The British mainland currently boasts a total of 20 officially recognised greyhound tracks. There was, however, a time when those numbers were considerably greater. Over the years, many tracks have continued to thrive and grow, whilst others have fallen by the wayside. Of the venues forced into closure, perhaps the highest profile is the Manchester-based track of Belle Vue, once a thriving hub of the sport, especially in the North.
First opened back in 1926, the centrally located circuit was not only the oldest greyhound stadium in the land but, for a time, also the biggest. What’s more, it was home not only to a thriving greyhound scene but also speedway, stock car events and banger racing. Much missed by local racing fans, here we take a look at the story of what was possibly Britain’s most influential and perhaps best-loved greyhound track.
Former Greyhound Racing at Belle Vue
Built at a cost of £22,000 by the newly formed Greyhound Racing Association Ltd (GRA) back in 1926, the track takes its name from the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. The first greyhound venue of its type to be built anywhere in the UK, Manchester was selected as the site due to the city’s strong sporting and gambling heritage.
Staging its first meeting on the 24th of July, 1926, a total of 1,700 racegoers showed up to take in an eight-race card of seven-dog races – as opposed to the standard six of the modern day. A promising enough start for what was the UK’s first ever oval greyhound circuit, but one which still saw the organisers suffer a £50 loss on the day.
Any concerns regarding the track’s initial viability were, however, to prove short-lived, with no fewer than 16,000 in attendance during the track’s second week of operation. Soon a roaring business success, the value of GRA shares rose from an initial value of 1 shilling to £37.50. This was a startling success and one which triggered the subsequent rush to build new stadiums throughout the country in what was a golden period for the sport.
Over the years the track only continued to grow in profile. The 1970s then saw £500,000 in investment pumped into the track, with upgrades including a selection of bars and restaurants, hospitality boxes and an impressive glass-fronted grandstand – all of which contributed to an average weekly attendance of around 70,000 by the end of the 70s.
Since its inception, Belle Vue had acted as the home to a number of the season’s most prestigious events, either on a permanent or temporary basis, including the Northern Flat, Northern 700, Cesarewitch and Laurels. A 2018 deal with the Arena Racing Company, under which the track agreed to stage meetings every Wednesday afternoon and Sunday morning, in addition to its three evening fixtures, appeared to secure the immediate future of the stadium. However, it wasn’t long before things began to unravel.
What Happened to Belle Vue Greyhound Stadium?
In truth, the track had already experienced its fair share of troubles during the 21st century before the end finally came. Of course, the sport in general had lost a lot of popularity from the end of the 1970s and 1980s, with so many other entertainment options available.
In 2008, it was discovered that Belle Vue breeder, Charles Pickering, had been sending dogs to the Liverpool Veterinary School for research purposes. This information unsurprisingly reflected poorly upon the track, with Pickering ultimately thrown out of the sport and slapped with a £5,000 fine.
Having successfully ridden out that wave of negativity, Belle Vue was then forced to negotiate the double-whammy of a 2010 study highlighting a higher-than-average injury rate at the venue, followed by a 2012 Sunday Express feature slamming the kennel conditions at the track. Despite the growing protests of the animal rights groups, the stadium quickly cleaned up its act and managed to continue.
Then in 2014, GRA’s parent company, the National Asset Management Agency, sold the track to the Crown Oil Pension Fund for a total of £2.6m, ending a period of ownership, which began back in 1926. That didn’t represent the end of the dog racing though, as the GRA immediately leased the track back for £249,000 per year. That agreement was scheduled to last until 2028 but, alas, it wasn’t to be. That deal only made it as far as 2019, at which point GRA sold the lease to the Arena Racing Company.
Just two months later, in December of 2019, an application for housing planning permission was granted, stating that the Kirkmanshulme Lane site may be used for the building of 250 houses and flats. This new development was heavily supported by a number of animal rights groups but was not yet set in stone, with local trainers and racing fans equally vociferous in their opposition.
As with so many businesses up and down the land, it was the impact of the global health crisis in 2020 that would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Belle Vue. With a business model based heavily upon spectator attendance and catering/hospitality income, the track was particularly hard hit by the national lockdowns. Whether or not Belle Vue would have continued without 2020’s events will never be known, but this financial blow proved to be insurmountable for the Arena Racing Company.
Originally scheduled to reopen in 2020 following the first national lockdown, that rebirth lasted for precisely one meeting. The card on the 6th of June, 2020 was, sadly, the last ever to be held at the historic venue.
Site Passed to Housing Developers
In August of 2020, the confirmation finally came, with the Arena Racing Company stating that there was no longer a feasible business case for keeping the track open; all staff would be made redundant, and the site would pass into the hands of the housing developers.
The demise of Belle Vue was a particularly bitter blow for greyhound fans in the Greater Manchester area. Following the previous closures of Salford, White City and Bolton, one of the nation’s traditional sporting hubs is now without an official greyhound track for the first time in almost 100 years.
The only survivor of Belle Vue’s sporting heritage is the Belle Vue Aces Speedway team, who vacated the stadium in 2015 but still compete in the Elite League at their new home of the National Speedway Stadium.
The Current Site
Whilst certain other tracks have been earmarked for repurposing, only to then be rescued at the 11th hour, it seems that for Belle Vue there will be no coming back. Demolition commenced in August of 2021 and, as of 2022, all that remained of the old venue were remnants of the racing circuit itself, with building work already having commenced on the patch of land where the main entrance once lay.