Byline: MIKE HORNBY
IT MAY not have the class of Monte Carlo, nor the cash of the Grand National, but for a new breed of punters, all bets have gone to the dogs.
Greyhound racing is coming back to Merseyside with a new image for the 21st century.
A new track is being built at Fazakerley and a derelict track in Ellesmere Port, Wirral, is getting a pounds 90,000 revamp.
In the last decade the sport has become a fashionable alternative to a night at the theatre or club, with famous faces like millionaire DJ Chris Evans and footballer-turned-Hollywood actor Vinnie Jones putting the showbiz back into greyhound racing.
Gone are the men in flat caps and the shady spivs in sharp suits.
The sport has shaken off its old image and today 'a night at the dogs' means plush restaurants, corporate entertainment and private boxes.
The sport, which celebrated its 75th birthday last summer, is attracting almost 4m people in Britain - with around pounds 1.6 billion bet on the dogs annually.
For businessman Kevin Aylward, when the hare is released on his track at Ellesmere Port in May, it will be the fulfilment of a life-long dream. The self-employed joiner is spending more than pounds 90,000 refurbishing the derelict Thornton Road stadium.
Having been a fan of the sport since he was a teenager, Kevin is confident this new boom will last.
The 38-year-old, who is married to Gillian and has two children, said: "I first went to the dogs when I was 18 and I have been hooked ever since. It's just a really exciting and friendly sport. Of course, for many it's about gambling, but there is much more of an atmosphere to it than that.
"I think because the dogs enjoy it and get excited about the race, that becomes infectious among the spectators.
"I used to own greyhounds myself, but because I run a business, Gillian is a midwife and we have the children, it wouldn't be practical to own dogs at this time.
"So when I saw this track on the market, it was too much of a temptation. The old track in this site closed a couple of years ago, and it was really popular with local people. So many have come up to me and asked when I'm planning to open, there's been such a fantastic response."
Kevin is planning to run three evenings of races each week.
He is also hoping to become accredited by the British Greyhound Racing Board, the industry's regulatory body, meaning punters can be sure the dogs are not mistreated and races are run according to strict rules and regulations.
Kevin added: "The sport will never sustain its popularity or become even more popular unless the dogs are treated properly and fairly.
"My brother owns greyhounds, and like most people, they are pets and part of our family. We wouldn't tolerate any abuse of the animals."
The 2,000-seater Fazakerley stadium, to be built by the Greyhound Racing Association (GRA), will include a 350-seat restaurant, bars, cafes, conference rooms and exclusive viewing boxes.
The GRA also plans to use it for another forgotten sport, speedway motor racing.
Michael Raper, the GRA's marketing director, said:
"Hundreds of people from Liverpool and Merseyside travel to our track in Manchester every week. …