for Ladbroke, one of several bookmakers interested in acquiring Hackney. "If it is to watch greyhound racing, then the new stand looks like a white elephant."

Hackney now has a capacity of 11,000, yet average attendances total 750, including restaurant-goers.

Having lost pounds 2m in the year to last December - admittedly when Hackney was little more than a building site - the directors are predicting a turnaround.

In a promotional brochure, they reckon sales in the first year of the new stand's operation could almost quadruple to pounds 7.5m and make an operating profit of pounds 1.5m, rising to pounds 2.5m on turnover of pounds 8.5m the following year.

But such projections are no more than optimistic guesswork. "Nobody knows how much the new stadium is capable of generating," says Price Waterhouse's Alan Barrett. "It has only been trading for six weeks."

Others have already decided against making a leap into the dark. "We did look into Hackney," says Mike Raper, director of Wembley-owned GRA, which operates six of Britain's 36 dog tracks. "But we didn't think it would generate the return on capital required for our business. It was not a viable proposition at the asking price."

There are rumours that the new stand might be mothballed or the site bulldozed completely unless a buyer is found soon.

Such apocalyptic talk somehow seems appropriate amid the rubble of the Hackney hinterland.