diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 15, 2005

Going to the dogs

The best greyhound stadium in East London is in Walthamstow (and not, as you might expect, in Barking). Crowds flock here three nights a week to watch the dogs, to eat and drink, and to lose large sums of money. Walthamstow Stadium dates back to 1933, built on the site of an old football ground by local bookie William Chandler, and the multi million pound business is still owned and managed by his descendants. The stadium's art deco frontage is most impressive, especially the giant scoreboard, although the architecture inside is a little more utilitarian. And it only costs six quid to get in.

Last night the stadium was packed out. None of your pretentious West End crowd here, just very ordinary people enjoying the extraordinary atmosphere. There were young couples out for a punt and a pint, old dears who must have been coming for years and families with feral kids lifted from the local housing estate. But most of the crowd could best be described as 'geezers', dressed by Top Man and Prada, swaggering from trackside to Tote, swilling lager like the pumps were about to run dry. Some settled down to a tray of scampi and chips, some risked a lengthy hot dog, others took their seats in the Paddock Grill restaurant (fully booked until July) while the remainder seemed content enough with liquid refreshment. The whole place was like a giant pub, caff and betting shop combined, which no doubt is why it's so massively successful.

The real buzz of the evening comes from the racing. There are 14 races, each outlined in impenetrable statistical detail in the official programme. You can study past form to help you pick a winner or you can do what half the crowd appeared to be doing and pick the dog with the silliest name. See who you'd have chosen from the first race: . The simplest way to stake a wager is on the Tote, selecting 'win', 'place' or 'forecast' at one of the booths placed liberally around the stadium. For a more serious bet try the trackside bookmakers, each bloke standing alert beside his easel, marker pen poised to scribble the ever changing odds. The minimum bet here is a fiver, and you have to remember a serial number when they hand you your betting slip, so I suspect these professionals are far more likely to end up minted than you are.

All the greyhounds are paraded up and down the track before each race, just so you can check that they have the requisite number of legs. Once they're bundled into the trap at the starting line, the lights in the stadium are lowered and an expectant crowd strains to watch the action. The hare (scraggy bit of fur, more like) whizzes round the perimeter of the track, the dogs launch after it, a roar goes up and the race is on. I've never quite understood the urge to yell loudly at the dog you've placed your money on. "Three!!!" "C'mon six!" For a start, unless you're trackside they're never going to hear you and, more crucially, greyhounds can't count.

Each race is usually no more than one circuit of the track and is over in a matter of seconds, so you have to be careful not to blink and miss the result. This action photograph captures the final moments of race number three, in which I'd bet on dog number 2 (Hope For Gold) at the suggestion of the Sporting Life's finest tipsters. Look, there's dog number 2 in the blue coat over by the far rail, nosing inexorably towards the finishing post. Unfortunately, as those of you brought up on "Spot the ball" competitions will have realised, the spectators at the bottom of this photo are turned to the right, watching the real race leaders already zooming off into the distance. This is alas a shot of the last three dogs limping into oblivion, with my dog right bringing up the rear in sixth place. If there were a sound effect to accompany this picture it would be the faint whimper of a thin white betting slip being ripped into tiny pieces.

I bet on five races altogether, each time backing dog number 2, and I was rewarded with a 3rd place, a 4th place and three lasts. My results may have been a pile of number 2s but at least I walked away with a net loss of only £13, having left the serious betting to the experts. A good night out down the Stow isn't just about the winning, it's in the taking part. I'll be back.

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