Farewell to London’s last greyhound track

LONDON: Once a hugely popular working man’s sport, Saturday marks the final demise of greyhound racing in London, closing a chapter of British social culture in the capital.
More than 20 dog tracks have been dotted around London since modern greyhound racing was introduced to Britain in the 1920s, drawing in punters for a cheap evening’s entertainment.
Wimbledon Stadium is the last one standing, but it, too, now faces the bulldozers — a victim of cultural shifts and the city’s housing crisis.
The timeworn ground, built in 1928, is set to be replaced by around 600 flats to service the soaring London property market, and a new 11,000-seater home for third-tier football team AFC Wimbledon.
At the penultimate racing event, followers of the competitive sport lamented the closure.
Dressed in a flat cap, a beige overcoat, a blue spotted silk scarf and a yellow tie with greyhounds on, trackside bookmaker John Henwood, 68, has taken bets at almost every Wimbledon race meeting for 34 years.
“It will be a really, really sad loss,” he said.
“In days of yore, it was perceived as a cloth-cap sport enjoyed by the working man,” he said.
“But now we have a cosmopolitan clientele right across the age and social spectrum.
And a big proportion of female attendees, which you didn’t get before.”
Once the mechanised hare was introduced from the United States in 1926, greyhound racing in Britain boomed in now-demolished, giant London stadiums like White City and the original Wembley.
Catford closed in 2003 and Walthamstow in 2008, leaving Wimbledon — home of the English Derby, the most prestigious race — as the last venue with a London address.
An all-round cheaper alternative to horse racing, dog race meetings traditionally drew the working class as they took place in the city after work.
Elsewhere in Britain, around 30 grounds are still going, although the sport has been in decline since betting shops were legalised in 1961, meaning greyhound tracks were no longer one of the few places to bet legally.
“None of the tracks closed because they weren’t popular; they all closed because of the value of the land,” Henwood said. London land is at a premium.
The average property price in the wider Wimbledon area surpassed £500,000 ($625,000, 575,000 euros) in December.
Around 1,500 people filled the stadium’s only remaining open stand to watch the penultimate set of 12 races, run every 15 minutes, for the entry price of £7.
The racegoers are a mixture of old-timers, newcomers, hipsters, groups on a tipsy night out and families, some with babies.
Many dressed up for the occasion, with men wearing blazers and shiny shoes and women in evening dresses.
“It’s the whole vibe. It’s cheap, sweet and fun. You have your £2 bet and have a laugh and you’re so close up,” said Theresa Ajid, who was trackside with her husband and young children.
A fanfare announces each race and the six greyhounds are then paraded along the finishing straight. — AFP