It's the day after NSW State Premier Mike Baird's remarkable backflip on his decision to ban Greyhound racing around the state when I arrive at the once-iconic Wentworth dog track in inner-city Sydney. The last time I'd come here was during the mid-nineties and I was eight years old.
My rugby league coach, Andy Zappantis, and his son, also Andy Zappantis, had brought me to watch their dog Sinabomba race. I'd gotten my first taste of lamb yeeros that night and during the intermission watched local garbagemen race each other down the home straight with metal bins under their arms. I'd loved it. The white flood lights and adult excitement had burned merrily into my subconscious, but I had no idea that behind the industry was the torture of animals and the deaths of thousands of racing dogs each year.
Times have changed since then. Sydney was a poorer, working class city in those days and the dish lickers were still a genuine attraction. Tonight the few thousand seat stadium at Wentworth Park is mostly deserted. Knowing what I now know the whole scene fills me with anxiety. The dogs seem otherworldly up close with their bizarrely swollen torsos feeding into almost non-existent hips and elongated snouts. They move so fast over legs so spindly you're waiting for legs to snap or rip out of its sockets -- something I'm told is a reasonably common occurrence. Up close they're covered in bandages and bald patches, presumably where they've had stitches sewed in or wounds attended to. It's only once they finish the race and come bounding into the special enclosure grinning and looking for love that it dawns on you that these are just...dogs. Those loveable, affectionate little buggers that love having their ears roughed up. It's then that the figure of 68 000 dead Greyhounds in the last 12 years begins to gnaw at your throat.
There's no denying the white lights, evening balm, setting sun, old-world architecture in the distance, and immaculate track still carry the electric feel of my childhood. With an admission price of six dollars the Wentworth dogs is surely still up there with one of the best-value, old-time Sydney nights out you can have. The eclectic mix of wholesome families, grizzled gamblers, quintessential hipsters, and glamorous women who make up the 50 or so people in the stands seems to reflect that.
If you believe State Premier Mike Baird, Greyhound racing was banned in NSW to put an end to widespread animal cruelty. The decision to outlaw the sport had come on the back of an investigation by Australian journalism heavyweights the ABC into live-baiting - a practice whereby piglets, possums and rabbits are strapped to mechanical lures and catapulted around tracks at high speeds to act as bait for dogs to chase and eventually kill.
On top of that there was the issue of "wastage," the term given to the 50-70% of all greyhounds (or approx 68 000) raised for racing in the last 12 years that were killed because they were too slow. Of course these statistics were provided by the government and as you're about to learn they're the least trustworthy characters in this sordid saga.
The Liberal State Premier, Mike Baird leapt into action on the back of the ABC's live-baiting expose, announcing an immediate end to the industry as of July 2017. The decision was celebrated by the left-wing and the animal-welfare minded alike; two large and traditionally antagonistic voting bases for Baird's right-wing Liberal administration. By saving the dogs he'd effectively killed two birds with one stone - currying favour with the elusive left while also freeing up billions of dollars in space around the city and state for the property developers who'd so generously and illegally donated to his political party also.
That's not to say anyone actually bought Baird's reasons for banning the dogs. Convincing the NSW public that his heart wept out for furry rabbits and possums, and slaughtered racing dogs, was always going to be a tough sell for a guy who's in the process of trying to rip thousands of the weakest and most vulnerable people in the State from their homes to make way for his grand "urban renewal" and development vision. So what could have pushed him to destroy ten thousand jobs and an industry that annually contributes $AUD3.35M dollars to the state?
As I'm parking the '97 Ford Panel Van outside the track, the first major clue looms high above me. Cranes, lots of cranes, standing over giant, half-built apartment complexes.
Sydney's inner-city is in the midst of one of the most radical gentrification programs in the world right now with billions of property development dollars pouring in from around the globe as the government desperately tries to milk the cash cow that is the harbour city and its infinite allure to the global investment elite. When they're done Sydney will have a housing density only seen in pockets of New York and Hong Kong, and beyond anything in Singapore (that's 70 000 people per square kilometre to be exact).
Wentworth Park, the spiritual home of Greyhound racing in this state, stands in the way of these plans. It takes up 10 hectares of prime land in the middle of the city with a potential value of billions of dollars to property developers. It is also directly adjacent to the vast swathe of land earmarked for re-development under the government's euphemistically titled Bays Precinct Urban Transformation Program.
