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Is there life in the old dog yet?

17 August 08 20:56 GMT

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

After 75 years, east London's famous Walthamstow stadium faces closure in a pattern that has seen tracks shut down all over the country. So has British greyhound racing run its course?

Watching a mechanical hare - kitted out in fluorescent orange jacket - being frenetically pursued by six greyhounds might seem like an odd spectator sport.

But on a wet and windy August evening, east London's iconic landmark is packed.

Middle-aged men in beige macs huddle over race cards, circling numbers and scribbling notes, trackside diners dine on chicken and chips, families chat excitedly and office parties congregate at the bar.

By the track, half a dozen independent bookies stand under brightly coloured umbrellas, taking bets from men with crumpled copies of the Racing Post.

Suddenly a hush descends, six greyhounds sprint out of the traps, and for 30 seconds the crowd screams at the dogs before the race culminates in a rapturous applause, just about outlasted by the mumbles from disappointed losers.

Mixed emotions

The cacophony of noise neatly encapsulates the atmosphere in the stadium.

Many punters bemoan the imminent closure of "their" track - which first opened its doors in 1933 - but the races are interspersed with "Save our Stow" rallies, raising cheers and offering a glimmer of hope.

"Walthamstow Stadium is Europe's number one greyhound stadium - and we want it to stay this way - no more big brother builders," bellows trainer Ricky Holloway, who is leading the "Save our Stow" campaign.

The Chandler family announced they had sold Walthamstow Stadium - which is by the North Circular and close to the 2012 Olympics site - to property developers in May, citing falling profits and attendances.

But "Save our Stow" wants developers London and Quadrant Housing Trust (L&Q), who are planning to use about 50% of the land for affordable housing, to accept a last-minute rescue bid - backed by an Australian businessman and two local stockbrokers - to safeguard greyhound racing at the stadium.

L&Q confirmed the consortium has offered £1m more than their purchase price.

'Feel sick'

The campaigners are not alone in wanting to save Walthamstow - many of the paying public agree.

"Walthamstow Stadium is like St Paul's, the Tate Modern and the Science Museum - an iconic part of London," says Claire Walker, who is visiting with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, niece and nephew.

The 36-year-old says she used to work at a local hospice and the stadium provided the perfect antidote because it was "full of life and vibrant, like its own planet".

Joan Lawrence, 62, is on an annual darts social. She used to parade dogs around Walthamstow in the 1960s, has four retired greyhounds at home and has "worked in the industry on and off for 45 years".

"I feel terrible about the stadium closing," she says. "Most of the community does - I found 'SOS Save our Stow' carved into a local dartboard the other day."

Others have come for the novelty factor or to say their goodbyes.

"I used to come stock car racing and dog racing here as a teenager," says 54-year-old Colin Goldberg.

But some employees whose livelihoods are in danger are angrier.

"After 40 years it is a stab in the back," says 79-year-old independent bookmaker Ron Bazell.

Dougie Tyler, 90, who has been running a book at Walthamstow's trackside since 1946, agrees: "I feel sick, this place means everything to me - I'll be crying my eyes out when it closes."

'Snowball effect'

In recent years, dog tracks have been closing in rapid succession all over the country.

According to the 1989 National Greyhound Racing Club Book of Greyhound Racing, at the end of the 1940s, 50 million punters went to the dogs at 109 tracks across Britain, with attendances reaching 30,000 at White City and Wembley in one night alone.

Now the number of race tracks has fallen to 29 and annual attendances are just over three million - the British Greyhound Racing Board estimates 4,500 people attended Walthamstow every week in 2007.

So how significant is the closure of Walthamstow to the future of the sport?

Mark Wallis, who is a contract trainer at Walthamstow, says the "premier track" closure is "like horse racing losing Ascot or Cheltenham".

He says the sale of Walthamstow will have a "snowball effect" on the industry because most of the best "runners" are supplied by London-based owners who use Walthamstow on a regular basis.

And he says breeding in Ireland will also suffer because a large amount of the top dogs currently go to Walthamstow.

Adapt to new audiences

But a spokesman from the British Greyhound Racing Board says although the closure of Walthamstow was "a very sad day for sport" it did not reflect a demise in greyhound racing.

He says £2.5bn is staked on the sport every year, but changing betting laws and improved technology has led to more people betting online, through their TV or in betting shops.

And greyhound tracks which have invested in improved, modern facilities, fine dining and the "leisure experience" - such as Yarmouth, Peterborough and Wimbledon - are seeing visitor numbers surge.

He says the challenge is for tracks is to adapt to new audiences.

"Historically, mining villages in the north were a hotbed of greyhound tracks - most of the working class households had a greyhound and used to race them as a social activity," he says.

"Now work parties, groups of friends, hens and stags are increasingly turning to greyhound racing for an evening's entertainment."

This entertainment has attracted celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Vinnie Jones to Walthamstow Stadium - and Blur featured a classic race image on the front of their Parklife album.

Sir Winston Churchill addressed 20,000 people at the stadium in 1945, two days before the country went to the polls, "draped in red, white and blue" with the "setting sun spotlighting the platform," according to a Times extract.

Whether Mr Holloway's rally will have a better outcome than Churchill's is anyone's bet.

But L&Q says it is "open to listening to Mr Holloway's proposal".

There might be life in the old dog yet.

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