Yat Yuen Canidrome’s future hangs in balance amid competition from casinos and pressure from animal rights groups

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 11:50am

Scooters line the avenue as people weave their way through the bustling stalls selling fruit and street food. But take a few steps across the road and the atmosphere at Asia’s only greyhound racing track, the Yat Yuen Canidrome, on the main island of Macau, could not be more different.

 It’s 7.20pm on a Tuesday and the first race – one of 18 held five nights a week at the venue – is about to start. Gamblers meander through a huge rusty gate that pulsates with kitsch neon-lit dogs. On the right of the gate is a separate betting room for those who prefer wagering on two-legged animals. “Go in there if you want to bet on the soccer and basketball,” says the friendly security guard. With the glow of the casinos in the background, there’s much to remind you that you are in the world’s biggest gambling hub – and the only place in China where gambling is legal. And it dominates with gambling revenues last year (2014) hitting US$44.1 billion, according to the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ), the government body overseeing gaming activities in the former Portuguese colony.

The admission fee is just a mere 10 patacas. But ask animal rights campaigners like Albano Martins, the chief of Macau-based animal shelter Anima, and they will tell you the cost is much higher. More like one dead dog a day, says Martins, citing a 2011 investigation by the South China Morning Post that revealed the Canidrome killed 383 underperforming dogs in 2010 instead of making efforts to rehome them, triggering a global backlash. He claims dogs are still being killed and says the Canidrome’s adoption programme, implemented under government orders to rehome dogs instead of killing greyhounds, is a scam

 Now the city’s greyhound racing industry is back in the spotlight, not just because of claims by Martins that underperforming dogs are still being killed at a rate of 30 a month, but also as the lease for the track nears its October 31 expiry date.

Watch: Macau's dilapidated dog racing track 'killing 30 dogs per month' says animal rights group

It’s a topic that has divided the city where gambling tourism, according to government statistics, accounts for up 50 per cent of the economy. In 2007 Macau overtook the Las Vegas Strip in gaming revenues, with some reports claiming it now makes in a week what the Vegas strip makes in a year. Unlike the huge profits made at casinos such as Wynn, Sands, MGM and Galaxy, the Canidrome, despite a series of tax concessions (50 per cent in 1985, 35 per cent in 1988 and 25 per cent in 2005 ), makes a pittance (gross annual revenue for 2014 was 145 million patacas a decrease of 18.54 per cent from 2013. In 2013 the gross income was 178 million patacas, according to the DICJ).

“The revenue the Canidrome made in the whole of 2014, a casino can make in just four hours,” says Martins, a former financer.

With gamblers ditching the dogs for glitzy casinos, and with growing global pressure from animal rights groups, the question remains. Why after more than 50 years is the track still running?

Macau Legislative Councillor Angela Leong On-kei says the Canidrome’s historical importance should be taken into consideration before any decision on its future is made. Leong, the fourth wife of gambling mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun, said in the Macau press this month (APRIL) that the track added diversity to Macau’s gambling landscape. Leong also says the track’s tourism value should be considered, an odd request considering its ghost town-like atmosphere.

Requests to the Canidrome for official attendance figures remain unanswered. Martins says he’s not surprised. “The Canidrome runs a tight and secretive ship. … Information about adoption programmes, the fate of the dogs, attendance figures, kennel access.... these are all ignored. There is no transparency.”

Legislative Assembly vice-president Lam Heong-sang, says the venue, set on government-owned land in a prime residential area, should be used for community purposes such as a green area, a school or a sports centre.

Martins agrees. “We want to transform it into a green area and I know that both the Chinese and Portuguese communities are united in their desire to see this happen.”

 At a recent Assembly meeting, Macau’s Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on proposed combining Macau’s horse and greyhound industries.

The Canidrome runs a tight and secretive ship.Information about adoption programmes, the fate of the dogs, attendance figures, kennel access ... these are all ignored. There is no transparency
Albano Martins, Anima

 The canidrome opened in 1931 at a time when dog racing was hitting its peak, especially in the swinging jazz scene of Shanghai. But today the scene is very different, the rundown track is a sad shadow of its former self. On this particular night about 20 punters – an even mix of men and women – wander the huge space surrounded by towering residential buildings. It’s hard to believe you are in the most densely populated place on earth (Macau, with a population of around 636,200 in an area of 11.6 sq mi, is the most densely populated region in the world). It’s eerily quiet, the silence broken only by the crackling static and occasional monotone voice coming through a PA system. Five or so gamblers take their pick from the hundreds of empty seats while a handful sit down in front of one of the two screens near the stands.

The dogs, marked Number 1 to Number 6 and matching the uniforms of their trainers, emerge from the kennels barking and full of energy, peeing, pooping and pirouetting on their tightly held leads as they brace for their race. After a short parade in front of the betters they are heaved into boxes before a man waves a black-and-white checkered flag. A bell rings, and a mechanical bunny, that looks more like a bunch of white plastic bags tied together, whizzes noisily around the 455m oval track, hitting speeds of 60km/h. It seems like seconds pass before it’s all over. The crowd is silent. There are no cheers. No jumping with joy. Nothing. The scene, complete with the same historical sepia-toned footage on one of the screens, showing the track in its heyday when gamblers packed the stands and lined the railings, the cheers and screams loud, repeat every 15 minutes until the last race at 11.30pm.

Eric from Taiwan, the youngest in the crowd, is with two other 20-something friends. He said he researched the trip before he arrived.

“I wanted to do something different. …I know a lot of people complain about the poor treatment of the animals but if they don’t like dog racing then they should stay home.”

A British couple in their late 20s, the only Westerners at the track, were on holiday, saying they came because they often attend race meetings back home. “But we did ‘um and ahh’ about coming after reading about how the dogs are killed if they don’t perform,” said the petite blonde, who didn’t want to be named, before making a beeline for the betting booth.

While a security guard keeps an eye on those with cameras, it’s easy to walk around the public venue hassle free. Vintage posters line the walls of some of the betting rooms, punch-in card machines and empty notice boards with a few rusty pins and faded images of winning dogs. There’s a red-and-white striped popcorn machine without any popcorn and rusty fans labour away. You can’t help but feel as if you’ve stepped into a time machine and slammed the reverse button to a place where time forgot.

 “In the 1980s a lot of people visited but today only a handful of people go – it does not attract tourists. It is embarrassing,” Martins says.