Where is the greyhound breed headed?

WE HAVE had a couple of queries on a term we have used – The State of the Breed – and the proposal that there is a need to look objectively and independently at how the greyhound is getting on. I really stole that title from the US President’s annual report to Americans on “The State of the Union”. That is supposedly a record of how the country has been doing and what the President has in mind for the future.

To state the obvious, the entire greyhound racing industry depends totally on the worth of the dog population – its speed, endurance, health, athleticism and keenness to do what it has always done – chase. If those elements change then so does the industry. It could even disappear.

Yet, by and large, the industry has developed two habits which do not help. First, it has failed to impress the general public with the greyhound’s wonderful attributes. Had we done that, support would be stronger than it is today for what is regarded as an inferior animal by comparison with horses or even other dog breeds. Words like nasty, bloodthirsty, rabbit-killers fill the conversations and the air waves. Live baiting produced a commentary which had people running round like a chicken with its head cut off.

To illustrate the point, over several years I have suggested to three state administrations that putting up billboards displaying a magnificent photo of a top sire (David Brasch has the file) on prominent highways would do wonders to start off with. The cost would be moderate and it would be tagged with this little poem (copied from another source):

Man runs to beat time

Horses are urged to run

Greyhounds are born to run.

So far, none of the three has taken up that challenge, nor have they done anything similar, so far as I can see.

Second, as pointed out by the Working Dog Alliance on other subjects, breeding is a highly personalised, individualistic activity. Everyone has a different idea about what’s best. You can’t tell me, I have been doing this for 30 years! Certainly, there are some very professional aspects of the breeding sector. Hi-tech facilities at some leading studs would be one. Measures to reduce “backyard breeding” in Victoria are clearly worthwhile. There are a few respected breeding analysts. Even so, no overall plan exists to ensure the maintenance and development of the breed. There is no standard of excellence which it should achieve.

I make these comments not as someone with any expertise on the subject, but as a user of the outcomes of such policies, or the lack of them. My task here is to ask the questions.

In that climate, it is impossible to ignore the two big trends of the last decade or so. Genuine stayers are scarcer than hens’ teeth and short course racing is now the dominant and growing feature of the greyhound product (ie 400m and below).

So is that a problem and how did it happen?

Horses, too

In passing, note that thoroughbred racing has experienced exactly the same trends. Sprinters are doing well but staying races are heavily influenced by overseas raiders. Many traditional events are being reduced in length. In both cases the reason usually advanced is that owners want a quicker return on their investment and are not prepared to sit around paying training fees while the animal matures. The economic factor is dominant but it is a pretty weak response.

Also in both cases, the trend runs counter to public preferences. Punters always like to see long races rather than quickie sprints. In the case of greyhounds it brings in the additional hassle that short races invariably serve up a higher level of interference, and therefore greater uncertainty for the punters who fund the industry.

The big push today is therefore towards sires that can turn out good beginners and excel at distances below 500m. Head Honcho and Brett Lee were marvellous but distance races were never their caper. Ditto for Collision & company now. A dog that can handle a longer trip is an accident (witness Miata, the best stayer of the last decade but fathered by a dog that never ran past 520m). The few top stayers at stud are shunned, low-priced and rarely produce significant numbers. Whether they could or should be able to do that is something for better brains to work out. However, what we can say is that the current policy of forking out more cash for bonus prize money is not working; fields are still of low quality and often too small.

Note that in AGRA’s latest list of successful sires the first stayer to appear is Jarvis Bale (at #39), followed by Malfoy (#48). I do not much like the methodology used for these rankings but the differences are quite stark anyway.

The totality of this is that the average greyhound is getting weaker but is still very smart over short trips. Leading breeder, Paul Wheeler, found exactly this before resorting to a mix of imported sires to provide stamina to go with his longstanding dam line. I am also mindful of a telling comment from the late Bill Pearson, owner, breeder, publisher and general stirrer when addressing this issue: “They are not as robust as they used to be”.

Perhaps related but not mentioned yet is the question of genetic makeup, including bone structures, an area where I am even less competent to speak. The question here is whether the speed trend has been accompanied by a comparable drop in the integrity of the basic animal. Broken hocks, for example, are under some study at the moment but results are unavailable (see GRV). There may be other long term trends which are present but which we know nothing about.

All the evidence points to a serious lack of knowledge about the most fundamental aspect of greyhound racing – the current and likely future nature of the breed. Answers will not come from individual states or individual stud masters. Only a concerted national effort by a small, skilled, independent panel would have any hope of answering these questions and pointing the way to a more prosperous and reliable future.

That’s why we need to know about The State of the Breed. Once every year.

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