Dogs Need Jockeys

Greyhound racing is an intensely competitive sport. Yet, in today's environment, that trait has become its biggest danger. When dogs try hard, bad things can happen.

Checking back over 425 races in the three eastern states last week reveals that in 6% of them (27 races) a fall occurred. This is not uncommon. The usual suspects headed the list – Meadows and at the top, followed by Sandown, , and Dapto.

But that's the tip of the iceberg. For a variety of reasons, many more dogs would be affected by major interference and end up denoted as FTF, Injured, Distanced, Pulled Up, etc. Or maybe they just managed to keep their feet but lost all chance.

More likely, between 10% and 20% of races would have suffered as a result of track layout problems.

A few of these incidents are due to clumsy dogs, but most are a function of poor track design, particularly on turns. For example, had a clean record last week, yet frequently the run into the first turn resembles a Year 4 group trying to get out the classroom door at lunch time. Some get through, some don't. Then dogs routinely fail to hold the first turn at Wentworth Park, Richmond or Cranbourne, thereby affecting other runners. Amongst other problems, dogs spear off towards the outside fence as they enter the main straight. And so on.

All of which is why it is customary to station an attendant near the first turn to grab hold of fallers to stop them running back the wrong way. The system admits that danger is present.

That truth is self evident in bend starts where the boxes are on top of a sharp left turn. Eight dogs are trying to force their way into space sufficient for no more than four, which is pretty scary arithmetic. Half of them end up out front while the rest can forget about running into a place.

The design of normal first turns is much trickier. No matter how much track builders talk about gradients, transitions and turn radii, the outcomes tell us that no-one really knows the ideal combination. Lure types may be an influence, as would the distance from the boxes to the turn, to say nothing of the varied galloping habits of dogs. Very little of this subject has ever been studied properly, or even at all.

Perhaps the lowly club in WA has the best answer, judging by observations of a field of eight making its way around with a minimum of fuss. So, too, with some New Zealand tracks. Others are really bad (eg Dapto, Ipswich and Sandown) if you consider the crashes, the erratic paths taken by many dogs, and the empirical evidence of high dividend payouts.

Significant interference has become routine, so much so that clubs and authorities seem virtually to ignore the possibility that improvements are both needed and available. “Bad luck” is the common response.

Luck may be a factor but the point missed is that greyhound racing is the only sport where significant interference is accepted as normal. Everywhere else it attracts condemnation or penalties. Everywhere else, strong efforts are made to reduce the impact. For example, the gallops' track managers meet regularly to discuss improvements, hire consultants, talk to jockeys, and so on. Changes occur regularly, new ideas are tested, offenders suspended.

Even so, community reaction is sometimes hard to understand. Animal activists and the RSPCA are besotted with the risks of jumps racing but skip over three-day eventing, an sport and far more demanding of horse and rider than any hurdle race. Who can tell where they will strike next? Fox hunting, perhaps?

Still, all these have standards to follow and supervision is tight. In contrast, greyhounds simply pretend their problem does not exist. Have you ever seen a steward's report mention a difficult aspect of a track layout? Or suggest the basic cause of falls. Are they charged with this responsibility (as gallops are)? If not, then who is?

Two things come out of all this.

First, a good many of the existing track faults are easily fixed. A classic would be Australia's worst trip – Ipswich 431m. You simply pick up the boxes and move them around to a spot where the dogs can look directly down the back straight. Then repeat the exercise at Richmond, Gosford and others. Another would be the country's worst first turn – for Dapto 520m. The track was completely re-built a few years ago at a $0.7 million cost yet it simply the disruptive configuration that previously existed. There was no change at all. What's more, the Racing Minister and a few other prominent types all said what a marvellous job it was. Shame on them.

(Doubters might like to ask the Oldfield family their opinion of Dapto. It's been more than a decade since they were denied a $100,000 prize – from memory, to November Earl – when a faller came back through the field and stewards declared a No Race).

Second, for an industry that is completely dependent on betting turnover for its survival it is astonishing that the punters' interests get no consideration. As shown above, as many as 1 in 5 races will produce unpredictable outcomes, meaning punters will lose badly, especially on exotic bets. When you add that difficulty factor to the job of deciphering form it is little wonder that mug gamblers are on the rise and educated punters fading away (see also 7 Nov article – Mixed Blessings).

And spare a thought for trainers, whose best efforts are brought undone through no fault of their own or their dogs. They have to pick up the pieces and try to restore their dog's confidence following a first turn smash. Not an easy task, and sometimes a career-ending occasion.

Indeed, one tragic event occurred when that brilliant dog, Knocka Norris, broke his hock coming out of the first turn at Sandown in late 2008. But was that due to a weakness in the dog or the pressure applied by the Sandown turn, or both, or something else? Because it happened in a solo trial it offered an opportunity to conduct a detailed investigation into the cause. Yet no such review has ever been announced. Apparently, it was just “bad luck”.

We can do better.

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