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The Sickening Side of Greyhound Racing.

Moet and Chandon champagne at 58 a bottle. Sweet cured salmon and lobster on the menu. Punters chewing cigars (the big fat variety) in executive boxes in an air-conditioned grandstand.

Welcome to the Derby - the Greyhound Derby, that is, which gets under way at Wimbledon's Plough Lane stadium tonight.

Canine stars such as Westmead Lord, Loyal Honcho and Dilemma's Flight will be in action before an expected 6,000 capacity crowd, and the winner will get a cheque for 100,000.

But behind the scenes? Now that's a different story altogether; one the dog racing industry would rather you didn't read about.

We're supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, after all. This "love", it seems, doesn't extend to greyhounds.

The elite - dogs like Westmead Lord, hot favourite for the derby - are the lucky few. At the end of their careers, they'll be put out to stud.

As for the rest - the majority - a short, miserable life will be followed by a brutal and needless death.

Most will suffer a fate similar to those buried in a "mass grave" next to David Smith's bungalow off a secluded farm track in County Durham.

The method of execution for those unfortunate animals was a bolt gun, a weapon that fires a metal bar with enough force to shatter the toughest skull.

Smith had been providing a 10-a-time canine killing service for sections of the greyhound racing industry for up to 15 years.

It's easier, and cheaper, to dispose of greyhounds whose careers are curtailed through age - or because they cannot run fast enough to make their owners money - than to re-home them.

It's the equivalent of putting down an Afghan Hound or Cocker Spaniel because their coats are no longer shiny enough to compete at shows like Crufts.

The true scale of the scandal came to light when Mr Smith was convicted of breaching Environment Agency regulations and fined 2,000 (with 2,000 costs) earlier this year.

It is illegal to bury dead greyhounds in your garden, but not to put a metal bolt through their heads.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of carcasses, still lie beneath neatly-planted rows of beans, rhubarb, leeks and onions on Mr Smith's land.

As a symbol of the cruelty inflicted on greyhounds all over Britain, it could not be more chilling.

At least a bolt gun is quick - and preferable to being battered to death, killed with rat poison or thrown into a river weighed down with bricks.

These are some of the other ways, say animal charities, that unwanted greyhounds are routinely disposed of.

There is, undeniably, a ruthless element in greyhound racing.

Some dogs are even fed cocaine, preventing them from running on top form: crooked punters, in league with trainers and owners, cash in by betting on the doped dogs to lose. But it is the slaughter of unwanted animals that is most disturbing. A recent Parliamentary report said that at least 4,700 greyhounds a year are being killed unnecessarily.

And the figure, it said, could be a "significant underestimation" of the problem.

This is the disturbing background to actress Annette Crosbie's outspoken attack on the industry, reported in the Mail this week.

Miss Crosbie, who played Victor Meldrew's long-suffering wife Margaret in TV's One Foot In The Grave, owns three greyhounds and is a member of the Retired Greyhound Trust. At a public speaking event, she launched a passionate assault on those who she says abuse and murder thousands of dogs every year.

"Hundreds of greyhounds are bred in the hope of getting a winner," she says. "The remainder are surplus to requirements and have no future.

"It is, bluntly, a state of affairs which reflects little glory on Britain as a so-called nation of animal lovers. I have to mention them because no one cares."

The timing of her comments - before an audience who had paid 16 to hear her speak about her illustrious acting career - may be open to question, but surely not her sentiments.

They are shared by many both in and outside of dog racing, which generates a colossal 2.3 billion in off-course bets, and more than 87 million in Tote on- course bets at the UK's 29 licensed tracks.

Few "insiders" are prepared to go on the record. But today, two women who worked for trainers between 2004/2005, have come forward to speak to the Mail. Their accounts make uncomfortable reading.

The nearest most people get to this world is a TV screen. Greyhounds themselves are just a fleeting blur on the screen in pursuit of an artificial hare. But, unlike horse-racing tracks, dog tracks can be almost gladiatorial.

"It was common to see cut ears, sprains, holes in faces, dropped muscles, ripped claws or toes torn open - all this happens in the race itself," said Louise, 22.

"It was my job to bathe them and treat their wounded claws. The claws could get pulled out as they were running and the dogs would come back in foaming at the mouth."

The attitude of the trainer who employed her was "patch them up and send them back out", rather than pay for a vet to treat injured animals. "He had no respect for his dogs, and he was not alone," says Louise.

"I once saw a dog that had been injured as a puppy being forced to hurdle but it was still not fully recovered.

"As he struggled round the track, he fell badly at the last hurdle and was carried off yelping in pain. I found out the dog was put down the next day.

