Jonathan Hobbs: The demise of greyhound racing at Belle Vue but better times in Nottingham

Jonathan Hobbs casts his eye over the latest developments in the greyhound world

A week is a long time in, well, greyhound racing - especially during unprecedented times.

The rollercoaster of emotions in lockdown took a real dip when it was announced that racing at Belle Vue had been suspended until late August, at least. A hammer blow to those connected to the Manchester venue - and to the sport itself.

To those unaware, Belle Vue is the home of UK greyhound racing. It’s where it all started.

The Gorton track staged the first greyhound race under rules on July 24, 1926, with a crowd of 1,700 watching a greyhound by the name of Mistley, running from trap two in a seven-runner race, winning the first race over 440 yards by eight lengths.

A week later, 16,000 turned out and the track - and the sport - never looked back.

Belle Vue has hosted greyhound racing since 1926

The following year it staged one of its most famous competitions in the shape of the Northern Flat, followed later by the Laurels. Its trainers supplied Derby champions and the place was jumping long before the GRA bought it in 1937.

The Greyhound Racing Association was for years the major force in greyhound racing but when the company was sold to effectively a property developer the writing was on the wall for a number of tracks - and Belle Vue was sold to Crown Oil Pension Fund in 2014.

They leased the track back to a company called GRA Acquisition who held the lease until that, in turn, was sold to Arc, who continued to race at Belle Vue even after it became clear that planning permission had been sought for housing on the site.

Owners and trainers had hoped the existing arrangement would continue post-lockdown, with Arc holding the lease to race, but, after a shortage of greyhounds was announced as the reason for a delay to a racing resumption, came the announcement we all feared.

It is not fait accompli, however, and having Arc in their corner still gives Belle Vue a better chance of survival than it had in the GRA’s hands, but they don't own the land and any decision to save it will be business-based, not emotionally-charged.

The Save Belle Vue Stadium Action Group continues to do great work behind the scenes and have taken great heart in Oxford Council’s refusal to allow a property developer to run roughshod over the stadium - and a new sporting arena there remains a real possibility.

Social housing alongside a revamped stadium is included in the Oxford plan and it is hoped Belle Vue could follow suit, albeit the Gorton area where ‘the Zoo’ sits is largely industrial and still surely suits a seven-day-a-week leisure operation than anything else.

Manchester is a fantastic and vibrant city and Belle Vue has an extraordinary catchment area. Saturday nights there have been well known as the busiest in the greyhound racing week - and its huge grandstand was able to look after everyone well.

The racing was always top-notch and it could easily have staged the Greyhound Derby. That looks a long way off now, but hopefully another few chapters are written in its long history before the book is closed - and hopefully greyhound racing can be a part of that.

All eyes on Nottingham

Nottingham is now owned by Arc, so credit where credit is due, and last week’s news that the Star Sports & Arc English Greyhound Derby will take place in October was hugely welcome - especially in the aftermath of Belle Vue.

October was always the favoured month and this column has long championed its scheduling then, being after the Irish Derby and before the weather bites. Nottingham could also now stage the Eclipse, its much-cherished annual, in November!

To precis the Derby arrangements, the event will be for 96 runners and be worth £50,000 to the winner. It’s a reduction on 2019, but in a Covid-19 world and a behind-closed-doors possibility this is still a major result and thumbs-up to all concerned.

One less round allows the competition to be completed within the month, which clears the way for other tracks to stage Category One and Two events around it. The Derby takes precedence and a clash with other events is avoided where possible.

Nottingham has been hosting racing behind closed doors

Ben Keith, owner of Star Sports, always deserves special praise in these quarters and his continued support of the Derby is superb - a big-race partnership, which started at Towcester in 2017, was repeated in 2018 and then when Nottingham took over last year.

Of course, Towcester has now returned as a greyhound track - another thumbs-up, this time to new promoter Kevin Boothby - and it was Star Sports who backed the first race there, a brilliant £500 ‘invitation’ won by Sharon Thompson’s classy Sparta Master.

Well done all.

A swift return to opening racing

Talking of Sparta Master, what price the Coronation Cup runner-up turns out at Romford a fortnight on Friday when the Essex track becomes the first track to stage open races since March?

Restrictions on staging open races are lifted on June 29 and Romford and Central Park will be quickest out of the traps here, with the heats of the Colossus Bets Silver Salver being staged at the Kent track on Sunday July 5.

The £3,000-to-the-winner sprint Category Two competition will be hosted by Central Park live on RPGTV across three Sundays.

Finally, with the above story in mind, take a minute to have a look at Monmore’s card on Thursday. Quite simply, has there ever been a better graded card put together? Take a bow the Ladbrokes track and racing manager Tony Williamson.

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