Going to the dogs: down to the wire at Wimbledon

Wimbledon Stadium is the last of the 33 dog-racing tracks in London. Now that the owners want to sell, the institution that is the English Greyhound Derby may be about to  leave the capital for good.

The three brothers Monkey, Major and Monty oversee the Sunday goings-on at Norah McEllistrim’s kennels

The three brothers Monkey, Major and Monty oversee the Sunday goings-on at Norah McEllistrim’s kennels

Imagine London without the bright yellow ping of Centre Court tennis; red buses and their forever-Christmas glow; Richmond’s stags – or stag-nights of Soho. Our grotty, dignified, delirious, loveable capital city owes so much to its well-used furniture. Yet this weekend, one such institution may be about to go for good: the English Greyhound Derby.

Norah McEllistrim certainly fears as much. She took over the Burhill Kennels from her dad 40 years ago and has raced dogs at Wimbledon all her life. This dog-eared amphitheatre is the last of 33 that once spread across London. It’s battered and bruised but still home to one of the city’s most buzzy nights out. Yet its owners want to sell. The proposal for an updated greyhound track will have to fight off those from property developers and football clubs if it is to secure the future of “the dogs” in London.

To Norah it is clear that the “greed of the bookies and the builders” is to blame for the sorry state of her sport. As house prices continue to soar, developers eye up the land on which this stadium sits. New flats and a new stadium for Wimbledon AFC could squeeze the last dog-racing track out of the capital. Meanwhile, a decline in the popularity of the dogs – and the rise of a betting industry that prefers to make money from gambling machines than from animals – squeezes prize money and sucks back what many perceive as an unfair share of the profits.

And some might think such an end is only appropriate to a sport where money-lust is such a big part of its identity. Back in the 1940s, when over 60,000 attended the Derby Final, the dog track was one of the few places where the working class could make a legal bet. You could say “the dogs” are the story of our city – a place where everyone chases their own automated, fluffy pink lures and the lucre they promise. But greed is not the whole of London’s story – and it’s not the whole story of greyhound racing either.

Norah McEllistrim explains a racing technique

Sunday mornings at Laura’s kennels in leafy, suburban Hersham are a hive of activity – the comings and goings all overseen by “Monkey”, “Major” and “Monty”, three retired greyhound brothers who Norah refuses to ever split up. “Glenvale Rosie » is straining at the lead of her owner Bob Boswell; his wife Paula is dishing out treats of boiled meat and last night’s left-over pasta; young Gemma is busy trimming toenails; Norah is updating other owners on the ups and downs of this week’s races; and old-timer Mary is handing around cups of steaming tea. Julie, an instructor at LA fitness, is one of the kennel’s newest owners and is making sure I capture her glamorous, golden greyhound from the very best angle. She was introduced to the sport by her partner, who now clearly has a rival for her affections.

There’s a post-war spirit around these 1920s-built kennels; a coming together and a knuckling down of people with a shared passion. It’s a sense of community that animals, and sports, seem especially capable of inspiring. And it’s also something that can feel increasingly hard to come-by in our cramped yet cut-off city, where wifi is often the only thing that gets between the walls.

Bob, who works in social housing and chairs the Wimbledon Greyhound Owners Association, explains that “most owners don’t get into it for the money”- and this seems a reasonable analysis in a sport where less and less stand a chance of making any. A recent report by Deloitte found that, far from making profits, owners and trainers effectively subsidise the industry to the tune of £20m a year.

After the initial outlay (which can be anything between £300-£2,000 for an average grade level racer) there’s still the monthly kennel bills of around £220 per dog. Though some of this can be made back through appearance fees and winnings, owners’ returns are falling and trainers are having to eek out ever more narrow existences. Norah senses that her young apprentice Gemma has missed “the best days” and that they won’t come again.

Rosie takes Bob Boswell for a walk at Norah McEllistrim’s kennels

Yet Norah’s fears go far beyond nostalgia for a more flush era. The failure of the bookmakers to return to the industry a fair proportion of their annual £237m gross win makes her bitterly angry. And not on her own account, but on that of the dogs – who need all the support they can get.

The cases of cruelty, culling and abandonment of the animals after their short-lived careers are well documented, but in recent years sport lovers like Norah have helped spur sweeping reforms. Programmes such as Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare now find “forever homes” for many retired dogs while providing sanctuary, sponsorship and regular spoiling for those that are unsuited to life as pets. Alongside this, conscientious trainers, like Norah, refuse ever to put a healthy dog down. While many of the owners at Norah’s kennels plan to, or have already taken their retired dogs home as pets, she makes a point of keeping and finding homes for all those who don’t.

Undoubtedly there’s still work to be done before all British greyhounds are treated with such compassion. But care costs money and even though the bookmakers voluntarily contribute substantially more to the sport than they did a decade ago, many believe the amount still falls short. In horseracing, bookmakers pay a compulsory levy on bets (a form of state aid, which, since joining the EU, would now be illegal to extend to greyhounds), but which many horse owners also consider stingy. In greyhound racing, the levy is voluntary – and, as betting on greyhound racing falls, it becomes ever less valuable. There is hope that a “racing right”, proposed in this year’s Budget, might give horse-racing a greater chance of striking a commercially fair deal. Yet while Lord Lipsey, ex-chairman of the British Greyhound Racing Board, sees “no logical reason” why this proposal shouldn’t also be extended to the greyhounds, he’s still doubtful whether this will get around EU law.

Julie and Swift Debbie strike a pose with Norah at her kennels

Norah at her kennels with some of the dogs

Sadly, money is still the sport’s bottom line. The Wimbledon track won’t be folding for lack of owners’ passion. But the trouble is that for all their love, greyhound racing is struggling to arrest its long-term decline. If it is to survive, it needs to rediscover its mass appeal. In the centre of the world’s most popular city, Wimbledon’s dog track could lay claim to many more than the thousand-odd spectators it attracts on an average night. But, as Lord Lipsey puts it, people still associate it with “the slightly seedy and old fashioned air of men in cloth caps – and don’t know the modern version with cheap meals, drinks and great action every 15 minutes.” As football has done so well, greyhound racing has to sell itself to London’s middle classes.

At the Wimbledon dog track, an easy-going inclusive glow still radiates off the polished pine tables and the sky blue paint, encompassing the flat-capped bookies, the kids munching hot-dogs and the buzz of twenty-somethings on an alternative lads night out. It was once known as “the poor man’s horse-racing” and, although now re-fitted and re-styled (on the inside at least) with plasma screens and diner-style restaurant booths, it is still a place where anyone can makes themselves at home with a pint and a punt. In its own low-key way it effortlessly embodies the retro spirit that Shoreditch’s hip cafes charge so much to re-create. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be a goldmine in its own right. Your visit this weekend could be just the William Hill [pill] this special part of London needs.

All photographs by India Bourke