Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, the last of its kind in London, will host its final race on Saturday.
Following months of uncertainty, it's being pulled down to make way for AFC Wimbledon’s 20,000-seat arena, 602 new homes and a leisure centre. And despite the hopes of those who have played a part in its 89-year history, it is unlikely the derby will find another home within London, or even in the UK.
Opening on a marshland area of Wimbledon’s Plough Lane in 1928, the 8,000 seat grandstand was, at one point, one of London’s 28 greyhound-racing tracks, which included Clapton, Wembley, West Ham, Hackney and Walthamstow. In the fifties, Londoners were so keen to get a piece of the action that they forged tickets to the value of £1000 every week to get in. It began hosting the sport’s premier annual event, the Greyhound Derby, after the closure of White City stadium in 1985 and Sky Sports screened the first live greyhound meeting at Wimbledon in 1999.
"In the fifties, Londoners were so keen to get a piece of the action that they forged tickets to the value of £1000 every week to get in"
However, rising land value and dwindling interest has left Wimbledon as the last functional greyhound stadium in the city. Although it also hosts stock and small car racing (the drones of which can be heard echoing through south Wimbledon on Sunday nights), it hasn’t been generating anywhere near enough revenue to keep afloat. On my last visit, it was hard to ignore the stadium’s disrepair: crossing the car park was an obstacle course of deep potholes and an ancient neon sign hung over the starting boxes, urging the crowd to ‘LOVE THE OGS’.
Despite the dilapidation and torrential downpour that evening, it was clear people still enjoyed the ‘ogs’ – the mix of regulars, stag dos and hen parties were in high spirits, craning their necks to watch the animals trot towards the line. While horse racing is expensive and involves a lot of standing around in unsuitable shoes, a night at the dogs is the opposite – races come in quick succession, with no time to be bored.
"Despite the dilapidation and torrential downpour that evening, it was clear people still enjoyed the ‘ogs’ – the mix of regulars, stag dos and hen parties were in high spirits, craning their necks to watch the animals trot towards the line"
Placing bets with the bookie is a ceremony, stepping under an mustard yellow umbrella (something more fitting on a beach in Benidorm), carefully handing over your bet. Without the bookie and his umbrella, all thrill would evaporate, all risk would go, there would be no high or low. It's a great night out, even for families. As the night draws on, crowds stay buoyant, with not a whiff of drunken argy bargy. It feels like good, clean fun, the kind that maybe London needs to hang onto. Yet meets at the stadium were reduced to once a week in November of last year, despite entry being free for Oyster card holders and the too-good-to-be-true drink deals advertised across the stadium.
The sport needed more than just cheap ticket offers to get punters through the door. Its public image was severely damaged in 2006, when reports of the mass euthanasia of dogs deemed too old or too lame to race emerged. In 2008, David Smith, a builder’s merchant, was found to have slaughtered an estimated 10,000 greyhounds in exchange for payment and later the same year, reports of healthy dogs being killed to supply organs to The Royal Veterinary College came to light.
Although the National Greyhound Racing Club condemned such practise on healthy dogs, it cast an indelible shadow over racing and breeding. Animal welfare groups have been campaigning against the sport for years, and a PETA petition to close down the Wimbledon Stadium racked up 15,000 signatures in early 2015. That being said, The Retired Greyhound Trust (RGT) – the adoption agency responsible for finding homes for retired greyhounds – will no doubt face extra pressure when the Wimbledon dog track ceases to exist. Their kennels are already overstretched.
As for the future of the area, the new development – scheduled for 2019 – will put the acres of wasteland surrounding the stadium to good use: up until now, it has mainly been used for sprawling weekend car boot sales. And of course, it marks a new chapter for the fan-owned underdogs AFC Wimbledon, who will be playing in what fans consider to be their rightful home.
Wimbledon Stadium has had a colourful, fraught history and its extinction will be met with mixed reception, but greyhound racing has been part of London’s landscape for the best part of a century. When the final redundant betting slips fall at the feet of the bookie this Saturday, for better or for worse, London will have lost part of its heritage.
The last greyhound race will be held at Wimbledon Stadium, Plough Lane at 6.30pm this Saturday 25th March. £3 tickets include a free drink.