If Wentworth went it would simply be the latest in a long line of Sydney landmarks to get turned into high-rise apartment blocks. In 2010 the publicly-listed Mirvac property development firm acquired the nearby Harold Park Raceway for $187 million, and has since transformed it into a $1 billion Glebe residential hub where the first release of its 1250 homes had 45 sqm studios selling at $499,000.
The end of the Greyhound industry would have freed up land not just in inner-city Sydney but all around the city and state, in places such as the 100 year old Richmond Racing Club in the city's north-west, where property developers are currently creating a large development corridor worth hundreds of millions, possibly even billions, of dollars to the State.
The Wu Tang Clan said it first but a recent Independent Corruption Against Commission (ICAC) inquiry confirmed it.
Both the ruling Liberal Party and its opposition Labour party have been caught out on the receiving end of millions of dollars in highly illegal hidden donations from the property development sector. Come the end of the mining boom, and the unprecedented period of prosperity it generated, the government is looking elsewhere to prop up the ailing economy. They're realising there's not much left. We really took our eyes off the ball with manufacturing and innovation when all that money was pouring in (and then straight back out). Property development and construction is a big part of the solution.
Demolish - Develop - Sleep - Repeat.
Trackside the paranoia is immense. The industry copped a hammering following the ABC investigation and ensuing political furore. When I call the head of Wentworth Park to get her reaction to Baird's decision to overturn the ban she scolds me for entering the arena as a journalist without warning them (lol!). Moments later an announcement goes out over the stadium's PA system alerting everyone to my presence and urging them to "feel free" to refuse talking to me. Dog trainers are famously rough-and-tough working class types who are traditionally ambivalent to the zeitgeists of political correctness. As if by magic realism, moments after the woman's announcement an industry man sidles up to the desk where I'm buying my form guide and jokes with the clerk: "Ay, all those death threats we sent (Premier) Baird worked!"
He's not lying, either. Two men were arrested for threatening to set off bush fires and murder Deputy Premier Troy Grant's family following his role in the Greyhound ban. "Troy, if the greyhound ban goes through mate I'm going to murder your fucking family," one said.
In a nod to the Wentworth Park director's ham fisted attempt at media management, the threats were allegedly posted to the Deputy via easily traceable Facebook accounts.
But, as one trainer I spoke to explained, "That's what desperate people do. I'm not justifying it, but Baird and Grant complain about their families being threatened. Well, what about these guys? Their families, their livelihoods, their jobs, their properties have been threatened too. What are they supposed to do?"
This trainer had been in the game for 31 years in which time he'd seen and heard it all. He admitted there were plenty of "bad people" in this industry, but they were still the minority and he definitely wasn't one of them.
"I've been in tears at the vet getting dogs put down," he tells me, adding that many, like him, are committed to finding new homes for former-racing dogs. He'd re-housed two this week alone and had six more former racing Greyhounds as pets.
The most confounding thing for him about the whole saga is why no one had bothered to regulate the industry.
"In all the time I've been training dogs guess how many times I've had my kennels checked?" he asks me, referring to what the government tells us is a supposedly rigorous system of animal-welfare inspections carried out by a state-sponsored racing regulatory body.
"Not once! So when it all got banned I asked (the official), if they're so worried about what happens to these dogs why haven't I had one kennel inspection in 31 years? He said, 'I dunno.'"
"It's like if the police stopped doing their work, the crime rate would soar, right?"
"If you stop monitoring this sport people are gonna get away with doing bad things. There's bad people in this industry. But they clamp down on people like me," he said.
Whatever Premier Baird's reasons were for attempting to finish the sport of greyhound racing in this state were, ultimately the decision amounted to political suicide and that is why it was reversed. Immediately after making the announcement he faced a tremendous backlash in the polls from the rural conservative voters who make a large chunk of his traditional supporter base and for whom Greyhound racing is an important source of income and entertainment (races are far better attended the further west of the city you go). His approval rating plummeted from 61% to 39% and almost cost his deputy premier Troy Grant his career. The dish lickers, it turns out, mean a lot more to people in this State than the unashamedly elite, North Shore-based Mike Baird had realised.