A Greyhound Racetrack Meets Its Demise
Posted February 21, 2018 7:42 p.m. EST
MACAU — Six dog handlers, each escorting a greyhound, stepped onto the wet sand of Asia’s only legal dog-racing track to little noise except a subtropical rain.
In the stands, about two dozen men watched as the greyhounds were led to their starting positions and then released to sprint after a rabbit-shaped lure around a ring. If any of the men had placed bets, none of them showed elation.
In an otherwise empty betting hall, a security guard patrolled listlessly as staff members sat behind glassed-in counters, napping or tapping away on their smartphones.
The racing track in this Chinese gambling hub no longer sees the excitement it did in its 20th-century glory days. The greyhounds that ran on that recent Saturday were among the last to compete here before the track shuts down in July.
Last year Macau’s government told the track’s operator, the Macau (Yat Yuen) Canidrome Co., to move the races out of downtown to make space for urban redevelopment. The company confirmed last month that the track would close.
The track’s demise, a closing that animal rights advocates say is long overdue, in part reflects the transformation of Macau from a colonial backwater into a popular tourist destination for China’s fast-growing middle class.
Nearly two decades since Portugal formally ceded control of the territory to China, the tiny enclave off China’s southern shore, home to about 600,000 people, is the world’s casino capital, with gambling revenue five times that of Las Vegas.
Buses ferry crowds of Chinese tourists to the giant casinos, where many gamble on slot machines with touch screens, shop in stores set in a replica of Venice and take selfies in front of a copy of the Eiffel Tower.
But at the Canidrome, revenue has stalled in recent years, its annual reports suggest. Dog racing first came to Macau in the 1930s but failed after a few years because it was not widely affordable, according to a local veteran journalist’s history of the territory. In 1963, racing was revived as part of a new effort to turn Macau into a Western-style gambling hub. It was more accessible than before and proved instantly popular.
When the track reopened, “all of Macau was crazy about it,” according to the racetrack’s annals, which recount long lines of prospective bettors. “Every weekend, the ferries from Hong Kong to Macau were filled with dog racing fans eager to see the grand event.”
In 1969, The New York Times suggested a visit to the dog races in a travel guide to the “tranquil, low-priced Mediterranean-style enclave on the coast of turbulent China.”
Half a century later, the fascination has faded and even turned into disapproval.
“It is now a modern economy built on tourism,” said Albano Martins, 68, a native of Portugal who moved to Macau in 1981. Martins runs Anima, the territory’s largest private animal rescue group. “Before it was very tough, there was only betting.”
“It’s a clean environment now, for families,” he added.
Desmond Lam, a professor at the University of Macau who studies gambling and tourism, said a growing awareness of animal rights helped explain the decline in revenue at the track. A 2011 investigation by The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong found that about 30 racing dogs were killed every month at the racetrack’s kennel.
The French actress Brigitte Bardot and members of the British band Queen are among the celebrities recruited by advocates to write letters to Macau’s government urging it to protect the track’s hundreds of dogs.
The racetrack company, run by an influential local lawmaker, Angela Leong, whose husband long oversaw a casino empire in the territory, did not respond to written questions. The company said in a filing last year that its track was “part of the collective history of Macau,” and that it brought jobs to the territory.
It also said it planned to establish a “virtual” track where bets can be placed on dog races taking place elsewhere.
With the track closing, Leong has pledged to adopt all the dogs or give them to friends. The company’s website has invited the public to apply to take them, though it is unclear how successful that effort has been.
Animal rights advocates fear that the greyhounds, most of which were imported from Australia, will be sold to illegal racing tracks in the Chinese mainland, Vietnam or elsewhere, be auctioned off to breeders or even be sold for their meat.
“We are concerned because if they didn’t care about animals beforehand, why would they care about them now?” said Martins of the animal rescue group.
Speaking from the top floor of his multistory shelter for strays, he estimated that 650 dogs — about 45 of them puppies — live at the Canidrome’s kennels. He is asking the government for permission to take over the kennels for a year to find owners for them.
At least a few retired racing dogs have found new lives here as pets.
A greyhound originally named Dynamite Spice is one. She raced in Australia before being brought to Macau, according to Australian records.
Her new name is Garlic — the only word the 5-year-old dog reacted to, said her new owner, Edith Lam.
Lam, 38, a part-time assistant at a law firm, said she had adopted the dog last year after spotting her at a government-run kennel.
Canidrome had given Garlic to the kennel early last year, according to the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau, the local government department that runs the facility. Two other greyhounds found new homes the same way last year, it said.
The department said it had asked the track operator to provide a plan for “rehoming” all of its dogs but that it had not yet received a response. Lam said Garlic was “very, very shy,” and had initially barked in her sleep in what Lam interpreted as nightmares. Though the dog is still scared of the benign ocean waves on the nearby beach, she appears to have taken well to her new home.
“The truth is she is just like furniture,” Lam said, describing how Garlic spends much of the day sleeping in the kitchen or watching the family and their other two dogs’ every move.
Lam said no one she knew would approve of dog racing these days. “All my friends are against it,” she said. “The younger people do not like that kind of cruelty.”