50 years in operation for Macau's canidrome for greyhound races
Amid criticism from animal activists and falling revenue, Asia's only racetrack for greyhounds is worlds away from Macau's glitzy casinos
It's 6pm on a Thursday and middle-aged men in shorts and damp T-shirts grunt as they run laps of an athletics field just south of Macau's border gate. The green turf is ringed by a sand circuit, a 400-metre racetrack for nightly greyhound races.
The Yat Yuen Canidrome hosts the only greyhound races in Asia, and this month it celebrates 50 years in operation. In a gritty, sleepy neighbourhood in the north of the city, it is worlds away from the glitz and excitement of Macau's casinos.
Dog barks and whines echo from pens in one corner of the arena. In recent years, activists and animal rights NGOs have railed against allegedly poor conditions in which the dogs are kept and the frequency with which they are put down, but with little success. The small, concrete pens reek of dog urine and the stench floats with the breeze.
At 6.35pm a loud, metallic clunk sends a "rabbit" lure made of polystyrene and plastic bags on a test run. It buzzes with a high-pitched hum as it zips around the track.
The first dogs out of the starting boxes are due at 7.30pm. Some 18 races run at 15-minute intervals up until midnight.
At 7pm, the lights go on and the betting counters open. A clutch of young women in smart, red vests sit in numbered booths behind glass panels.
Yet aside from the bet-takers and a few cleaners and servers, there are still only four people, all middle-aged men, in the stadium. A violin sonata crackles onto speakers mounted above the seating and finally more punters start to arrive. Most head straight for the restaurant, whose window walls offer an air-conditioned vantage point for 30 patacas per person, the price of a bowl of noodles each.
The crowd is small, no more than 50 or 60 throughout the whole night. They are mainly tourists, easily identifiable by their bags of Macanese shortbread, peanut candy and low-cost cosmetics. A young couple from Guangzhou are there because the track is famous and they don't have one at home.
Bernice, a public relations worker from Singapore, sits minding bags of souvenirs while her husband goes off to bet, smoke, and bet again. They come to Macau quite often, but this is only the second time they've come to the canidrome.
"We don't have anything like this in Singapore", she says. "I think probably the SPCA wouldn't allow it. I've heard it might close down very soon."
Albano Martins, who leads Anima, an animal protection society, says: "It's a bloody business."
In 2011, the Post revealed that the canidrome was killing dogs at a rate of around one a day. According to the its investigation, 383 dogs were killed in 2010 because they were regarded as underperforming. Following an outcry in Macau, Hong Kong and elsewhere, the canidrome began to cover up the numbers it was putting down, but Martins said it has not changed its practices.
Most of the greyhounds at Yat Yuen are imported from Australia. But pressure on the Australian government to ban the trade has not yielded results.
"Once the animals reach their destination, welfare concerns are difficult for Australia to pursue because the animals are outside Australia's legal jurisdiction", says the Australian Department of Agriculture website
A canidrome first opened in 1931, inspired by the success of greyhound racing in Shanghai, where a large canidrome had been built in 1928 that quickly became a popular entertainment venue. Shanghai's elite bet big at the track, and dined on French food while listening to jazz in an upscale clubhouse.
But Fan Che Pang, a Macau businessman who led a group of overseas Chinese and Americans in founding the Macau Canine Club and opening the canidrome, could not match the success of Shanghai. Interest in the Macau venue quickly waned, and in 1938 it closed and fell into disrepair.
In 1963, new owners gave the stadium a facelift and it reopened that August, exactly 50 years ago this month. In a neat reversal of the situation 30 years earlier, the defunct greyhound track in Shanghai provided much of the staff and equipment for the refit of the stadium in Macau.
An old Ford engine used to propel the "rabbit" is the original from Shanghai's 1920s track.
In 1998, the owners invested HK$30 million to upgrade the track's facilities and betting services, but nothing much has happened since. Fading posters on old corkboards and water-stained walls evoke a feeling of stepping back in time.
Greyhound betting revenue pales in comparison to casino income in Macau, and it has always been less lucrative than horse racing, according to statistics from Macau's Gaming Inspection and Co-ordination Bureau. Revenue from the dogs has fallen annually since 2010, and based on the numbers for the first half of this year, it looks set to hit a new low.
The canidrome's land lease ends in 2015, and there are rumours new investors could bring the races back to life. But others believe the lease's expiry will be the track's final curtain.