Although greyhound racing has been conducted at the Glebe circuit since 1939, the Wentworth Park course currently in existence re-opened after an extensive remodel and refit 25 years ago this week, on 26 September 1987 to be precise.
Racing was over the same distances as today: 520 metres and 720 metres, but for the first few years it was conducted on grass.
For this writer it’s a little hard to get my head around the fact that 25 years ago I was among the crowd at that inaugural Wentworth Park meeting. Do I feel old? You betcha!
That first night meeting was a joint effort conducted by the GBOTA and the now-defunct NCA. Wentworth Park had been closed 16 months earlier (May 1986) and all NCA-conducted meetings were transferred to the GBOTA’s headquarters at Harold Park.
So, for the first time since 1946, Sydney was reduced to just one metropolitan circuit. Racing was held twice a week: Saturday nights and Monday nights. This would continue after the return to Wentworth Park.
The biggest change to Wentworth Park between May 1986 and September 1987 was the erection of a new grandstand, modelled after that at Hollywood Park in Florida.
That first night saw 10 races conducted, five over 720 metres, including two heats of the Sydney Cup, and five over 520 metres, and none of the races was a Fifth Grade.
A crowd of more than 7,000 was on hand to witness the racing and most should have gone home with a few extra dollars in their pocket as three favourites and two second-favourites saluted the judge. In fact, the longest-priced winner was Fancy Worker, who started at only 6/1 ($7.00).
The first race was a 520-metre Fourth Grade event taken out in fine style by War, a black son of prolific short-course sprint star Pretty Short. War used box one to full advantage.
Tiger Flyer set the time standard for the sprints by winning in 30.20. The brilliant but erratic former Victorian Sonic Wave set the mark for the 720 metre trip in winning her Sydney Cup heat in 42.13. Sonic Wave, who had won the Goulburn Cup at her previous start, went on to win the Sydney Cup final a week later and would be named 1987 NSW Greyhound of the Year.
The main sprint race of the night, the Free For All, was taken out by Flash Jass. This race also provided the first dog to fall in competition: Darinelli Star.
Other winners on the opening night were Tanga Mori, Lord Buttons, The Penner, Yuranigh, and Aunt Becky, who won the last race, over 720 metres.
Bookmakers were in abundance with the satchel swingers occupying both the ground and first floors.
Although the general consensus on the new track was favourable, there were some clear problems in terms of customer comfort. For some strange reason there was no air-conditioning installed inside the grandstand and although it was only late September most of the people working inside were not happy about the heat.
Another complaint was the lack of a Tote board outside so patrons sitting in the grandstand could see what price their fancy happened to be without having to wander inside and look for a TV screen.
Although the track initially appeared to have the support of many within the industry, it wasn’t long before the negatives of the customer facilities paled behind perceived problems on the racing surface.
It was claimed there were an inordinately high number of injuries to racers, many trainers suggested a lot of greyhounds did not handle the circuit, others suggested the run from the 520 metre boxes to the first turn was too short, and because of wear and tear on the track, few trials could be conducted.
Then, on 18 November 1988 an article in the Daily Telegraph quoted Racing Minister Bob Rowland-Smith as saying the grandstand was a ‘canine catastrophe’. The Minister noted the second and third floors were still incomplete and the design was flawed and led to ‘considerable congestion’.
Another complaint was rain. If the wind was in the wrong direction when rain was falling, then patrons sitting outside in the grandstand would get wet, no matter how high they were seated.
Although there was a lobby group pushing for a return to Harold Park, this was never going to happen, despite persistent rumours to the contrary.
Eventually, air-conditioning was installed and a Tote board appeared on the infield and in 1993 the grass racing surface was replaced by loam. By the end of the century the number of on-course bookmakers was down to a mere handful and crowds of any significance a rarity.
When I think about it, the signs were already there in 1987 with crowds nothing like they had been just a decade or so before. The decline in on-course patronage since then has been steady and sure and it seems those in charge have little or no idea how to arrest the trend.
I guess this begs the question: where will Wentworth Park be 25 years from now?