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Going to the dogs
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It is, to be brutally truthful, not considerably of a sport: the frantic pursuit of a faintly ridiculous mechanical hare about a sandy track by six skinny dogs. The complete issue is more than in significantly less than 30 seconds, and the hare never loses.

But it really is got some thing sufficient, say, to persuade no much less an authority than TS Eliot to argue, in Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, that for a nation’s culture to be genuinely comprehensive it must be composed of the high and the well-liked selection – of Derby Day at Epsom, the Glorious 12th, and a night at the dogs.

Eliot was, admittedly, writing in the late 1940s, when Britain boasted 77 licensed greyhound racing tracks and upwards of 50 million punters would pass via the turnstiles every year. London alone had 33 tracks. This time next week there might be just a single.

On a moist August evening, Walthamstow stadium in east London is packed. Elderly males in macs scan their race cards, a pencil behind each ear workplace parties screech as the winner of the last race is confirmed tattooed and shaven-headed lads queue amiably for the hotdogs young dads hoist excited infants on to their shoulders in readiness for the next off in the posh Paddock Grill there are costly tans, a designer frock or two and even a white tuxedo.

Down by the track, the final half-dozen independent bookies – there had been once 50 – and their tic-tac males accept the sheaves of fivers thrust at them by critical-searching blokes clutching crumpled copies of the Racing Post. The bookies gaze skyward for a second, do the sums, scribble the new odds on their boards. There’s a hush as the traps are lifted the dogs flash by in a blur. &quotGo on number 3! Wake up, 5! Go on my son!&quot

According to the stadium’s owners, the Chandler household, next Saturday will see the last dog race at Walthamstow. The venue, by the North Circular and close to the 2012 Olympic site, is worth more as land for housing. As a dog track, the Chandlers claim, it has been steadily mounting losses for the previous three years, finishing 2007 £500,000 in the red.

The punters are not pleased. &quotIt’s wrong to close it, fully wrong,&quot says Nick Steel, on an office outing from Oxford Street. &quotThis is a genuine community here, and they’re destroying it. Appear around you, you have got all sorts. Four- and five-year-old children jumping up and down they won’t do that in front of a personal computer screen.&quot

His colleague, Holly Lieberson, laments the disappearance of &quotnearly a century of history. So much of the old East End has currently gone this spot shutting down is a tragedy.&quot Andrew, a 35-year-old engineer, concedes he was &quotnot the sort of customer who was ever going to make sure its survival, but when you hear it really is going … It’s a side of London I adore.&quot

Andie Pepper has come with her husband, Joe, to show their 20-month daughter Sarah the dogs &quotbecause she isn’t going to get the possibility to see them here once more&quot. Pepper utilized to come &quotwith my grandparents, my parents … I genuinely will miss it. There’s such a buzz here, a genuine electrical energy.&quot

The employees and these whose jobs rely on the location are angrier. &quotIt’ll tear the heart proper out of this community, rip it right out. It really is a disgrace,&quot says Maurice Newman, who has been instruction dogs to race at Walthamstow for more than 60 years. Corinne Ward, a waitress here considering that 1986, observes: &quotPeople never ever retire from the Stow. I’ve got a colleague in her mid-80s. I just feel: what am I going to do with my Saturday night? I enjoy this location.&quot

The Stow 1st opened its doors, beneath the pink-and-green neon-lit sign on its imposing – and now Grade II listed – facade, in 1933, seven years right after Britain’s earliest dog track opened in Belle Vue, Manchester. The sport, descended from the aristocratic pastime of hare coursing, had been imported from the US, exactly where the mechanical hare was invented, about 1912, by an a businessman called Charles Munn.

William Chandler began as an illegal bookmaker in the East Finish, and by the late 1920s was a top-rails bookie – taking bets from the members’ enclosure – on racetracks about the country. His major rivals had been known as William Hill, Jo Coral and Max Parker, who went on to identified Ladbrokes. The new sport had potential: Belle Vue’s 1st curious crowd of 1,700 shot up to 16,000 for the second meeting, and by the end of 1920s, annual attendances at the country’s mushrooming licensed tracks have been totalling 17 million.

The dogs, as they nonetheless are, were a laugh: a tiny bit dodgy, a little bit gaudy raffish, louche, welcoming. They supplied rapid thrills low cost. An excuse for a good night out, plus a bit of a punt. Above all, they were proudly operating-class.

The early appeal of greyhound racing to Britain’s functioning men is easy to clarify, says Lord David Lipsey, a Labour peer and chairman of the British Greyhound Racing Board: &quotAt that time, a working man could not get a legal bet except at a dog track – he couldn’t get credit at a bookmakers. Greyhound tracks were also a lot more affordable to get into than racetracks, and far easier to get to.&quot The sport, Lipsey says, is &quotdeeply embedded in a particular kind of cultural life.&quot Even right now, entrance to a weekday night of racing in the Well-liked Enclosure at Walthamstow is yours for a quid (and totally free for below-15s).

