Greyhound racing has two current champions, but too many chumps

WE ARE not even half way through, but 2015 will go down as a remarkable year for two greyhounds – Space Star with 11 wins from 12 starts and Fernando Bale with 13 from 16. No matter how you talk up the challengers, they cannot possibly get near records like that.

On balance, the GOTY-to-date has to be the sprinter Fernando Bale, purely because it has been up against much better opposition, relatively speaking. And, unlike earlier multi-winners, it has done it over a variety of boxes, tracks and distances from 450-metres to 525-metres. It also appears to be on the improve, judging by its 29.04 run at Sandown last Thursday (record 28.96).

The case of Space Star, and the staying fraternity in general, is interesting. This dog moved up to the staying caper only last August after some record breaking middle distance runs at the NSW provincials. Since then, it has dominated staying races at four tracks in three states, highlighted by an amazing effort in February to break Nellie Noodles’ longstanding record at The Meadows – running 41.93.

Nevertheless, its times have been irregular, even when winning. That run at The Meadows was followed seven days later by an ordinary loss at the same track, 10 lengths slower than its own record. Could the first run have been what vet Dr John Kohnke termed a “gutbuster” where dogs leading all the way pull out all the stops but then find it hard to repeat the effort the following week?

Actually, that pattern is consistent with much of Space Star’s history. In August 2014 it won well at Wenty then failed the following week. A September 2014 win was followed by three failures. In November 2014 it won at Sandown then failed the next week.

Even as it matured, the majority of its wins have been followed by a much slower run the following week – notably at Wenty in January 2015, in March/April 2015 at Wenty and again just now in the Gold Cup at Wenty when it ran five lengths slower than in its heat. Others where it continued winning in similar times were because the base time was pretty average in the first place. The occasional longer break than seven days also helped.

Last Saturday’s Gold Cup at Wenty painted the picture. Not only was Space Star’s run slower, but so were all the others in the race. Their final times ranged from five to 15 lengths slower than what they ran in the heats. That included Sweet It Is which could manage only a distant 4th place, a full second slower than in its heat. Unusually for it, the bitch was clearly not back to its normal hard running fitness level after a seasonal holiday (never mind the bumps – that happens in all its races, mostly self-inflicted). It did go well in its heat, but not in the final.

Wenty was wet but there is no indication that affected times. All tracks are wet to some degree. Over the sprint trip, Uno Suzie equalled its recent best time in a 29.76 win, for example.

For the umpteenth time, we have more hard evidence that the vast majority of dogs cannot repeat staying runs when they have only seven days to recover. No matter what their basic ability, they just can’t do it. Further, it is grossly misleading for some to claim that individual trainers are best placed to assess their dog’s endurance capability. They may well be able to rub them down and check for problems but they have no way of knowing what is happening inside the body. Only exhaustive blood and other tests could reveal that but we have yet to hear of anyone doing so on a regular basis. Apart from anything else, it is expensive to carry out.

Finally, irrespective of its excellent performances, Space Star’s domination of the staying ranks tells us emphatically that the opposition is just not up to scratch. At best they can pull out one good run yet never repeat it. More often they just plod.

Avoiding quick back-ups is a no-brainer if you want to get the best out of a stayer. Unfortunately, clubs and authorities are just as guilty as trainers in asking dogs to do the impossible.

Probably of more importance is a basic policy question. Do we want to take serious steps towards building up the ranks of dogs with real stamina? The long term industry concentration on fast beginners is perhaps understandable if you want to grab quick returns but it is obviously doing no good for the staying ranks. Even the great Miata was a breeding accident as she had no staying experience in her background.

So far, the only effort mounted by racing authorities is to pay bonus prize money for longer races. But how do you make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? If the dog can’t stay, it can’t stay. Moreover, much 700-metre racing has got to the ridiculous stage where dogs are going up and down in the one spot on the home turn, clearly having reached their limits. Indeed, last Saturday’s 5th grade 725-metre race at The Meadows was farcical when the two Quinella dogs were running stone motherless as they went into the home turn, only for the leading four to collapse like a house of cards. They ran a pedestrian 43.42.

Surely we have got to the stage where accidental progress is not good enough? What we need are hard hitting five and ten year plans to bring about some real gains.

Meantime, there are a good many dogs very capable of running out a decent 600-metre trip. Unfortunately, few of those pay well and virtually all are subject to smash-and-grab starts on the bend. While we are trying to improve the staying sector, a concerted plan to fix those problems could radically enhance the overall greyhound product – to say nothing of the dogs’ health – by offering a decent alternative to the lucky dips over 700-metres.

Punters don’t much like 300-metre jump-outs but love longer races so long as their choice does not get pole-axed at the first turn. Let’s try to give it to them.