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'It's always been special - there was something about the place'

The great and the good reflect on imminent closure of London's last track

Runners will be paraded at Wimbledon for the final time on Saturday night
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Charlie Lister, winner of a record seven Derbys at Wimbledon It’s always been a special place, and especially so when the other side was open. What has happened to greyhound racing over the years, leading to us losing Wimbledon, has been a farce.

It wasn’t the easiest place to get to but when you got to Wimbledon there was just something about it.

The track has always been kept well going back to [clerk of the course] John Forster’s days there, and even the lads working on it now have done a fantastic job in what must have been very difficult circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect and, before they switched sides, I was badgering them about the rail not being straight, encouraging dogs on the inside to run off, which they eventually addressed. Then after the change trap one was too close to the inside fence. Ironically, it was my Taylors Sky who was the first trap one to win a Wimbledon Derby.

All that said, it’s always been a great test of a greyhound with a good long run to the bend, while you had to stay as it was a stiff enough trip.

I wish Towcester the best of luck with taking the Derby on and will definitely be supporting it, but I think they have a very hard act to follow in terms of the running track even if it became depressing how rundown Wimbledon was allowed to get.

You obviously think of the Derbys, that’s what we’re in greyhound racing for. Rapid Ranger winning two in a row was a great achievement, but Some Picture is probably the one that stands out.

Obviously he was the first for me, which was something in itself after I’d switched from flapping, but he was such a special dog. He’d already won the Scottish Derby and it seemed effortless at Wimbledon. It was such a shame he went sick during the Irish Derby because, even though he reached the final there, he wasn’t quite right. To be honest I was in favour of withdrawing him.

He’d have stayed 700 yards too if we’d tried. He was an amazing dog and the atmosphere that night he won at Wimbledon was brilliant.

‘Professionalism always shone through

Jim Cremin, former Wembley racing manager and Racing Post greyhound editor I saw Myrtown win the Sporting Life Juvenile in 1973, beating one of its best ever fields. The track then was much more tricky to run, but significant improvements later took place which made it a proper home for the Derby. 

I’m grateful to Wimbledon in many ways. I always thought its professionalism and attention to detail shone through, even when I visited as a teenager.

I imagine AFC Wimbledon is feeling pleased with itself, yet London and the local community is the loser, especially in terms of being deprived of a particularly family-friendly activity, instead gaining a traffic and infrastructure nightmare.

‘I used to love it – I’m going to miss the track’

Norah McEllistrim, former Wimbledon trainer I’m going to miss the track. It had a lovely running surface, the two distances were perfect. It was a galloping track and you could run any dog there. I used to love Wimbledon, I wouldn’t miss a meeting.

A favourite memory was reaching the final of the Derby with Cloheena Cash in 2011. I bought him for £230 as a puppy. He was an ordinary dog and I had so much trouble feeding him I’d be down at Waitrose every five minutes! But he turned out to be a real star.

Wimbledon greyhound stadium closes its gates for good on Saturday

‘Being mobbed doesn't make profits’

Clive Feltham, managing director of the Greyhound Racing Association If Wimbledon could have been easily developed it would have been done years ago but there were so many issues, mainly the flood plain and huge power generator.

The stadium was looking tired even back in the day when I was there, but since about 2006 there wasn’t any real capital spend. If you don’t invest around £2 million a year on a place like Wimbledon it quickly shows.

There was a lot of pressure to close altogether before the switch of sides. It was going to be a big bill for the old main stand but we felt it was the right thing to move across when it would have been easy to stop greyhound racing there and then, just taking the income from the car parking and Sunday market.

I genuinely thought that, because of the flood plain, we might have got a new stadium so we continued and viewed Wimbledon as hopefully being a break-even situation.

But, once you do the maths, permission for 600 flats at, say £300,000 – and that’s very conservative – the economics are massive and you’re very vulnerable.

Whether AFC Wimbledon ever move in who knows, but Galliard will have what they want anyway and could go back to the council asking for more flats and possibly throw in something like a recreation hall.

It’s been a tough call to keep going, even this year we’re going to have lost significant sums. It’s a big stadium and being mobbed doesn’t make you profits. There are rates and insurance to consider and, without a Bags or RPGTV contract, it’s a different world.

Wimbledon has been on the ropes for so long, but all credit to the staff, they’ve been stoic in the way they have carried on.
Perry Barr has a long lease in place so gets a tick and Belle Vue is owned by a pension fund, so I’m optimistic about greyhound racing’s future.

'Heartbreaking moment has come'

Richard Rees, third member of a Wimbledon training dynasty Watching some of the old races and hearing Ken Tozer’s announcements brought so many memories back, and made you sad for what we’ve lost. It was a wonderful place in its prime.

My favourite memory was when my dad [Philip] won the first Derby in 1985 with Pagan Swallow. It’s great to win the Derby at any time, it’s the biggest race in the world with the crowd, the people and the bookmakers on every turn.

The two main things I’m going to miss are the location and the running surface and distances – it was ideal for 90 per cent of dogs.

It’s heartbreaking that the moment has come and it’s going to be gone even though it’s obviously been nothing the like the place it was for years. It’s going to be missed immensely all the same.

Traps will be loaded for the final time on Saturday night
‘I believe it could have been saved’

John McCririck, former bookmaker, pundit and TV personality It’s absolutely appalling. I believe Walthamstow could have been saved and so too Wimbledon.