Posher folks did go, of course. Illustrious owners in the early days integrated Viscountess Maidstone and the Duchess of Sutherland. Churchill was an occasional visitor and as late as 1968 the winner of the Greyhound Derby at the White City stadium, exactly where crowds of one hundred,000 were not uncommon, was owned by Prince Philip. But considerably of the pleasure for the nobs, a single suspects, was in knowing they had been slumming it a bit. (In the 1980s, likewise, City boys, yuppies, assorted media kinds adored the dogs, but extremely considerably in a spirit of irony).

Now, although, the sport has been in gentle decline for a lengthy time. Annual attendances hover just above the three million mark ahead of its planned closure was announced, Walthamstow, which regularly utilised to host 15,000 punters, was frequently down to maybe a 10th of that. &quotThe issues started with the arrival of the betting shop in the mid-1960s,&quot says Lipsey. &quotThe popularity of the sport as a bet remains remarkably strong greyhound racing accounts for about a fifth of all betting shop turnover. The dilemma is that fewer individuals are really going to the tracks to bet – now you can stroll down to the higher street bookies or spot your bets on the internet or even by means of your television set.&quot

Modifications to the betting laws have not help: high street bookmakers can now remain open until 10pm, and there is no longer a tax advantage to be had from betting at trackside. Gamblers may possibly be betting £2.5bn a year on the dogs, but they are not performing it in the stadiums. The turnover at Walthamstow’s government-owned MicroTote betting windows was £13m in 2000 final year it was £8.7m.

But mostly, the dogs have suffered from the sheer abundance of alternative leisure pursuits available to 21st-century city-dwellers. Dougie Tyler celebrates his 90th birthday this October, and has been operating a book at Walthamstow’s trackside given that June 1946 (&quotIt maintain me young,&quot he says. &quotAt residence I really feel 89, when I am taking bets I really feel 70&quot.) When he first started, &quotYour decision for a night out was the dogs, the cinema or the dance hall. What cannot young individuals do these days? Though mainly they sit in front of the telly and push buttons.&quot

There is still hope, though. A lot more than 1,400 pubs closed in Britain final year, and the dogs are definitely carrying out no worse than them. And other traditionally functioning-class sports have hurdled the class barrier. &quotThe problem,&quot says Lipsey, &quotis that these days there is no longer any funds in cloth caps on the terraces. You have to offer a ‘leisure experience’ – fine dining and excellent wines. Rather like the Labour celebration, you have to attract a much more prosperous constituency. Football has done it.&quot

Those greyhound tracks that have decided to invest in enhanced, far more contemporary facilities have noticed their attendances surge, Lipsey argues. &quotThey’re faring modestly effectively – tracks like Yarmouth, where you could now eat your dinner off the floor, and Peterborough, Poole, Sheffield, Belle Vue. There are new tracks being regarded, as well.&quot

Due to the fact the innate attractions of a evening at the dogs are nevertheless there, he insists. &quotYou can have a modest flutter, a couple of quid. The action is quick and furious. You don’t have to move from your seat in the restaurant. If you take it seriously, the betting side is a science of incredible proportions. And the animals are, of course, totally fantastic.&quot

And crucially, he adds, animal welfare, long a blemish on the sport’s name, &quotis now effectively on its way to getting resolved 80% plus of retired racing dogs are now rehomed, that’s north of eight,000 animals a year, and the other individuals are place down by a licensed vet. You actually can not run a contemporary leisure business if there is any hint of cruelty attached to it. I can now look at myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed, which I could not 5 years ago.&quot

So what of Walthamstow’s future in all this? Ricky Holloway, a balding and buoyant trainer who has been coming to the track since he was five, says the place’s losses have been created to look much worse than they are by its owners, who &quotjust wanted out, and didn’t especially want there to be any greyhound racing in Walthamstow right after they have gone&quot.

The track, he swears, &quothas never created a loss. And just appear around you: there’s clearly a enormous need for this venue for folks round here the Stow is Walthamstow. Attendances have been up for the final 18 months. It demands to be brought up to date a bit, and it requirements to be managed better. There are 800 jobs right here it could do with half that.&quot

Holloway is masterminding an enthusiastic &quotSave Our Stow&quot campaign that has located backers – an Australian businessman and two regional stockbrokers – for a last-minute bid to acquire out the improvement business the Chandlers sold to this year. Element of the rescue package contains investment in a wellness club and perhaps a casino, turning the venue into prime-of-the-line day and evening leisure centre.

He claims the deal, to which the housing association that would end up building on the site is &quotvery sympathetic&quot, is &quot90% done.&quot Perhaps the Stow will not go to the dogs quite yet.