"Dogs were put down all the time. At least one a week was put down at the stadium because the animal was no longer able to race.

"The vet would come in to put them down. There was a special room with a blue door where they were killed. Everyone knew that if a dog went into that room it wasn't coming back out. "Every week it was the same thing, another dog gone. It was very common.

"The person I worked for was only interested in making money out of his dogs. Once a dog could no longer race, he wanted rid of it.

"I was very attached to one particular greyhound and walked him for a year. I was hanging on in the job waiting to adopt him when he retired. But it wasn't to be.

"The dog's shoulder was shattered in a race. Afterwards, the head kennel hand came back holding the dog's lead. I asked where the dog was. She just said 'get on with your work;. This became a familiar pattern."

Marie, 30, worked for a different trainer. On one occasion, she says, a dog was put down simply because it hurt its paw. "The dog hadn't been winning races for a while and I think the trainer just wanted to get rid of it," she explains.

She adds: "He only injured his paw - it wasn't even broken. But he was killed regardless. In the end such unnecessary killings were too much for me and I had to leave."

What Louise and Marie describe makes a mockery of National Greyhound Racing Club regulations that dogs should only be put down as a last resort and then only under the supervision of a vet.

Indeed, Louise claims her boss sometimes even arranged for dogs to be killed outside the track; on those occasions their ears were cut off because owners can be identified by a serial number tattooed on a greyhound's ears.

"He told me he buried the dogs but I think he just burned them," she said.

This week, the Mail discovered numerous other tales of widespread cruelty; dogs being killed at every stage of their lives, from being drowned as puppies if they don't show signs of being fit to race, or killed when they are adults because they can no longer perform. We have been told about one man, who collects unwanted dogs in his van from race-tracks all over Ireland and takes them home, where they are shot with a bolt gun.

Those who have attempted to expose the scandal have been thwarted. One is Pauline Harrison, a greyhound owner from Barnsley, who was faced with evasion and lies when she tried to find out what had happened to her race-winning dog, Stormy Silver.

He was five years old when she decided to retire him in 2002. A registered trainer offered to find Stormy Silver a new home for a 10 fee.

"He was a lovely dog but I already had four greyhounds at home so I didn't have room for another," Mrs Harrison told the Mail.

"The trainer told me he would make sure he went to a safe retirement home, so I agreed that was the best thing, but when I tried to find out how Stormy Silver was a few weeks later, he kept avoiding me.

"In fact, the trainer had given him to a woman he knew. Finally I got to speak to this supposed new owner and she said Stormy Silver was doing fine and was curled up on the sofa watching TV.

But Stormy Silver had a toe missing and when I asked her from which foot, she didn't know. "She said she would call back but never did. I kept trying to get through but the number became unobtainable. I contacted the police and RSPCA but they couldn't help."

It doesn't take a genius to work out that Stormy Silver probably went the way of so many other retired racing dogs. Owners of some 52 other dogs entrusted to the same trainer also want to know where they went.

The man in question was eventually stripped of his licence, but owners like Mrs Harrison still don't know where their dogs are.

The suspicion is that they are now buried under David Smith's vegetable patch in County Durham. Four people have also lost their training licences for using the services of Mr Smith. Back in Barnsley, the news is little consolation to Mrs Harrison. "I gave up greyhound racing after that," she says. "I have not been back to a race-track since.

"Those poor dogs are just used and abused. I am sure what happened in the North-East is happening elsewhere in the country. I just wish I had kept Stormy Silver myself."

Tonight, members of a group called Greyhound Action will be demonstrating outside the Wimbledon stadium with placards saying "You bet, they die" . . ."Say No To Greyhound Racing" . . . "Kill Greyhound Racing, Not Greyhounds" . . . "Dying To Entertain You". Greyhound Action was among the organisations which gave evidence to the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, which produced that damning report on the dog racing industry.

It wants the Government to make it illegal for anyone other than a vet to put down greyhounds, and has called for the sport's governing bodies to incorporate animal welfare groups like the Dogs Trust and the Retired Greyhound Trust, for whom Annette Crosbie is such a passionate campaigner.

As Miss Crosbie says: "Greyhounds usually start racing at 15 months. They will have to run in all weathers and all conditions on tracks that vary from good to disgraceful.

"They will suffer injuries that will go untreated, and in approximately 18 months their career will be over. They will be judged too expensive to 'mend', and the owners will want rid of them.

Some are kept as pets, more are given homes by voluntary helpers, but most will be killed. "Every year some 30,000 are bred to race, but only 15,000 are registered. No one knows what happens to the other 15,000.".

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