The Demise of Greyhound Racing in the UK & New Online Revival
In the space of just over half a century Greyhound racing has gone from being the second most attended sport for the working classes, after football, to a minor sport with declining fortunes. How did we go from 34 million people attending dog tracks in 1946 (and remember there were less people overall back then) to now less than 2 million visitors a year?
In this article we discuss why dog racing has seen a steady decline in popularity over the years and whether the sport is doomed to die out. We also consider a brighter future of greyhound racing online, with many online bookmakers now streaming live races, and we look at Greyhound racing finest moments in history as well as some more negative aspects the sport has attracted on animal welfare.
History of Greyhound Racing in the UK
Going to the dogs has been a working class institution throughout its history. The modern professional sport is an interpretation of the "sport" of coursing, this is a hunt with two or more dogs chasing a live animal, usually a hare or rabbit, the winner being the dog to catch and kill the animal. Hardly practiced in the UK now, coursing is regarded as cruel amongst most people. However in its history it was a favoured game to watch and informally bet on amongst the working and lower classes.
The first coursing meeting was held at Swaffham in Norfolk back in the year 1776. These early races involved generally just two greyhounds who then coursed a hare given a head start of a few hundred yards. It would take over one hundred years for the first artificial hare to be introduced as a lure in place of a live animal. In 1876 a meeting held in Hendon in London raced six dogs over 400 yards chasing a fake hare for the very first time. Unfortunately, this didn't catch on quickly in the UK but it eventually did across the pond in the USA. In 1912 Owen Smith invented his own version of the artificial hare to reduce the regular killing of jack rabbits and went on to open the first oval shaped track in 1919. The racecourse in Emeryville in California came with stands, concourse and critically betting terminals.
Britain finally caught up with the times in the 1920's. Belle Vue Stadium in Manchester became the first oval dog racing circuit in the country when in 1926 Major Lyne-Dixson in association with Charles Munn were put into contact with Sir William Gentle who between them raised £22k enabling them to launch the Greyhound Racing Association. The association held its first race at Belle Vue in the same year and by the end of the following year there were over 40 tracks open in major cities and townships around the country.
The explosion in greyhound racing attendances was driven predominantly by increasing affluence amongst working classes that allowed provision of leisure money. With many races also held at night or in the evening this allowed workers to attend. Greyhound racing was not however exclusive to the lowest classes with spectators attending from all manner of social backgrounds with hierarchical viewing stands and enclosures similar to those seen in horse racing.
Not even the great depression of the 1930's could deter patrons from watching the sport. In the 1930's the totalisator board, or tote as we know it commonly, was introduced to greyhound racing. This allowed pari-mutuel betting alongside the existing on course bookies. In this time, and up until the 1960's, gambling off-course was illegal and with many working class people either unable to afford or unable to travel to the more rurally set horse race meetings, gambling on dog races at local inner city tracks became a national institution amongst lower classes.
The phrase 'going to the dogs' is a reference to throwing or pilfering money or possessions away. This phrase comes from the all too often occurrence of people blowing their weekly or monthly wages down the dog track. Greyhound racing therefore has always carried a love hate relationship with working families.
Greyhound racing was largely halted during world war two although the ability to arrange and pack away meetings quickly meant there were still many informal races held over the war years. Immediately after WWII the sport enjoyed it's peak in attendance and popularity. In the bleaker days after the war watching dog racing was one of life's only pleasures for the working classes and so in 1946 the sport enjoyed a record 34 million paying punters.
The Demise of Dog Racing in Britain
Greyhound racing continued to enjoy huge popularity in Britain up until the 1960's. In 1960 the Betting and Gaming act legislated that off-course betting was now legal. This combined with changing attitudes and an explosion in forms of entertainment in the 60's marked the beginning of the slow decline of the sport. Over the following decades the sport was looked upon as something for their dads generation with popularity amongst the youngest decreasing the most rapidly.
