This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. There have always been those greyhound racing promoters who chose for whatever reason to remain outside the mainstream and offer a type of sport which differed from that run by the big battalions. Some would say that the independent tracks represent the survival of greyhound racing as it once was, a grassroots sport followed by ordinary working folk with a passion for greyhounds and for gambling on them. Others would have you believe that they are a haven for all sorts of corruption and vice, a world of betting coups on fixed races in which even the most basic standards of animal welfare are repeatedly breached. Life being what it is, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. The movers and shakers at the G.B.G.B. would I would guess like to see the independent tracks either join their fold or shut up shop but maybe a single monolithic industry would not be without its drawbacks. I reckon that the industry as a whole is the stronger for being diverse and that there is still a role for the independent sector. The regulated greyhound industry in the U.K. is currently reaping the harvest from seeds that were sown half a century ago and there are plenty of tares among the corn. The advent of legal betting shops back in 1961 was a good thing in as much as it allowed the ordinary working bloke to have a bet without breaking the law and to bet moreover with a bookmaker who was guaranteed to pay out however big his liabilities rather than to do a runner when the going got tough. There was however a sting in the tail which the powersthat-be maybe failed to anticipate back in those halcyon days. Punters no longer had to go to the track to have a bet on the dogs, they could simply pop down the high street whenever they fancied a flutter. In an era of generally increasing affluence, with more and more different ways to spend that leisure pound, our sport lost out and attendances at greyhound racing stadia started to dwindle, a decline that continues to this day. In the early days of legal off-course betting, the major gambling medium was horse racing. Fixed odds betting terminals and virtual greyhound racing were still a generation away. Frost and snow in winter meant no horse racing. I may be showing my age here but as a lad I can remember the bookies simply shutting up shop on bad days in midwinter, such was their dependence on horse racing. The answer at that time was BAGS, afternoon greyhound racing, initially from just four tracks, which was first screened in betting shops in 1967. At first conceived mainly as a substitute for horse racing when the latter fell victim to the weather, it soon became a popular permanent fixture all year round and now there are many more
greyhound races than horse races broadcast to betting shops. This brought with it a substantial increase in betting turnover on greyhound so the bookies were happy. The N.G.R.C. got paid by the bookmakers for the right to transmit greyhound racing coverage in their shops so the regulators were happy. Many of the promoters won lucrative contracts to stage BAGS racing so they were not exactly complaining. Furthermore the vast majority of the bigger bookmakers paid a voluntary betting levy to the British Greyhound Racing Fund. The Fund in turn distributed some of these funds as grants to promoters to update their facilities. The promoters needed dogs to fill their BAGS cards so signed up trainers who contracted to supply a steady stream of runners. Everybody was getting money out of the system somewhere along the line and everything should have been coming up roses but people were continuing to gamble on greyhound racing in high street betting offices and more recently on line, rather than actually going to the track in the way that their fathers and grandfathers had done in the past. There is no point on lingering over the all-our-yesterdays bit. We can all look back on an era when summers were warmer, beer stronger and girls prettier, but it was an era that never quite was, and only exists in imagined memory. What is undeniably true is that greyhound racing has come a very long way since it first opened its doors to the crowds at Belle Vue in 1926. Maybe in doing so it has to some extent lost touch with its roots and is the worse for so doing. I remember a regular at the old Portsmouth track who said he liked to go to Pompey dogs because you could stand close enough to the track to get sand kicked over you as the greyhounds swept past. That works for me, and is perhaps something we have tended to lose as tracks have got bigger and more commercialised. Perhaps if we look in the independent sector we can still find the grassroots of our sport more or less intact, the nice friendly tracks of yore where people know each other and where the small ownertrainer who keeps his dogs at home and walks them himself can continue to enjoy his racing free from an overwhelming burden of regulation. Without wallowing in sentimentality, the independents give opportunities for dogs of lesser ability, who might not or have not have made the grade in the GBGB sector, and for older dogs who have left the so-called “regulated sector” as they went further down the grades with the passing of the years. As they race to win, rather than to make up numbers to meet the terms of a BAGS contract maybe they race less often. There is also some evidence that English-bred greyhounds are more likely to compete in the independent sector than in GBGB racing which tends to be more heavily dominated by Irish imports. The independents also give novice trainers a chance to find their feet, trainers who may very well later graduate to become GBGB licensed trainers. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find out that many of the leading lights of GBGB racing cut their teeth in the independent sector. It is
