The rise and fall of London's final greyhound stadium
Jonathan Key charts the great track's history
Work begins on the stadium in late 1927. It opens its doors on Saturday, May 19, 1928 with actress Tallulah Bankhead cutting the ribbon in front of a crowd of 22,000. Ballindura, trained by Harry Leader, wins the first race. William Cearns acts as chairman and managing director until his death in 1950, while Con Stevens is racing manager until 1973.
The track attracts top trainers such as Paddy McEllistrim, Sidney Orton and Stanley Biss. The latter trains Mick The Miller for Albert Williams after the 1929 Derby until the end of the year when the dog is sold to Arundel Kempton – vice-chairman for a spell – as a gift for his wife and sent to Orton. The first running of the Laurels in 1930 is a whitewash, not only for Wimbledon-trained dogs, but for Orton who trains the first three led by Kilbrean Boy. Wimbledon emerges as the leading force in jump racing – in the 1930 and 1938 Grand National finals at White City all the finalists are Wimbledon-trained.
Before World War II part of the stadium is requisitioned by a unit of the Royal Signal Corps although, thanks to a sympathetic colonel, racing goes on until hostilities commence and then resumes soon afterwards, limited to one daytime meeting a week from June 1940. During an air raid on the night of February 23-24 1944, up to 400 bombs hit the stadium – the resulting fire destroys virtually the whole grandstand.
Stevens becomes chairman upon Cearns’s death in 1950. John Cearns becomes managing director. July 1956 sees the major part of the new grandstand open (days after the River Wandle bursts its banks, as it had before the 1928 opening). The inaugural TV Trophy is held at Wimbledon in 1958 over 500 yards and goes to the Leslie Reynolds-trained Town Prince. Norah Gleeson becomes Wimbledon’s first female trainer; in 1968 the Wandle floods again.
Wimbledon merges with the GRA in April 1972. Stevens retires as do longserving trainers Paddy McEllistrim and Stan Martin, replaced by Paddy’s daughter Norah and Sam Sykes. The metric era arrives with 500-yard and 700-yard trips changed to 460 and 500 metres by revising start positions. The end of the decade sees Wimbledon and the GRA operating with severe financial difficulties, due in part to the state of the property market.
Wimbledon becomes all sand in 1982 in time for Lauries Panther to become the first greyhound in 25 years to complete the Derby-Laurels double. With White City closing, plans are announced for Wimbledon to become the flagship GRA stadium and Saturday racing reintroduced in 1984. In 1985, Wimbledon becomes home of the Greyhound Derby.
The Derby era
The track’s first Derby, in 1985, over 480m, sees a local victory for Phil Rees-trained Pagan Swallow, the seventh Wimbledon-trained winner of the Classic following Mick The Miller (1930), Highland Rum (1939), Ballyhennessy Seal (1945), Ballymac Ball (1950), Ford Spartan (1957) and Mutts Silver (1976). A 2001 refurbishment of the ‘far side’ is not immediately successful, with the stand mothballed save for major occasions until in late 2009 a permanent switch is made there as the 1956 main stand is no longer fit for purpose. Rapid Ranger (2000-1) and Westmead Hawk (2005-6) become dual Derby champions.
The end of an era
The GRA is sold by Wembley PLC to venture capitalists Risk Capital Partners in a £50m-plus deal in 2005, effectively sealing Wimbledon’s fate. The closure of Wimbledon is announced in October 2016, with the last meeting eventually scheduled for March 25, 2017.