On a grey October evening stood in a car park littered with broken glass and potholes, we look up at a sign on the side of a grey building.
The sign reads “Welcome to London Wimbledon Stadium” and is accompanied by the tagline “Love the Dogs”.
Wimbledon is the last remaining of 28 London based greyhound racing tracks.
Recently, Merton Council approved planning permission for the site to be converted into the new stadium for AFC Wimbledon and more than 600 homes.
When the diggers move in, they will end the legacy of a sport which has been a part of London’s culture for generations.
Gentrification is a word thrown around a lot these days – the closure of nightlife venues for housing development has been well publicised.
But what is less known is the troubles faced by other entertainment venues for the same reasons.
We pay our entry and climb the staircase up to the viewing gallery which is decorated with portraits of past derby winners with colourful names like Salad Dodger, Jack Siderz and Rio Rialto.
Through the gallery window, we can see the size of the stadium, which can seat 8,000 people with plenty of room for more standing.
Nowadays though, the spectators are confined to a small section of the stands surrounding the gallery.
Tonight, the crowd all seem to be regulars, mostly old boys who are writing on their racing guides and greeting each other when they pass.
Artefact wanted to find out how the pending closure of the track will affect these people and what’s next for them when it’s gone.
“I will retire, I’m not a drinker so I’ll have to find something else to do,” says Bobby, a man in his 80s who has been going to the races for over 60 years and is a famous figure at Wimbledon.
Bobby is at the track every week and has made efforts to help prevent its closure by contacting the council, attending meetings and even contacting two London mayors: Sadiq Khan and Boris Johnson.
Bobby said he was disgusted at the way the case has been handled: “I sat through three hours of drivel.”
He recounted a recent council meeting: “The only objections came from Wandsworth Council, a fellow speaking for the disabled and one local resident. At the end of the evening, the chairman just said ‘outline planning permission for AFC Wimbledon has been granted’. The decision was made before the meeting started, that’s not democracy.”
After Wimbledon the nearest tracks are at Hove on the South Coast, Romford in Essex and Crayford in Kent; all too far away for Bobby and many of the other old boys to travel to for an evening.
In the 1980s, the Greyhound Racing Association (GRA) sold off most of their London properties to developers to cover debts.
This included tracks that were thriving at the time. When asked if there was any animosity between the fans and the GRA, Bobby said: “Yes, of course there is. They even had the gall to claim that they didn’t know they were selling it to the builders. If you’re selling something for a tenner you know who you’re selling it to, let alone for £10 million.”
[pullquote align=”right”]“It’s a working class sport, a part of London culture and a part of British culture.”[/pullquote]Bobby also has concerns about how the closure will affect the local area beyond the end of dog racing.
Near the stadium is St. George’s hospital, where Bobby regularly goes for treatment. The hospital staff are allowed to use the tracks car park for £2.50. If this privilege is lost, Bobby is worried that the hospital may become extremely overstretched. “They say it will take you four hours to be seen, if that goes you’ll be lucky if you’re seen in four days.”
Outside, Bobby introduces us to John and Rob – two part-time greyhound trainers. One of John’s dogs, ‘Oopys Blueboy’, is racing tonight.
John and Rob are owner-trainers, meaning they own the dogs that they race, a full trainer will likely share ownership with an investor.
“You can’t earn a living off it, the prize money hasn’t kept up with inflation,” explains Rob.
“I only do it for a hobby really. My dad got me into it and I’ve been training for the last 25 years, but all the tracks I’ve been to have closed” said John.
As we talk, John and Rob seem to enjoy reminiscing about the days when the stadium would fill up: “You wouldn’t believe the atmosphere. The derby roar and all that.”
When asked about the decline of the sport they echo what Bobby said before them, “It’s the owners; they only see the money.”
Over recent decades, greyhound racing has suffered an image crisis – animal rights groups have made cases of mistreatment towards greyhounds very public and this has had a massive effect.
Most people we approached were at first wary of speaking to journalists due to fear of us being ‘antis’, but the owners and trainers we met spoke about their animals with such enthusiasm that it was hard to see this in anyone.
“We love our dogs more than anything in the world, before we leave [for the track] they’re all trying to jump in the van with us” said Pam, a greyhound owner from Henlow who’s dog ‘Mays Rainbow’ is in tonight’s final race.
The Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) claim on their website that the dog’s welfare is a top priority.
In 2014, they donated 1.4 million pounds to the Retired Greyhound Trust, which re-homed 3,742 dogs that year and have spent more than one million pounds on improving track safety in recent years.
This effort to re-home was echoed by Mr Albiston, a professional trainer with 50 years of experience, who works to re-home every greyhound that he works with: “I’ve got to make sure they have the right home; make sure they can spend their time dosing on a nice settee!”.
As the night ends, the spectators file out and the bookies pack down their stands for what could be one of the last times (there are rumours that the track could be closed within six months), we think about something John, the owner-trainer, had said before. “It’s a working class sport, a part of London culture and a part of British culture.”
The track isn’t closed yet, AFC Wimbledon is struggling to find the money to buy the land, so maybe there is a chance that the venue and the sport still has a future in London.
Feature image by Ella Pavlides.