Is dog racing, like Mick the Miller, now a museum
piece? The news that Walthamstow greyhound stadium is to close on August 16 was
no great shock to anyone "in the know" (as all dog-racing people strive to be).
The track had made losses over the past three years, including last year of
£500,000, and in the end it was simple financial sense to sell the land
to residential developers.
Mick the Miller
Walthamstow has lived for
75 years, which isn't so bad in a radically changed world. It was the creation
of a Hoxton-born bookmaker, William Chandler, who sold his shares in Hackney
(the track whose land is now part of the 2012 Olympic site) in order to buy,
for £24,000, an unlicensed dog track in Chingford. This was in 1933,
seven years after the first ever dog meeting, during which time annual
attendances had grown to upwards of 20 million and tracks were springing up all
over Britain's cities. Dog racing was at its height, watched by working men and
aristocrats and celebrities like Amy Johnson and Gracie Fields; the invincible
Mick the Miller was coming to the end of his career, his stellar qualities
having given to the sport an identity, a name, an emotional focus.
was the world into which Walthamstow was born. It is a world that hasn't
existed for 50 years, when the slow decline began. The low point was reached in
1984, when the jewel in the sport's crown, White City, was sold, the value of
its land being greater than could be generated by the stadium; now, the same
fate has befallen Walthamstow. The loss of White City was made more bearable
because the Stow glittered on, seemingly indestructible.
Walthamstow is the latest of 20 dog tracks to shut
in the UK over the past decade. When it closes on August 16, Wimbledon will be
the only stadium left in London.
Terry Jones, a semi-professional
punter who watches dog racing for hours each day and regularly wagers up to
£1,000 on a race, speaks for many of those attending last Thursday's
Walthamstow meeting. "This is the biggest pub in the country on a Saturday
night. The closure is going to kill the community," he says.
is estimated by the British Greyhound Racing Board (BGRB) to be a £2.5bn
betting industry in the UK, but it has become increasingly difficult for track
owners, bookies and dog trainers to make a living. Walthamstow - seen as the
sport's iconic centrepiece - regularly used to pull in 15,000 people; now it is
lucky to see a 10th of that number.
The reasons for its demise are
numerous. The stadium is too small to diversify into other leisure activities,
but its capacity means it has to employ more staff than the size of the
The biggest challenge, however, was the abolition of
general betting duty in 2001, which allowed punters to gamble away from the
course without paying tax. Further developments in the gaming market have also
hit the stadium. "The betting shops have been allowed to remain open during the
evenings and there has been a massive upswing in business for Betfair and other
internet sites," says Chandler.
The turnover from the Tote - the
government-owned bookmaker - underlines the difficulties. In 2000 the Tote's
turnover at Walthamstow was £13.3m; last year it was £8.7m. Bookies
are making record amounts from greyhound betting off-track, but the money is
not coming to the stadia.
A further blow is the lack of a levy. While
bookies are obliged to pay 10pc of their gross profits from horse racing back
to the sport, greyhound racing has a voluntary levy scheme of 0.6pc. Last year
that yielded just £11.5m.
Despite the challenges, Richard
Hayler, the general secretary of the BGRB, is adamant that the UK's 30
remaining dog tracks can survive. He claims that while attendances are falling
- down from 3.52m in 2005 to 3.32m in 2006 - the sport is not in terminal
"Greyhound racing has suffered a difficult few years, but not
out of line with other businesses in the leisure sector," he says. "The
'regulars' - the bread-and-butter greyhound-racegoers - are just not turning up
in the numbers they once did."
Many of the tracks are making an
effort. Five tracks across the country have approached the British Greyhound
Racing Fund for part-assistance towards six-figure refurbishment projects
during the past 12 months.
Risk Capital Partners, the investment
vehicle of Luke Johnson, the Channel 4 chairman, owns Wimbledon and five other
tracks through the Greyhound Racing Association, bought for £50m in 2005.
The group has set up a betting function on its website to allow punters to bet
from home and support the tracks.
The BGRB claims that 11 out of 15 of
the stadia to have reported attendances in April have seen an increase against
the same period a year earlier. Hayler is adamant that the future is bright.
"The potential for greyhound racing to grow is undoubted, although the closure
of Walthamstow is unlikely to be the last bump along the road to get there," he