Changing more liberal attitudes in the 1960s onwards also led to increased exposure of some poor animal welfare in dog racing. With very little regulation in place at the time many owners would house and treat their animals with disgusting cruelty. It was very common amongst some breeders and owners to simply kill a dog at the end of its working life, if it were injured or if it lost form. This exposure tarnished the reputation of greyhound racing serving only to increase its decline with the liberally minded younger generations.
Licenced greyhound racing in the modern day is now very tightly regulated with prison sentences issued and large fines for any cruel behaviour. Many however will never be able to accept this is the reality with later reports of doping, race fixing and other fraud adding further nails to the coffin.
UK Greyhound Track Closures Over Time
Graph showing the number of Greyhound tracks open in the UK by year, cumulative taking into account number of tracks closed and number of new tracks opened. Graph shows data from NGRC, GBGB, NRGC and BGTCS Licensed Tracks. Some tracks have opened and closed multiple times.
Greyhound racing's decline was not helped by the fact that many tracks were located in inner city working class industrial areas that were progressively becoming run down, redeveloped or even abandoned. In 1946 there were 77 GBGB licensed tracks in Great Britain (+200 unlicensed), 15 in London alone, today there are less than 23 licensed track stills operating (see next section) and 5 independent flapper tracks. Attendances today are under 2 million paying visitors with many larger bookies not even bothering to show up to the track to collect bets anymore.
When Walthamstow closed in 2008 it left London with only one track left from the 15 it once boasted. The last remaining course, Wimbledon, did survived with the help of local protest but has since been closed to allow AFC Wimbledon to move onto the site and build a new stadium.
Lately the bookmakers themselves have created a twist in this tale. The concurrent success of live streaming of Greyhound racing to online punters has led some of them to start buying up tracks. Coral for example own Romford race track and Brighton and Hove stadium. Attendances are still shocking but the bookie doesn't care as it can stream and sell streaming of races to punters and other betting sites. This is a probably the only way to completely arrest the closure of tracks.
Greyhound Board of Great Britain Registered Stadiums
|Belle Vue||Manchester||1926||Stock Car & Banger Racing|
|Brighton and Hove||Brighton and Hove||1928||Owned By Coral|
|Crayford Stadium||Bexley (London)||1986||Owned By Ladbrokes|
|Harlow Stadium||Harlow||1995||First Sky Race 2011|
|Pelaw Grange||County Durham||1944||First Sky Race 2015|
|Poole||Poole||1933||AKA Wimborne Road|
|Romford||Havering (London)||1929||Owned By Coral|
|Shawfield||South Lanarkshire||1898||Only Scottish Stadium|
|Sheffield||Sheffield||1929||AKA Owlerton Stadium|
|Sittingbourne||Swale||1990||AKA Central Park Stadium|
|Sunderland||Sunderland||1940||Rnovated & Expanded 1989|
|Towcester||Towcester||2014||First Track Open Since 1995|
|Yarmouth||Great Yarmouth||1940||East Anglian Derby|
Table shows registered Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) tracks in the UK. 22 Tracks are in England and one in Scotland, there are no active tracks in Wales and in Northern Ireland racing tracks are not controlled by the GBGB. For a list of independent stadiums click here.
The Revival of greyhound Racing Online
Physical attendances at dog racing across the UK may be at it historical lowest but the sport is enjoying a success online unparalleled in its history.
Despite the rise in off-course betting from 1960 leading to the initial demise of greyhound racing it also provided a new means to watch racing. Gambling on greyhounds off track from punters watching or listening in betting shops began to rise rapidly with British Afternoon / Evening Racing Services (BAGS and BEGS) broadcasting live races daily form tracks across the UK. This may have helped somewhat but overall couldn't prevent further decline in the sport. The bookies effected a lot of this as they begun to broadcast a far wider range of sports to bettors in shops including virtual dog and horse racing with much lower overheads.
With the rise in popularity of online betting in the new millennium the landscape was changed entirely. By the early 2000's greyhound racing was being streamed to thousands of online players now betting through fixed odds sportsbooks or exchanges such as Betfair. Today more money is bet on the dogs than at anytime in history with over £2.6 billion staked annually on over 70,000 races that supports over 7,000 jobs directly. Over £1.5 billion of that turnover is off-course.
