Greyhound racing: Hounded out after a 71-year run

The curtain comes down at Wembley on a tradition unable to compete with pop and premieres
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The Independent Online
AT WEMBLEY on Tuesday night the stretch limos and smoke-windowed Voyagers lined the kerb, giant searchlights fingered the cloud base, and the queues were winding round the block. The Manic Street Preachers had filled all 12,000 seats at the Arena. Around the corner, at the entrance to Exhibition Hall 2, the black-tie mob were arriving for the VIP premiere of Titanic: The Official Movie Tour. And a hundred yards away, across a stretch of puddled concrete, six brightly vested dogs hurtled round a track in front of a few hundred people in a stadium designed for 70,000, and you might have been forgiven for assuming that a sport was dying and an old way of life along with it.

Greyhound racing came to Wembley Stadium on 10 December, 1927, only a few months after Manchester's Belle Vue had opened its doors as Britain's first dog track. Wembley was already in financial difficulties, despite having hosted its first FA Cup final in 1923 and welcomed vast throngs to the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25. The arrival of the dogs provided such a boost to its fortunes that greyhound owners were thereafter granted a fistful of Cup final tickets every year in recognition of their role in keeping the place open. But tomorrow night the last of the twice-weekly meetings takes place at Wembley, putting an end to 71 years of tradition.

The announcement was made three months ago by the Greyhound Racing Association, which sounds to the uninitiated like a governing body but is actually a limited company responsible for promoting meetings at half a dozen venues around the country, from a base at the Wimbledon track. The GRA put on that first meeting at Belle Vue; more recently it was behind the closure in the mid-Eighties of Harringay and Slough, and the sale of the historic White City site to the BBC.

The decision to fold up the Wembley operation was based on the usual economic factors, exacerbated by the forthcoming purchase of the stadium by the Football Association and the Sports Council, whose partnership, known as the English National Stadium Trust, has no plans to incorporate a dog track in its redevelopment.

At Tuesday's penultimate meeting, the crowd was the sort of size that has become the norm in recent years. ``Hello, everyone, and welcome to Wembley Stadium,'' a voice boomed over the public address system, but the announcer could have saved money by standing on a chair and shouting.

High up in the glass box used by radio commentators at football matches, the rites of corporate hospitality were taking place. Under the stand, punters queued up at the Tote windows or sat and studied form over a beer in a vast and underpopulated bar, surrounded by drab display cases containing dusty relics of the stadium's past glories.

Once upon a time as many as 60 bookmakers would set up their pitches in a double row along the back straight. On Tuesday a mere five were operating, standing on battered wooden boxes beneath boards proclaiming their identities, on a stretch of terracing from which a dozen rows of plastic seating had been removed, just along from the maroon upholstery of the Royal Box.

Dog racing at Wembley was in its golden age when Doug Wright first worked at the track for his uncle Cyril, whose sign will appear for the last time tomorrow night. It was 1952, and Doug wasn't yet in his teens. ``I was on the bag at 12 and ticktacking at 14,'' he told me as he took a fat roll of twenties from a dark-haired young man in a scuffed suede jacket. He opened out the notes and put them carefully into his open leather bag before instructing his clerk to record that five hundred quid had just been placed on the favourite, at 2-1 on.

``After the war there was speedway, the cinema and the greyhounds,'' he said, tightening the belt on his check raincoat before turning to his blackboard and adjusting the favourite's price to 9-4 on. ``People were happy just to be alive, and no one had television.'' A couple of boys in black quilted anoraks and yarmulkas came up and studied his board, comparing the odds with the form guides they carried.

``Wembley was the most prestigious track all the way through the Forties, Fifties and Sixties,'' he continued. ``All the best trainers came here.'' It was the home of the Greyhound St Leger, but its fortunes had begun to decline by the early Seventies, in line with the general reduction in the sport's appeal.

A revival in the late Eighties produced Wembley's last legendary night of dog racing, when Scurlogue Champ met Ballyregan Bob over two laps, and bowed the knee before a vast crowd drawn by the prospect of a showdown. ``I think it was injured that night,'' White said of the loser, wryly exploring a painful memory, ``and a few people seemed to know about it. There was a lot of people on the other one, if you know what I mean. But the atmosphere was like the Cup final.''

Joe Simmons was running a book that night, as his father had done for 50 years before him, but he was among those who found themselves out of work a few years later when the promoters halved the number of bookies, having prepared the way by instituting a system of three-month contracts. ``I got the short straw,'' he said. ``I thought about making a court case of it, but they'd got it all sewn up.''

The mood on Tuesday was similarly gloomy, particularly among the six full-time track workers who will find themselves redundant tomorrow night. Cyril Wright was not alone in blaming the decline in attendance on the amount of sport available on TV. ``People watch the horse racing in the afternoon, and they put a few bob on, and if they lose that, they stay at home in the evening. They can't be bothered to go out any more.''

Mike Raper, the GRA's operations director, believes that the problem was not the sport but Wembley itself. ``Apart from the restaurant, you're on open terracing,'' he said. ``And people today don't want to be stuck out in the cold. The business has gone forward, and Wembley has been left behind. We've been promoting a special offer at our tracks - groups of 10 people or more pay a tenner each and get admission, a racecard, two drinks, scampi or chicken in a basket, a free bet, and a readmission voucher to another meeting. But people still want decent surroundings.'' Others pointed to the disruption caused by Wembley's calendar of other events, with football tournaments and pop concerts often forcing the cancellation of greyhound meetings.

After the sport reached rock bottom in terms of racetrack attendances 18 months ago, lately there have been signs of a mini-revival. Last winter Sky transmitted two meetings, and will be back for two more from Wimbledon in January, with a contract for a further 14 currently under discussion. The GRA recently announced the acquisition of the Oxford track, giving it control of six of the 32 tracks currently operating under rules laid down by the National Greyhound Racing Club.

For the individual participants, greyhound racing is hardly a path to riches. Each track has nine or 10 designated trainers, who provide dogs for what are called graded races. Owners pay around pounds 350 for a puppy or pounds 1,000 and up for an older dog with promise, and invest training fees of around pounds 5 a day. At Wembley on Tuesday night, the prize-money for the graded races ran from pounds 40 to pounds 55 for the winner, with the also-rans receiving about a third of that. The rule of thumb is that to wash its face, a dog must run four times a month, and win one race in four. The animal's racing life begins at 15 months and can last, granted freedom from broken hocks and other hazards, for three years.

Sitting in the bar behind the grandstand, Jill Tester watched the closed- circuit TV and waited for her husband Ken to lead Buddys Zulu out for the seventh race. Ken and Jill Tester and their two sons train 40 dogs for seven owners at kennels near Gatwick airport and have been bringing dogs to Wembley since the GRA closed Sittingbourne, their previous base, three years ago (it has since reopened under different ownership). Now they consider themselves fortunate to have been relocated to Catford, another GRA track. ``Some people haven't been so lucky,'' Mrs Tester said.

Wembley, she said, was ``a nice galloping track'', meaning that its long straights gave the dogs a chance to stretch their legs. ``If you've got an early-pace dog, it's a good place.''

Out on the terrace a trumpet fanfare warned that there were five minutes to go, producing a flurry of activity in front of the little row of bookmakers' stalls. In the bar, amid the display cases containing the relics of World Cups and Papal visits, the space devoted to greyhound racing contained a small printed card. ``We regret,'' it said, ``that this exhibit is temporarily unavailable for display.'' And after tomorrow, the only dog at Wembley will be the ghost of Ballyregan Bob.