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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Mildenhall closure evokes memories of other much-missed venues

Suffolk track's demise leaves 22 active stadiums

The final greyhound meeting at Walthamstow
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So now it’s Mildenhall’s turn to drop off the map of active greyhound venues and on to the more populated one of former dog tracks, joining a lengthening list of names that combine to evoke memories of a sport that once walked tall.

Despite the intense clamour to televise greyhound racing in betting shops, on digital products and to a growing international audience, there was no media rights deal for the unassuming Suffolk venue and so the padlocks were snapped shut for good this week.

Another set of owners and trainers having to find an alternative venue to run their dogs, another group of regulars whose favourite evening’s entertainment has suddenly been snuffed out. And now there are just 22 tracks left in Britain, a number of which face uncertain futures.

The Mildenhall news got me thinking of the places I have been to that used to reverberate to the bark of the hounds, the hum of the hare and the cheers of happy punters but are now housing estates, garden centres or nursing homes.

I counted 19. Here are some memories of these much missed tracks.

Bristol

Eastville Stadium on the north side of the city was a great big gaff that had no need for a sellout sign much beyond its post-war heyday and particularly not on the day I attended a Bags meeting there more than 30 years ago. It was also the home of Bristol Rovers and was too big for them too.

Canterbury

I went there to report on the first ever trials session at the Kent venue. The starter was standing in front of the traps and the gate sprung up by accident, catching him flush on the shins. The poor guy was in agony.

Catford

If I could reopen one dog track it would be Catford. I loved the place and spent three nights a week there in the early 1980s before being lucky enough to work in the racing office for a year. It was a brilliant track full of characters and it came to life every September when the John Humphreys Gold Collar final took place in front of a packed crowd.

Coventry

I went there once on a freezing night ages ago. There were no mobiles, no satnavs and the track did not appear in my road atlas. Nor did any of the dozen people I stopped to ask have a clue it even existed. I got there in the end but never felt a strong urge to return, even though it boasted a beautiful, big, fair circuit.

Cradley Heath

I found myself in this Black Country backwater in the late 1980s for reasons that now escape me. Everyone drank something called mild and I did my brains on a dog that might have been trained by Geoff De Mulder.

Edgware Straights

This was one of the more unusual greyhound experiences I had and, although not strictly a track, more a field running parallel with the most northern section of the M25, it hosted regular flapping meetings until the 1980s. People brought their greyhounds along in vans or estate cars, registered their interest to race and were allocated a contest. As the name suggested, the runners set off along a huge grass straight, chasing a rudimentary drag hare. Good fun.

Hackney

Oh Hackney, what a place you were. Like a film set from a Hollywood blockbuster about cockney life it oozed raw atmosphere with a hint of menace. Saturday morning meetings were the kick-off to many a real punter’s betting weekend and bookmaking giants including John Power and Dougie Tyler laid monster bets while upstairs in the cafe Pearl dispensed fried breakfasts in a legendarily no-nonsense style.

Hall Green

Another recent casualty of greyhound racing’s slow, sad demise, the Birmingham track was always a pleasure to visit, not least for the Grand National final, which was a long and happy night ending as it did in the early hours after post-racing beers and baize in the adjacent snooker club.

Harringay

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays drew the hardcore London dog fan to Green Lanes for well-attended cards that ran until 1987 when the owners succumbed to the property developers’ pound. The final night was all about happy mayhem with people taking whatever souvenirs they could. At one point, as midnight approached, the police dropped in to warn the general manager the licence would be revoked if he didn’t shut the bars. The general manager gave a suitably pithy reply.

Oxford

A typical smart provincial stadium that provided good cheap entertainment for local citizens three times a week. The cheery Mick Wheble oversaw things at the Cowley venue and it was always a pleasure to attend.

Portsmouth

This was something a little different. Five-dog races, one of the last tracks to switch from grass to sand and an inside hare, which appealed to my nerdy side. Portsmouth was a scruffily quaint place that repelled the developers until it staged its last race in 2010.

Ramsgate

A day on Broadstairs or Margate beach followed by a night of open racing at Dumpton Park was always an enjoyable trip. The day after its closure was announced the headline in The Sporting Life read Dumped-On Park.

Rye House

One of the oddest nights of my life took place at the Hertfordshire circuit when I was about 20. I was entered in a human race featuring a varied bunch that included the athlete John Regis and Derek Thompson. It was a handicap and I managed to get what I felt was a workable mark so my colleagues on the greyhound desk of the Life piled up there and lumped on me to win. Sadly I focused too hard on John Regis and did not notice Tommo, who was clad in a lycra all-in-one suit as worn by Linford Christie, scampering up my inside to beat me in a photo.

Southend

Monday nights were open-race nights at Southend. Everyone went and it was a massive betting event. My main memory of Southend was an elderly trainer called Dolly Gwynne who would wear clothes that mirrored the trap number of her runner.

St Helens

A flapping track between Liverpool and Manchester that I visited once after a day at the Waterloo Cup coursing. Talk about chalk and cheese. The track was pretty much rectangular and also featured an uphill home straight. You could have picked eight winners out of ten and still lost, such were the sky-high margins the bookies were betting to.

Walthamstow

And so to a depressing home straight in this sad saunter down memory lane with four defunct London tracks all starting with W.

The Stow was a properly smart venue that, if it still existed, could have shown the way to a bright future for the sport with its high-quality facilities. The track itself was not to my liking - the straights were too long for the tight bends - but it was the place to be on the big nights and is sorely missed.

Wembley

There was always something incongruous about A8 dogs hurtling around the hallowed turf for £73 as a few hundred people cheered them on in a stadium that held 100,000. But just being in the most famous sporting venue on the planet was always great.

White City

I went there once, when Whisper Wishes won the 1984 Derby, scuppering my ante-post punt on Spartacus, who finished last. But every second of that night was magical. The track closed three months later.

Wimbledon

It was a grand old place in its pomp and a sorry old wreck in its twilight years. An immaculately maintained track produced excellent racing throughout, and I could never resist the hot potato stall. The night Slippy Blue won the Derby there in 1990 was a lot more fun than the hangover the following morning.

Britain better thanks to brave souls such as Cyrille

You would be hard pressed to find a positive from the death this week of Cyrille Regis, at the age of just 59, but there is one.

The superbly gifted, rock-hard striker was only the third black player to represent England and should have won far more than five caps.

That, in this day and age when you get called a legend for pointing someone to the nearest tube station, would be regarded as a scandal.

But the real scandal, of course, was the treatment he and other black players in the late 1970s and 80s received from some of those in the game and on the terraces.

However loud the monkey chants and however many bananas were aimed at him he maintained his dignity and carried on scoring.

And here’s the positive. We have moved on from those hideous days to such an extent that descriptions of just how bleak and vicious the abuse of black people was in that period makes us feel shock and disbelief that things could be so horrendous.

As Brian Lara said this week: “The black sportsmen were doing the hard yards to create a better future for us all.”

Thankfully, while it is not perfect, Britain is admirably and massively less affected by racism these days and brave people such as Regis played a huge part in making that happen.


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