It was fascinating to read (SMH April 5) that the Sydney University veterinary people have demonstrated that an early racing start for two-year-old thoroughbreds does not harm their later development, rather the opposite. The study of careers of 115,000 horses over 10 years was run by PhD candidate Brandon Velie and published in veterinary journals in Australia and the UK.
The same veterinary faculty had previously looked into the effect of whip use, generally concluding that they had no real effect on race results, and so should be restricted.
The age study seems reasonable but I am not so sure about the whip thing, although the ARB has already imposed limits on their use.
Still, there is a related issue here. Just a week ago viewers might have noted a horse dislodge its rider at the start at Rosehill and then happily continue to run along with the field for the rest of the race. Conclusion – horses quite like to gallop and take part in a race. You could say exactly the same thing about greyhounds, which have been known to attract criticism from extreme elements about being “forced” to race. Yet they are under no urging from a jockey and chase the bunny as they wish (some don’t, of course, but those ones seldom see a racetrack).
The background here is more interesting. A few years ago I chatted with the veterinary professor at Sydney Uni, partly because I was curious as to why his final year students never selected greyhounds as a topic for their major projects. Other dog breeds, yes, but not greyhounds. Apparently they just did not identify with the breed.
This led to a suggestion to racing authorities that they should mount a campaign to promote more student involvement in greyhounds, possibly offering prizes or sponsorship for particular topics. The university was keen to see that and to take part in other studies as well.
GRNSW never responded to the query while Greyhounds Australasia said it was too busy and in any case had its own way of dealing with veterinary studies (ie exclusively via the greyhound vet association). In practice, GA rarely does much anyway. In other words, the industry was quite happy to ignore the largest veterinary faculty in the country, one which had already demonstrated an interest in racing. A great pity. Not just for me but the university people were disappointed, too.
Veterinarians are represented one way or another on the various racing authorities. Indeed, at one stage one was usually a board member. That’s all very fine but it still leaves the fans out of play. Board employees are, by definition, beholden to their master and may not be free to express personal views in public. The same applies to many outside vets who have a kind of doctor-patient relationship with their clients or who may not deal with greyhounds at all. All of which makes it even more important to hear the views of academics, as the thoroughbred people have done.
And there is plenty to have them think about. Here are some examples of studies that might be helpful to the industry and its public. Readers might like to add to the list.
- Should there be tighter rules about racing too often? How may a dog perform after a quick turnaround?
- Should greyhounds be offered periodic spells, as occurs with thoroughbreds?
- How does age affect the canine athlete?
- What are the trends in Australian breeding lines – the relative influence of speed or stamina?
- What effect do various track layouts have on injury levels?
- What is the effect of travel, including air travel, on racing dogs?
- What qualities are needed to make a stayer?
- What sort of turn best suits the majority of dogs?
- How do Australian racing surfaces help or hinder the dog (there are American studies on this but their conditions are much different)?
- What is the effect of various track and equipment features on interference levels?
Going back to the first item, I can recall the time when Wentworth Park raced on Saturday and Monday and the odd dog was entered for both meetings. I wrote an article protesting that the punter could hardly be expected to know how the dog had come through the first race and would therefore be betting blind on the second one. A furious trainer of one such dog took me to task in a letter to the editor, outlining how he had spent all Saturday night and Sunday morning massaging his charge and getting it ready for the upcoming race. He knew best, he said, and so mind your own business.
Well maybe, but I would then add the point that it is by no means certain that the trainer would know the whole truth anyway. He is unlikely to take a blood count on Sunday or be able to check other factors which may have affected the dog’s metabolism. Essentially, he is hoping his available skills will overcome the doubts.
A more reliable solution is for authorities to ban the practice and bring in a rule against backing up within, say, 5 days or maybe 7 days for staying races (a bit like footballers suffering from concussion). Anything less leaves outcomes in the lap of the gods and is likely to do the dog no good either. Standard veterinary advice is that a 7 day break is needed to replenish the petrol tank. Even then, who can forget the time some years ago when Boomeroo, well trained and by no means over-raced, nearly died and was on a drip for three days after winning the National Distance Champion at Albion Park?
However, all these things are conjectural unless some serious studies are done. And, in practical terms, universities are the only completely independent sources available to conduct those studies. Sure, there have been odd investigations reported over the years from various other sources, the latest being a study of thumps commissioned by GA. Another was a study into heart sizes. But these are few and far between. Why not try to advance the industry and expand its knowledge by using the resources of our great learning institutions?
Incidentally, the veterinary fraternity may need some jogging to improve its PR. The full report mentioned at the top here is posted on official veterinary sites in Australia and the UK, and also in journals in both countries. But unless you are a member/subscriber you won’t be able to read it. You will have to join up first.