Belle Vue is not one of the more beautiful public spaces our region has to offer. Nestled in some mixed-use land in South Manchester, it’s not particularly convenient for a trip from Liverpool either. But this is the closest place for greyhound racing in the North West, Liverpool having bade farewell to its last dog tracks decades ago.
Dog racing seems an almost archetypal northern pursuit, yet dog tracks have disappeared across the country as more modern pursuits have arisen, though we haven’t come across a dog-racing video game yet.
Dog tracks were good multi-taskers. Time was you’d also get speedway and stock-car racing at such venues; great working-class leisure pursuits. Stanley Park in Fairfield was once such a track, but it closed in the 60s. Other than that the last dog track in the city, White City on Breck Road, closed in 1973.
Liverpool kissed goodbye to the last suggestion of greyhound racing a decade ago, when a plan for a track in Fazakerley was blocked following local opposition. Unsurprisingly Warren Bradley was very keen on the idea; local councillors appeared less so.
So these days, if you want to see dogs chasing an electric hare, you need to head to Belle Vue. That’s a peculiar quirk given the Liverpool’s links to Ireland – and the popularity of horse racing in the region.
Belle Vue is owned by the Greyhound Racing Association (GRA) – now owned by a venture capitalist group, who were behind the plans to bring dog racing back to Fazakerley – and vehicles also fly around the track here. Along one long straight is a vast football pitch-like stand housing toilets, betting booths, bars and – if you can call them that – restaurants. Outside are private bookies, offering constantly changing odds.
The stadium as a whole is not a particularly pleasing sight. At one end is a mouldering concrete stand, at the other nothing. Opposite is a row of semi-detached houses, they look warm from our chilly spot.
At the gates to the car-park were a small gaggle of protestors, waving placards and stamping their feet to keep warm. It’s a reminder of the doubts I felt upon going to the track. There are leaflets being handed out that make their way inside the stadium and have terrible things to say.
Inside few people seem perturbed. A visit to the dogs is treated in much the same way as any group trip out for a boozy night. The Liverpool Echo had been offering a deal on entry to the stadium the night I went; as a result it was packed to the rafters.
The crowds are predominantly working class and white; few seem to be here to gamble, just to have a night out with friends. Maximum stakes from the independent bookies outside are £50 and there’s a limit on payouts of £500, so no-one’s looking to get rich here (althought a gent upstairs with a plug-in telephone suggested there are the odd die-hards). Tote betting is available inside for those unsure about the hustle and bustle of the bookies outside.
There are a few children too, but it doesn’t feel particularly family-friendly. Gangs of men – on work nights out or celebrating birthdays – seem to be the overriding clientele. There are impressive mullets and sheepskin coats here, but a series of impressive snorts from inside a toilet cubicle suggests it’s not all pies and mild.
After an interminable queue at the bar to get served by sullen and disinterested bar staff, we part with £7.90 for two pints of lager – beer as expensive as the Radisson’s White Bar in Liverpool.
The first couple of races see the dogs vaulting over miniature hedges, but most of them are flat-out sprints of one-and-a-bit circuits. The dogs tend to appear fairly calm before a race, their handlers petting and soothing them. Frequently a dog stops to do its business, something old hands note with interest in the line to put a tenner on.
Races come and go. Few people seem to win money; sometimes favourite win, sometimes a rank outsider wins. Since none have come for the money and most are spending more time studying beer prices than form it doesn’t seem to matter. We win £15 on a £3 stake having bet on a dog because it has the same name as a friend – there’s an undeniable thrill to seeing your dog cross the line.
Afterwards the dogs are clearly excitable and can be seen playfully evading their handlers, caught up in the thrill of the chase and intent on causing mischief.
Race cards are generally perplexing and unhelpful. There appear to be no patterns in form, even if you can manage to decipher the complex tables of past results, race types and details. It’s probably more entertaining to bet on names: Grandad’s Ebony, Blue Trilogy, Black Diane and Droopys Ramires amuse us.
The stakes are often amusing too, and bear testimony to the fact that greyhound racing still has a place in the life rituals of northern folk. One is christened the Vicki Culshaw’s Last Night of Freedom Classic. There also the Jimbo’s 30th Birthday Classic; Ste McGee’s Big Fat 40th Birthday Steaks (sic); Stocky’s Last Night of Freedom Stakes; Fred Barnett’s 75th Birthday Stakes; David Baldwin’s 22nd Birthday Trophy; Chris Smith – It’s not too late to change your mind stakes and, amusingly, the He’s Not The Messiah stakes.
Peculiarly the powers that be have seen fit to okay the The Chinese Curried Dog Classic Cup, something that seems a tad uncomfortable for a couple of reasons to me.
This touches on what became my overriding feeling from the night; a night that was predominantly enjoyable because it constituted a night out with mates. But my doubts over how greyhounds are treated in general were not assuaged on the night. “We love our dogs,” said one handler with a shrug when I asked where his dogs were housed – and the personal affection was clear.
I doubt all greyhounds are so lucky, and I can’t help wondering what happens to Grandad’s Ebony or Black Diane when their racing days are over.
The League Against Cruel Sports doesn’t oppose greyhound racing outright, but wants much firmer regulation of the sport, coupled with a compulsory levy from bookies to fund welfare improvements.
For its part, Belle Vue is affiliated to the Lancashire & Belle Vue Retired Greyhounds Trust, which rehouses dogs once their racing days are over. It’s heartening, but without dog tracks it’s fairly obvious that there wouldn’t be so many dogs requiring rehousing.
By betting on a dog track do you contribute – even in a miniscule way – to the number of unwanted dogs such charities are trying to rehouse? Certainly. What you make of that is up to you – just as every supermarket visit, unnecessary car journey and trip to Primark throws up ethical dilemmas.
Belle Vue and the GRA’s other tracks have undergone a flashy rebrand that reaches out to corporate functions and traditional clientele alike. The tracks are now under the brand Love The Dogs.
There’s a dangerous duality to that slogan. For many, loving the dogs is exactly the reason they won’t be going.
Belle Vue Stadium