A Fine And Ancient Sport

This headline came from the Adelaide Advertiser, as reported by Peter Donovan on the GRSA website. In full, it reads “The coursing crowd is melancholy at the loss of what they see as a fine and ancient sport”. It followed the passing of a law in 1986 banning the use of live hares for coursing and resulted in the shutdown of many popular South Australian coursing clubs. The coursing association had the SA Governor as its patron and had enjoyed a 100 year-plus history.

Naturally, animal welfare standards could no longer accept the risks to live hares, although most escaped through carefully designed hatches in the surrounding fence. Much the same has occurred in other countries, particularly in Britain where a 2005 law banned fox hunting as well as live hare coursing. Fair enough.

However, SA and Victoria have regrouped and established a regular coursing circuit using mechanical lures, primarily during the winter months, but NSW, the home of the once-famous Rooty Hill course, has not bothered. Nor have the other states.

But, if that headline quote is true, why are most states allowing coursing to disappear? Its close cousin – straight track racing – is also under a death sentence in NSW. Wyong, which enjoyed marvellous facilities at the local gallops club, is long gone and Appin has just run its last race meeting, although it may still be used as a trial track. Queensland’s Capalaba club, always subject to floods, has been bailed out by authorities more than once since it lost the patronage of a professional punter who sustained turnover (he went broke).

Plainly, the NSW action by the authority and the GBOTA, which ran racing at Appin, has been prompted by cash considerations. Despite useful contributions from betting on away gallops meetings on Saturday afternoons, the Appin straight track is no longer profitable so its 38 year history has ended. (For an excellent coverage of that history, click here to see an article by Katherine Ernst on 19 June). Wyong disappeared because the presiding gallops club could no longer break even, to be replaced by a raffle of racing dates in the Central Coast-Hunter region which saw the NCA controversially take the “rights” and put on 272m races around the bend at The Gardens – unsatisfying events which have now been terminated.

However, yet again, the big picture seems to have been forgotten. More important is to consider the contribution that coursing or straight track racing make to the overall effort – or, indeed, the future of the breed. What should our priorities be? Several questions come to mind:

· Why is coursing popular in Victoria and, to a lesser extent in SA, and not in any other state?

· Why is straight track racing flourishing at Healesville in Victoria, with TAB coverage, but needing regular help to stay alive at Capalaba in Queensland, and now non-existent elsewhere?

· What will trainers do to replace the lost opportunities? Trial tracks are not really the answer, often lacking enough distance as well as the necessary competition.

· What has been the role of coursing and straight track racing in developing the breed and the champion greyhounds we know today?

· Would the maintenance of straight track racing constitute a better use of resources than adding $50,000 or $100,000 to prize money for an individual race in town, or throwing away money on breeding subsidies that provide no evident return?

NSW has achieved efficiencies in the past by merging the Orange club into Bathurst and by de-licensing Cessnock in favour of the nearby Maitland, while Queanbeyan gave way to Canberra, and so on. Yet other opportunities to save money remain, the most important being the duplication of effort at two TAB tracks – Lismore and Casino. Those two may be fine clubs but they are just a few kilometres from each other, serve identical trainer and customer groups and both tracks badly need upgrading to meet modern standards.

A quick answer for all this might be that we are not managing the breed or the sport, but just letting it happen as neatly as we can. Investigating cause and effect is rare in greyhound racing. The loss of a once-strong customer base is ignored. Few greyhounds are worthy of staying spots any more. Strength has given way to early speed and less attractive squibs’ races. Slow dogs are getting preferential treatment. Welfare issues get attention to avoid nasty newspaper headlines. Tracks are often disruptive.

With all that, we are failing to provide enough opportunities for a substantial sector of the greyhound population which is not well suited to racing on the circle, or does not want to race there at the moment.

Straight tracks are used not only for speed racing but to educate youngsters, to rehabilitate dogs with certain injuries, to strengthen those in training for longer circle trips (especially in respect to 366m races), to provide variety for all types of dogs, and to cater for dogs that are just not good at turning corners. Coursing is also valuable in refreshing dogs which have gone sour on the circle

For example, here is a recent statement by a Queensland trainer after racing two dogs at Capalaba: “Both these dogs have plenty of ability but they have trouble handling circle tracks so far,” said Geoff (Allen). “They are very awkward. But both are good chasers and it will come to them on the circle.” (From Greyhounds Qld Magazine, by David Brasch).

Or, as American breeder Rhian Williams (Vermilion Greyhounds) puts it. “A greyhound that has been with us since puppyhood will be started in basic obedience and … will be encouraged to lure course as well. Coursing is a very demanding sport and requires that the participants be in the very best of physical conditioning to compete”. Apart from racing and breeding, Vermillion is highly active in placing retired greyhounds in good homes.

Today’s structure had its genesis in the progressive decline of live hare coursing and the introduction of mechanical lures. It is the outcome of thousands of years of the breed’s development – the last 500 years in particular. It is what prompted the 1920s worldwide growth of circle racing behind a mechanical lure, which itself offered greater variety, more distances and was more suitable for public display.

Without coursing and straight track racing, today there might be no Wentworth Park, no Sandown, no Albion Park and so on. And, arguably, the dogs would not be as versatile or robust (although that latter quality is under strain at the moment).

Even its profitability must be examined differently, notwithstanding the fact that Healesville seems to be running very nicely, or maybe because of that. Straight track racing offers unique value to the breed, the dog and the trainer. That value should go into the sums that bean counters rely on.

To scrub an entire category of greyhound racing is not only to admit defeat but to resign yourself to the fact that you have not got sufficient initiative or business nous to build a better model. That’s not good enough.

Let’s put it another way. If you have just got your pilot’s licence you get a job in the bush with a charter outfit. With experience, you climb up to a commuter airline, then graduate to a higher paid job with a major trunk airline and finally to a jumbo jet with an international airline. Without the jobs in the bush the big airlines would end up with very few pilots. And they probably would not be as good.