The buying up of dog tracks in the UK by online bookmakers for the purposes of streaming live racing is a positive sign the industry may recover and possibly even begin to grow again. It is estimated that bookies collectively make over £250,000,000 a year in profit with the treasury collecting over £60,000,000 from the sport. Put it this way greyhound racing is not going to disappear any time soon, unless politicians decide to ban it.
If you want to know more about the best bookies for betting on greyhound racing or where you can watch live races see our greyhound racing sports guide.
Welfare in Greyhound Racing
Greyhound racing has a chequered history with animal rights and welfare institutions as we touched on above. This reached its pinnacle in the 1990's when it was reported that mass overbreeding had led to serious levels of abuse and misuse of animals. With images splashed across the front pages of the British press the industry should have had no choice but to confront these issues once and for all. Unfortunately, over ten years later individual breeders were still flouting the law and in 2006 literally thousands of racing dogs were found buried in mass graves in Seaham. This was followed by a Sunday Times exposé in 2008 showing that unwanted greyhound puppies were in fact being sold to universities for dissection and research.
The vast majority of ex-racing dogs are now re-homed as pets with some owners even setting up their own re-homing organisations. However, with over 8000 dogs retired each year with injury before they have even reached the age of four the question does still remain as to how many actually live a full life. A report several years ago from the Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare estimates that up to 5,000 animals still effectively disappear each year.
Again the bookies are the ones coming to the rescue. Brands such as Coral that have invested in tracks and races heavily do not want their names tarnished by the same brush. These companies are progressively changing and professionalising the sport again with a focus on providing, proving and maintaining animal welfare both through and beyond the animals career.
If the sport can come through this era and change it's image in the future as a clean, responsible and ethical sport then it will survive. If it does not it will go the same way as smoking on aeroplanes and become a relic of the British past.
For a more detailed look at this issue and the racing life of greyhounds in general, read our specially commissioned page written by a trained vet.
Licensed and Unlicensed Racing
The Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) regulates all licensed racing. This represents the majority of greyhound racing in the UK. All meetings regulated by the GBCB must comply to rules and standards including welfare, facilities, kennels and retirement processes. Anyone suspected of contravening laws are investigated by stewards and can be banned or even reported to the police. There are around 24 licensed courses in the UK, with all except one of those in England.
There are around 5 unlicensed courses in the UK. The owners of the tracks and dogs must still always comply with the welfare standards set by government but there is no internal regulation. This is known as flapping (click to read more). You will notice if you bet on greyhounds that it is harder to bet on these meetings and even if you can limits are much lower than licensed racing. The bookmaker takeover of the industry is steadily putting unlicensed flapper courses under more pressure.
Greyhound Racing Around The World
The story in Britain is actually quite good compared to the state of dog racing around the globe. In the USA greyhound racing is banned in over 40 states with only 5 still operating active tracks (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa & West Virginia). China, the worlds biggest country, reported has no more regulated greyhound racing following the closure of the final track in Macau recently.
Even in Australia where the sport is more popualr (per head) the New South Wales government decided to ban greyhound racing on welfare grounds in 2016. This ban was later reversed with conditions including, fewer venues, breeding caps, bonds to be paid on animals and a clear dog life management strategy.
Around the world greyhound racing is having to reinvent itself to survive. Most tracks now offer hospitality 'a night out at the dog' and other corporate features to attract visitors. Many tracks also provide speedway and other forms of racing to counteract declining revenues from the greyhound meetings.
Owners and Prize Money
Prize money in dog racing is a fraction of that seen in horse racing but then again the costs and overheads to owners are significantly lower. To own a horse you need to invest tens of thousands to millions with very high care and training costs. On the flip side you can buy a grey hound for hundreds to thousands with care and training costs closer to £1000 a year. This means many middle class people can own and run dogs that would never dream of owning a horse.
Prize money for races is usually in the low thousands of pounds. The biggest race, the greyhound derby, commands a prize pot of over £300,000 these days with over £150,000 to the winner (2nd £20k). There is certainly enough money on offer to make it worth your while, a win a year can easily pay your costs.