Saturday, 27 January 2007

Going to the Dogs..

With Lingfield off and a day's leave booked, I decided to head up the North Circular road to Walthamstow Stadium for the lunchtime BAGS meeting.

I've been to Saturday evening dogs at the Stow on a couple of occasions but, until Friday, I was a BAGS virgin and didn't quite know what to expect.

The first welcome surprise was the free admission and a well put-together racecard with another sheet containing the weights of the dogs. The "crowd", if you can call it that, numbered around 100 in the main enclosure and in contrast to packed-out Saturdays with a fully-booked restaurant, there was plenty of room and a much more limited menu.

As for the people, the elderly were well represented and there is clearly a hardcore of "regulars". Other than that, families with pre-school children and a works group made up the bulk of the remainder.

The racing was of course graded ranging from the "feature", an S3 over 640 metres to a range of 475 metre events including A8 and A9 events, the greyhound equivalent of Banded racing. It was all conveyor-belt stuff and a 50p Trifecta certainly shook up the dividends while a couple of rails bookies plied a fairly lonely furrow out front. The dogs were from a small band of retained trainers and it was by no means unusual to see one kennel supplying two runners in the same race.

When I worked in betting shops in the 1980s, the BAGS meetings were an important part of the day's action - two afternoon horse race meetings and two BAGS meetings were a typical weekday menu while in some of the shops I worked the managers told me the biggest turnover of the week was on Saturday morning dogs at Hackney.

Those days are long gone and in an era of FOBTs, numbers and virtual racing, there has to be a question mark over the need for BAGS races. I suspect Walthamstow wouldn't shed too many tears if BAGS ended tomorrow and nor, I suspect, would the majority of betting shop staff and managers and I suspect the share of a shop's turnover generated by BAGS racing has plummeted in the last two decades.

And's possibly some of the cheapest entertainment around on reflection. I won on three races and more than covered the meagre outlay in drinks and a bite to eat. Those who attend clearly enjoy it and I suspect a number of the dogs running would face an uncertain future or go flapping if BAGS ended. The prizes were mostly £75 for the winner and £25 for the second so we're not talking big prizes but still good fun for the Owners.

Can racing learn anything from BAGS ? The key difference between horse racing and greyhound racing is that many of the top dog tracks are already owned by the bookmakers while they have no such involvement in horse racing. The economics of horse racing don't allow for free admission because any course staging any meeting has costs even if no one comes through the turnstiles in terms of health and safety, staffing the stables etc. These costs would be much greater than they are for Walthamstow. Race courses need either punters or substantial subsidies to stage unprofitable meetings.

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