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Walthamstow greyhound stadium is to close 11/6/2008
Dane Fairloe

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
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.

This 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.

Dog racing 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 audience requires.

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 decline.

"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 says.
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