FOR WHAT MUST be the thousandth time in its distinguished career, the white rabbit - with legs permanently fixed in a flying-leap - is the only sure bet in the stadium as it zings along the rail, first past the finishing post. Five minutes after the greyhounds have come to a halt and the roar from the crowd has fizzled into the night, Wang Xiaojing returns from the betting window with a fan of crisp $100 bills in one hand, a well-nursed beer in the other, and a broad, toothy grin on his face. 'With horses you bet on two things - the horse and the rider,' says the holidaymaker from Guangdong, who is in Macau with a tour package that has bused him and about 30 companions into the canidrome for an evening's racing. 'But with greyhounds it is all about the animal and its hunger for victory. That makes it more satisfying in some ways.' But the track's days of attracting punters from afar may be numbered, as the Macau (Yat Yuen) Canidrome Club fights for its life. Despite being Asia's only greyhound racing track, the region's efforts to reinvent itself as Las Vegas may force out a sport whose allure is fading in the shadow of the mega casinos. David Chiu Dai-wai moved from Hong Kong to Melbourne when he was nine, but arrived in Macau with his wife, Stella, last July hoping to steer both the club and the Australian-imported hounds that race there towards greener pastures. He admits he has his work cut out. 'We can't compete with the casinos, it's impossible,' says the Hong Kong-born senior operations manager, looking out over the circuit that sits like a gleaming oasis in the middle of a smoggy intersection of shabby apartment blocks. 'I was told that only a few years ago, the turnover for every race was something like a million bucks,' says Chiu. 'These days we get a total of about $100,000 for the first four or five races.' Macau is already looking like Las Vegas: not in terms of the sparkling neon that fizzes along the Avenida de Amizade at night, or the queues to get into the Sands Casino at lunchtime on nondescript weekdays. The change is more due to the gargantuan cranes soaring skyward, giant exclamation marks looming above the many building sites on the waterfront. This is the true picture of progress - the rampant Vegas-isation of Macau. When the cranes have finished, the foreshore will have a startling new complexion. The Fisherman's Wharf, with its incongruous collection of building styles and a volcano sat in the middle for good measure, will provide the sense of the surreal that Las Vegas Boulevard exudes today. When the Galaxy and Wynn casinos open opposite the Landmark Hotel, they will prompt a battle for betting revenue that can only increase in its ferocity. Buzzing towards the lights like flies are throngs of mainland punters who will burn through millions of dollars. In June last year, the former enclave had to cope with an average of 43,358 arrivals a day, 96 per cent of them from across the border, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Macau has blasted out of the economic traps like a greyhound in order to accommodate them. It is ironic then, that in the mad, salivating chase for the money bunny, it's the dogs themselves that are on the sidelines. 'My view is that there should be some sort of ruling from the government that makes allowances towards greyhound racing and also Macau races,' says Chiu. 'While the rest of Macau has flourished so well in everything else, more pressure and more competition has been placed on the canidrome with the greyhounds.' While seemingly at odds with the glitz and glare of the casinos, the homely feel of the stadium, complete with pristine flowerpots that dot the entrance, is far more welcoming than the cold, dollar-fixated monoliths springing up around town. Luck of the draw decides whether a Chinese tour group rolls up to the gate for an evening's entertainment or not; but on a good night a swell of up to 4,000 punters roams around the stadium between the betting windows and the track. But nights like that are becoming less frequent for the club that has been in operation since 1964. Adding insult to injury is the perception that these hard times don't have as much to do with the new wave of casinos in Macau as they do with actions taken by Hong Kong three years ago. 'When gambling on Macau greyhound racing was banned in Hong Kong, that's when the turnover here went right down,' says Chiu. 'It's really affected us. These days it's a huge challenge.' Chiu is referring to the 2002 Gambling Ordinance Amendment, which decimated turnover levels in Macau. Regarded by many as a protectionist policy on Hong Kong's part, the ordinance was amended with a ban on overseas betting, which among many other restrictions made it illegal for bets to be placed from Hong Kong on offshore horse and dog racing. For horse racing - the so-called sport of kings - the pinch was immediate, although the Macau Jockey Club managed to bounce back with big gains a year later. For greyhound racing - the so-called poor man's sport - the effects were more severe. And if something doesn't change, Chiu says it's difficult to see where the canidrome will be in a few years' time. 'The ground staff - the people who work in the kennels - they've had jobs here for 30, 40 years,' he says. 'And they've probably got another 10 or so years to go before they retire, so there's no opportunity for them to start a new career. But regulations in Macau don't allow people under the age of 18 to enter gambling premises. In places such as Britain and Australia, kids under 18 can't gamble but they can still come along with mum and dad for a day out. Children here can't do that. It means they never create an interest; they instead get caught up behind computers. Elsewhere kids can come and see what happens at the track. 'The reason jockeys in Macau and Hong Kong do so well, for example, is because they start young overseas. How do you get your apprentices here? You can't start when you're 25. They start at 16 years old, working at the stables for the love of horses, not gambling.' Of course there are those who would like to see the end of greyhound racing, with the view that it is a cruel sport where animals are forced to behave against their will. As with horse racing, however, ask any trainer - the person closest and most strongly bonded to the animal - and they will vehemently disagree. For those who make their livelihoods at the stadium, the sport has become a way of life during the past 30-odd years. 'The loyalty of the workers here is unbelievable. This place is like their second home,' says Chiu, who was himself a successful trainer and breeder in Melbourne for 30 years before packing it in to return to the Pearl River Delta region. 'When you get people who work not so much for the wages but simply through love of the sport and the history associated with it - it's a real inspiration.' In an effort to revive the sport's fortunes locally, plans are in the pipeline to hold dog racing at the Macau Jockey Club race meetings in the summer. While both institutions are separate entities, Dr Stanley Ho Hung-sun is on the board of directors and so both clubs are in a position to collaborate. Meanwhile, Chiu has initiated dinner deals at the stadium as well as a betting voucher scheme to broaden the sport's appeal. 'They're beautiful animals; I had my first greyhound win in 1976,' Chiu says. 'I'm very sport-minded and am very competitive, and greyhound racing for me was the best hobby in terms of combining sport and competition. 'We need to show people that greyhound racing is a fun, fantastic sport. It has a whole culture and tradition, compared to the casinos that are there for one thing and one thing only. Kids might be inspired to become a vet after coming to the races - if they were allowed; or to perhaps become a breeder, the same with horses. From a hobby you can make it a livelihood, but in Macau that dream is fast becoming impossible.'