I’ll be going tomorrow and I’m sure it will be packed. If many of the people who will be there had come along when it mattered it could have been a different story.

My greatest London greyhound memories are of White City and Wembley. When they show the old footage of the 1966 World Cup Final it shows the greyhound track around the outside at Wembley. They used to race on the Friday night before the FA Cup Final which was a massive event. Some fans would go along and hide in the toilets in a bid to get to see the game the next day.

At that time they also had racing on at Stamford Bridge on a Saturday after Chelsea had played. It started at 6.16pm with the last at 8.05pm. After the last, saddos like me would try to get a taxi across town for the last four races at White City.

Runners will ping out of Wimbledon's traps for the last time this week

‘Sad, yes. Bitter certainly – it shouldn’t be happening’

John Henwood, leading Wimbledon bookmaker Greyhound racing became an integral part of the social fabric of London life to the extent that as a child I remember printed sheets of Saturday night results being sold on the streets late in the evening.

Saturday sees the last of the capital’s 22 tracks close its doors, all gone not because of a lack of patronage but rising land values.

It will be with a heavy heart that I begin my final journey to Wimbledon after making a book there for the last 34 years, including at every Derby held there. And what days they have been – packed with financial highs and lows and affording me the pleasure of watching some truly great hounds run in so many memorable races, all against a most enjoyable backdrop of meeting friends and clients on a nightly basis.

In 1984 a few months after I started I was getting the hang of pricing graded races but opens were proving challenging so, faced with an open marathon, I proceeded gingerly.

As I priced this (as yet) unknown dog the track fell on me so I laid a few bets and reduced the price dramatically . . . but the clamour to get on intensified so again I slashed the price and still the money poured on. By trap rise I had what I can only describe as a very worrying liability.

As the dogs raced down the far side for the first time I saw that the ‘bogey’ had gone lame (or so I thought) and trailed the field by around 50 yards. Sensing immense relief I focused on the front end to see if I could get one my best winners home and, mercifully one crossed the line in front. But as it did so, the ‘lame’ dog absolutely flew past it. It’s name? Scurlogue Champ!

As an evening out greyhound racing is more popular now than when I began. Wimbledon’s closure will see a handful make some money while many thousands will lose their enjoyment. Sad, yes. Bitter certainly, because it shouldn’t be happening.

The proposed plan provides 11 per cent affordable homes, leaving in tatters Sadiq Khan’s election manifesto pledge to demand new developments include 50 per cent affordable homes.

I contacted Galliard with a view to discussing building a new greyhound stadium within the development plan but no positive response was forthcoming. However, the door is still open if they wish to talk. Plan ‘B’ is to build a new multi-purpose White City for young and old, a true people’s stadium, if I can persuade Hammersmith council to gift the land I have earmarked. 

I would like to offer my most grateful thanks to customers over the years and hope to meet again one day in the new London Greyhound Stadium we all deserve. In the meantime, I hope to find an alternative placement soon.

'Winning Derby was biggest thrill'

Mark Wallis, champion trainer My first Greyhound Derby with Kinda Ready in 2009 stands out. It was the last Derby before they closed the main grandstand, and the atmosphere and the crowd was so much better than it’s ever been since.

Although we’d had two finalists some people had been saying I was a good trainer but not a Derby-winning trainer, so this was very special.

Kinda Ready was an outsider, but we fancied him and the owners really embraced the occasion. They took over the Diamond Room, which held about 100 people, and everybody wore orange because he was in trap five, so there was a sea of colour.

He came from behind in a thrilling race, but from where I was watching I couldn’t believe he’d got up. It’s what every trainer dreams of and there have been an awful lot of very good trainers who never got to do it.

We won again in 2012 with Blonde Snapper, but that night with Kinda Ready is my greatest memory. The Derby is the ultimate prize in greyhound racing, and winning it is the biggest thrill in the sport.

'Thanks for the memories'

Bob Betts, greyhound editor of The Sporting Life 1986-1998 and founder of the Greyhound Writers’ Association The GRA’s problems, which led to the closure of so many of their tracks, including White City, Slough, Harringay and Catford, started in the mid-1970s and culminate this weekend with the tragic loss of Wimbledon.

The sport’s biggest promoter, whose numerous stadiums sat on the vast amounts of land it owned, rushed to cash in on the booming property market some 40 years ago and set up the GRA Property Trust.

Sadly for the group and for the greyhound industry as a whole, it was definitely the wrong time for this inspired venture, because shortly afterwards the property market crashed.

Adding to the problems, greyhound racing has never received anywhere near a fair crack of the whip from successive governments following the opening of betting shops in 1961. All have refused to give the industry/sport a statutory levy, something which is enjoyed by horse racing.

Dog racing was still doing well when the Derby moved to the Don in 1985, but the alarm bells started to ring loud when the main stand closed and the operation moved to the smaller, cramped Mick The Miller stand on the far side in March, 2010.

The racing circuit has been a well-kept, brilliant gallop but off-track, the place has been neglected and has subsequently deteriorated into a rundown, shabby stadium.

The venue has been the scene of many great memories over the years and, as greyhound editor of The Sporting Life, I was honoured with fronting our sponsorship – together with the Daily Mirror – of the Derby from 1990 until the closure of our super broadsheet in May, 1998.

All that is left is to say, thanks for the memories.

I wish Towcester the best of luck with taking the Derby on and will definitely be supporting it, but I think they have a very hard act to follow
E.W. Terms