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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Greyhound at Wimbledon ... and euthanised at NSW


To Federer and myriads of his fans, Wimbledon, refers to the  Championships, the oldest tennis tournament in the world, and is widely considered the most prestigious,  held at the All England Club in Wimbledon, London, since 1877,  played on outdoor grass courts.Wimbledon is one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the others being the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open. Since the Australian Open shifted to hardcourt in 1988, Wimbledon is the only major still played on grass. This is no post on Wimbledon Tennis and its winners !!

There is another sport, if you may call so.. .. … the  last greyhound track in London is facing extinction after the mayor, Sadiq Khan, agreed the site should be used for a new stadium for the football club AFC Wimbledon.It would bring the League One side back to Merton in south-west London from its current capacity ground in Kingston-upon-Thames, which has a capacity of about 5,000. The club has been there after being established in the ninth tier of English football in 2002.  Such a  move would erase the last arena for greyhound racing in the capital and quicken the decline of an already ailing sport, campaigners say. Over the years, tracks in Wembley, West Ham, Clapton and Hackney have all disappeared and when Walthamstow shut in 2008, Wimbledon was the only place left for race-goers.

The growing pressure from AFC Wimbledon for a bigger stadium comes as they climb the ranks of English football, having been promoted six times in 13 seasons.The original Wimbledon FC was founded in 1889 and played at Plough Lane from 1912 to 1991, famously winning the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1988.Fans set up the new club after Wimbledon FC, who had been ground-sharing for years with Crystal Palace, were told in 2002 they would have to move 80 miles north to Milton Keynes and rebrand as MK Dons, following a requirement to have all-seater stadiums.

British media reports that punters young and old are saddened as the most famous dog racing venue in the country prepares to face its final curtain.  The Wimbledon Stadium is not really in Wimbledon. With an SW17 postcode, the last dog track in London is technically in Tooting and, to confuse matters further, sits next door to Streatham cemetery. The arena itself is low and aluminium-clad but while it pushes right out on to Plough Lane, the entrance is at the back, through a series of vacant lots, past an American diner and behind a mock Tudor building that must at some point have been a pub but is now a wood-flooring warehouse painted rust orange.

Something about Wimbledon Stadium feels out of place and soon it will be out of time. The venue closes its doors forever  after 89 years of greyhound, speedway and, latterly, banger racing. It is to be demolished and replaced with housing, a retail centre and a new home for AFC Wimbledon. Perhaps as many as 2,000 people will watch the final night’s entertainment. There will be three-course meals served in the restaurant, pints pulled beneath the terraces and three quarters of the stadium will remain shuttered in darkness.To say that greyhound racing is not what it was might be stating the obvious. Crowds have fallen to around two million a year (an all-time low) and, when Wimbledon closes, there will be only 24 tracks remaining in the country. But it is also the case that the sport has long meant different things to different people. There are the gamblers, there are the day trippers and there are those for whom the dogs are a way of life.

Just as one had seen outside the Guindy race course in Madras, there were people who on every Saturday were buying a copy of the Racing Post and studied the form to count  “That’s 3, 4, 5 and 6,”  listing out the possibilities – the gates would  open at 6.30pm, an hour before the first race ~ and greyhounds would dash in mad race.  As the races begin the young people start to arrive. There were to be 12 races over the course of the evening; eight of them ‘open’, the highest grade of race as it admitted  dogs of any category and from any breeder. For each race the rhythm was the same. The dogs would emerge from their pits, trotting briskly on their paws like dressage horses or en pointe ballet dancers. They are led to the track by their handlers, all of whom wear long white coats, like lab technicians or butchers, and are escorted to their traps. The dogs mewl and bark and scrape at the grilles that contain them then, at the yank of a lever, they burst forth, chasing an electrified lure around the sandy track. The dogs are graceful, expressionless missiles. As they race their handlers perform their own less-elegant dash; a herd of white coats heading to the finish line where they will beckon their animal to a halt.

All that would not happen from now on, it is getting shut down in part because the sport is declining but just as importantly, because London land values are continuing to rise.  This Wimbledon stadium was built in 1928 by “the Cockney millionaire” William Cearns. It is now owned by Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm run by the former Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson. Risk Capital bought the then Greyhound Racing Association and its six dog tracks 12 years ago. Two of the six are now closed, with Wimbledon the third. The twist on this particular redevelopment is that it was the pledge to build a 10,000-capacity football ground that helped persuade Merton council to push through a deal.

“There’s very few dogs left now, to be fair,” said one who  breeds dogs at his Ireland-based stud, Hollyoak, bemoaning  the loss of prize money, claiming that many races no longer make financial sense for trainers. Greyhound racing is not about to die. It is still the sixth most watched sport in Britain and those remaining stadiums are in some ways stable, increasingly owned by bookmakers who up the prize money and stream the action live into their shops (where the real money is).

As the game may have a natural death, down under, a dog’s trainer approached the vet after a race in the Hunter, saying his dog had broken its hock and needed to be put down. Another,  aNew South Wales greyhound owner was able to put down six young, healthy dogs within three weeks of obtaining them, according to internal records.The case, and others like it, have prompted a renewed push by the NSW Greens for a breeding cap and stronger penalties for vets and owners who euthanise healthy greyhounds.NSW’s upper house last year voted in favour of releasing thousands of pages of documents held by Greyhound Racing NSW, the body responsible for governing and regulating the industry.The industry is still preparing for a suite of animal welfare reforms following the dramatic backflip on the greyhound ban last year.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

4th Apr 2017.

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