DOWN THE DOGS
I illustrated a piece for The Sunday Times Magazine when London’s last dog track closed. Truth is I knew the place well – it had been a big part of my life.
As a child my Grandfather was a trainer, my mum worked there for 30 years doing various jobs, from walker to announcer. Then, when I was 16 my first ever job was at Wimbledon dogs, playing the replays of races.
Words by Simon Barnes, who also began his career at Wimbledon dogs.
The greyhounds of Wimbledon have chased their last hare. Gray Hughes learnt his trade there as a young photographer and went trackside to document the end of golden era.
It’s a wet night and the Lady loves to run wide, so it’s a quid on her wet nose and now the hare’s moving and the lid pings open and there she goes, clad in the black-and-white jacket of dog No 6 to match her black fur and her one white paw and don’t panic if she leaves it late because it’s there, on the last bend — come on the Whitefoot! Come on Whitefoot Lady! — that she pulls away from the rest, bounding over the finish line as if she could bound for ever.
But she couldn’t. As from March 25, Wimbledon Stadium was no more. Every Friday night we used to go there, a band from Surrey and South London Newspapers. We drank lager, smoked, ate chips and bet money on the lovely dogs that ran so hard down there on the track.
They’ve been running there since 1928, but Wimbledon has gone, along with the other
London tracks: Hackney, White City, Wembley, Walthamstow and, saddest of all at least for the name, Catford. The world’s gone barking, but it’s doing so with fewer dog tracks. “Oh, the torn-up ticket stubs from a hundred thousand mugs, now washed away with dead dreams in the rain,” sang Shane McGowan with the Pogues after White City had gone.
These, then, are pictures from the Lost World. Gray Hughes’s images are so vivid I can almost smell the spilt lager and the Hamlet cigars, almost taste the bitterness of defeat and the occasional incredulous moment of victory. Hughes began to learn his trade at Wimbledon dog track, in the race replay department; his colleague took the podium shots and moonlighted for weddings and glamour shoots. Hughes’s grandfather trained greyhounds; his mother worked at Wimbledon, helping the dogs into the traps, where they crouched and barked, straining to start. Bet she helped Whitefoot Lady.
That was a great dog, especially in the rain. The place is supposed to become a football stadium for AFC Wimbledon along with 602 homes. But the race track has gone, though for me and for many it endureth for ever …the Whitefoot running wide round the last bend to outlast Time itself.