a well-recognized career path. While one should not get too folksy and sentimental about the independent tracks, it would be equally wrong to imagine them as a zoo, where the absence of regulation allows a blind eye to be turned to all sorts of skulduggery. The Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010 apply to the independent sector in England as much as to GBGB racing. Independent tracks are now subject to licensing by the relevant local authority. Since April 2010 only micro-chipped greyhounds can legally race at independent tracks and they do so under the names under which they are registered in the relevant stud book, putting an end to at least some of the questions often raised about the integrity of racing in the independent sector.. The tracks are obliged to ensure that a veterinary surgeon is on site during racing and to provide some kennel space for the competing greyhounds, among a raft of other welfare provisions. The Regulations do not seem on the face of it to be unduly prescriptive or punitive and so if some of the old flapping tracks cannot meet the required standards for financial reasons then sadly they may have to fall by the wayside. That apart, it is in the industry’s best interests to see the independent sector survive and prosper, if any greyhound track can prosper, in the future. The problem is money. Ain’t it always? Promoters in the GBGB sector may get money from BAGS contracts and may receive grants for infra-structural work from the BGRF. As established businesses with television coverage they may attract race sponsorship from local and national businesses. They may also derive some income from track bookmakers and from tote retentions as well as from bar takings and sales of food. Much of this dough is simply not available to the promoter in the independent sector, who cannot currently access income from BAGS or the BGRF and whose modest crowds and lack of televised coverage do not make his track an attractive prospect for major sponsors. Likewise with no tote betting and track bookmakers only making a modest turnover income from gambling is likely to be insignificant. With only a modest footfall, gate receipts and sales of beer and fish & chips are unlikely to make the promoter’s fortune. Where then is he to turn for further income streams? Back home in Northern Ireland greyhound racing falls under the control not of the GBGB, nor of the Irish Greyhound Board, but of the Irish Coursing Club. This curious circumstance arose because reputedly when greyhound racing first started in Ireland the I.C.C. thought it was a fad, a passing whim that would last no time, so they decided not to get involved. They must have rued that particular decision many times since. However since the Irish Greyhound Board is a semi-state body with links to the government of the Irish Republic it cannot legally play a role in the greyhound industry in Northern Ireland leaving the I.C.C. to fill the void. But I
digress. Tracks in the Belfast area have come and gone over the years but the current version at Drumbo Park opened its doors almost five years ago. Why does any conversation about dog tracks turn so soon to a discussion of tracks now closed? Until a few years ago there was racing at the Oaks Park in Dungannon but now the Brandywell track in Derry is the only other jewel in the I.C.C. crown. They race two nights a week at Derry and three in Belfast. Patrons at Drumbo Park can start their evening watching televised racing from Wimbledon before moving on to coverage of Dublin racing between the live races. As well as tote betting on the night’s racing they can bet into the I.G.B. tote pools at Shelbourne Park and Harolds’s Cross. Six bookmakers stand at the track on any given night and all contribute generously to sponsorship at the track at which a track bookmaker-sponsored £2,000 to the winner Open 525 Sweepstake kicks off this week. The internet bookmaker Bettor.com has also handsomely supported racing at Drumbo in recent years, sponsoring the inaugural Northern Irish Derby to the tune of a cool £25,000. Other longstanding heavyweight corporate sponsors include brewery giant Tennant Caledonian Breweries. Why am I telling you all this? The point I am trying to make is that it is possible for tracks to survive without the umbrella of the GBGB or the IGB and without funding from BAGS. While granted the ICC tracks in Northern Ireland are in a somewhat unusual situation, they do present a model at which independent promoters in England could do worse than take a passing glance. They manage to co-exist alongside the IGB tracks in the Republic of Ireland and to co-operate with them apparently without undue friction. Therein lies the rub. Rule 4A of the G.B.G.B Rules of Racing deals with factors that may be taken into consideration before licensing individuals as owner, trainers and so forth. Quoting from the 1st January 2013 update, these include among others whether the person applying for a licence “has a criminal record”, “has been the subject of GRB disciplinary action” and “has been a supporter of any non-GBGB Racecourse in England, Scotland or Wales”. Now I would not much want to see somebody who has done time for fraud or has been warned off in the past by the GBGB subsequently getting involved in greyhound racing but I fail to understand why putting a fiver on a dog at Westhoughton or downing a swift half at Gretna disqualifies anybody from anything. Lord Donoughue, whose Independent Review of the Greyhound Industry essentially spawned the GBGB, suggested that consideration should be given to abandoning such sanctions in the interests of creating a single industry-wide greyhound identity database. While there may be two sectors in the greyhound industry, the two have separate yet complementary roles and I for one would be in no hurry to amalgamate them. Separate they may be, but the two undoubtedly have more in common with each other than there are issues that divide them. In the current difficult economic climate everyone in the industry
should be singing from the same hymnbook. Maybe the GBGB should consider setting aside any residual historic animosity towards the independents in an effort to try and achieve this. In these difficult times we should all be kicking, if not for the same team, at least in the same direction. Being in parallel universes is one thing, being on a collision course quite another.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.