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Londons fabled Walthamstow greyhound track closes
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A dog races at London's Walthamstow greyhound stadium, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008. The finish line is looming for the greyhounds of Walthamstow Stadium. Saturday sees the end for the 75-year-old temple to the archetypical British sport of greyhound racing. A London landmark famed for its heady atmosphere and huge pink-and-green neon sign, the track has been frequented by everyone from Winston Churchill to Brad Pitt. Now it is closing after the owners agreed to sell the site to developers. - photo by Associated Press
    LONDON — The finish line is looming for the greyhounds of Walthamstow Stadium, a London landmark frequented by everyone from Winston Churchill to Brad Pitt and where David Beckham worked as a teenager.
    Saturday sees the end for the 75-year-old temple to the archetypal British sport of greyhound racing. Famed for its heady atmosphere and pink-and-green neon sign, the track is closing after the owners agreed to sell the site to developers.
    New ways of gambling, animal rights pressures and rising property prices in an area near the site of the 2012 Olympic Games have all contributed to the demise of the stadium, and the decline of this quintessential working-class sport. London once had more than 30 greyhound tracks; after Saturday, there will be just three.
    ‘‘I’m sick as a pig. It’s a terrible shame,’’ said Barrie Clegg of the Walthamstow Owners’ and Welfare Association, who has been coming to the stadium for more than 25 years.
    ‘‘It is to Walthamstow what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It’s absolutely unique — the heart of the community.’’
    Opened in a working-class east London neighborhood in 1933 by a bookmaker named William Chandler, Walthamstow was one of the jewels in greyhound racing’s crown, renowned for its art-deco facade. The venue was later immortalized in photos featured on the sleeve of British rock band Blur’s ‘‘Parklife’’ album, which had a cover shot of racing greyhounds.
    Celebrity visitors over the years ranged from screen siren Lana Turner to Brad Pitt, who visited while filming the Guy Ritchie film ‘‘Snatch.’’
    A teenage David Beckham was employed there, collecting glasses in the stadium’s Paddock Grill. The London-born soccer star said Friday that it was ‘‘a real shame to see it go.’’
    ‘‘I always remember my time working at Walthamstow dogs. It was my first ever job and I was so happy to be getting a wage for the first time,’’ said Beckham, a former England captain who now plays for L.A. Galaxy.
    Greyhound racing first became popular in Britain in the 1920s. By the 1940s, an estimated 50 million Britons went ‘‘to the dogs’’ each year at more than 100 greyhound tracks. The British Greyhound Racing Board says more than 3 million people a year still do, but only 30 tracks remain.
    After Walthamstow closes, only Wimbledon in south London and Crayford and Romford, on the city’s fringes, will remain in the capital.
    Outside Britain, greyhound racing remains popular in Ireland, and in several U.S. states — particularly Florida, home to almost a third of all U.S. greyhound tracks.
    But it retains an air of working-class Britishness, of smoky enclosures filled with men in cloth caps. That old-fashioned image may be part of the sport’s problem, but it is also outdated.
    Business has been booming at Walthamstow since it announced its impending closure a few months ago. The thrice-weekly race meetings draw the usual middle-aged regulars, but also a smattering of smartly dressed businesspeople and many families.
    Even young urban professionals have begun to see the attraction of watching skinny dogs chase a mechanical hare — in races that last all of 30 seconds — while dining on chicken and chips, the track’s signature dish.
    ‘‘It has been very popular in the last month or so, but that’s because of the closure,’’ said the stadium’s marketing manager, Paul Wynn. ‘‘But we lost half a million pounds ($900,000) last year. The directors decided they just couldn’t keep it going.’’
    The rise of late-hours betting shops and Internet gambling, along with changes in tax laws that favored onsite betting over off-track gambling, have all hit revenues. And the stadium’s location, near the future Olympic site in an area undergoing huge redevelopment, makes the land on which it stands increasingly valuable.
    There has also been growing concern for the welfare of the dogs. Animal-rights groups welcomed news of Walthamstow’s closure.
    The dog owners’ association says many of the 500 or so greyhounds at Walthamstow will move on to other tracks. The rest will be found homes in which to live out a peaceful retirement.
    A group of supporters called Save Our Stow has mounted a last-minute rescue bid for the stadium, backed by a consortium of businesspeople. Supporters plan to march through Walthamstow Saturday in a last-ditch effort to save the stadium. But the owners say the building’s sale for a residential development is ‘‘a done deal.’’
    Most of the structure will be razed, although the famous facade is protected by government heritage rules and must be preserved.
    Whatever happens, backers of the sport insist greyhound racing has a future.
    ‘‘It’s been a tough time for businesses, they’ve not had a great time of it,’’ said Richard Hailer of the British Greyhound Racing Board.
    But, he said, ‘‘There’s no question of the sport coming under threat. It won’t die out.’’