New Zealander Craig Roberts came to greyhound training from a family of harness-racing enthusiasts, and success in another career. He switched after spending time at NZ's old QE II race track at New Brighton. In the first of a two-part series, he talks about the good and bad along the way.
We now have a greyhound race the Gold Star Platinum Paws worth $250,000 (October 17 at Addington). How does that compare with the stake for your first winner?
When I was starting out in the 1980s, the winning stake at QE II was $70. We also used to have sweepstake races at Chertsey worth about the same, and you had to pay nomination and acceptance fees as well then. I had a spell on the national board around 2000 and worked hard to get rid of starting payments.
Well, it went through, though it was not just me. So we went to free starts and now we are paid for starters. It has all happened fairly quickly.
On family interests, you should have been a harness trainer.
Well, my older brothers were into trotters. One, Les, worked at Roydon Lodge and married Fiona Fletcher, and others were tied up with Tamarack and Bob Meadowcroft and they did a bit of training or helping around the stables. I did too, but the first one I owned, trained by Denis Smolenski, was so slow it never got off the property. I used to go out to QE II basically just for the punting and gradually I got more into greyhounds.
You didn't just start out training them straight away though.
When I left school I got a job in the Post Office. A manager, Murray Jones, interviewed me for a job at the Victoria Street office. He was a keen punter and I think that helped me. When the restructuring came I did quite well out of it. I was a senior clerk then and I was promoted to manage the Lincoln College branch and then the Addington branch, which was quite a big agency then. By that time I was considering leaving to live the greyhound dream and I finally took the plunge.
Where did you start training?
I was still living at home when I started. My father, George, was a farming man and he was not going to have a dog on a city property at any price. Funny, when I brought one home Dad really took to him. Went everywhere with him.
Was he good?
His name was Silent Chief. I was lucky because he came out of April Flyer and he was from one of the most successful litters of that era. He got to C5, which is the top class as a sprinter. I gradually built up to four or five dogs when I took the training plunge.
Where did you go?
Mark Rosanowski and I were great mates, still are, and we went into partnership with a property in North Canterbury. My wife Dianne was with me by then. We were going to train in partnership but Mark got into the broadcasting side more and more. So we sold that and Di and I moved to Ashburton to carry on training.
How hard was it to get going?
It was a financial struggle and hard work. I used to work Thursday, Friday and Saturday shifts at the Fortex works, 6am to 6pm, and I hated every minute of it. It was boring but we needed the money to survive.
I managed to buy a bitch, Silent Jewel, which was from the Misty Anna family, and her pups helped keep us going. Then I advertised for dogs in the Friday Flash and Nick Rodokal from Auckland answered it. Just on the strength of a phone conversation he authorised me to buy a dog in Australia for him. It was a generous gesture to do it just like that. That was a turning point for me.
First, the dog I bought, Flash Happy, was a good one. We paid $4000 for him and I would not have been in a position to do that otherwise. He reached the best classes and won a Derby. But I also got to establish contacts over there which have served me well. I made quite a few trips over there and gradually built up a good knowledge of their scene. Through Kenny Haynes I met Paul Wheeler. His family of dogs, called Bale, were many of the best around. He sent a dog over for me to train and as Harlem Bale I think it won its first eight races in a row. Lois Bale won the New Zealand Oaks. I have trained a lot of dogs for him since.
So the training career picked up?
Through the 1990s and early this century we had a lot of good dogs. I won the premiership three years in a row and we set a record of eight Group Ones one season which Dave and Jean Fahey only beat last season. We eventually shifted closer to Christchurch because of the travelling and because we had a bit more money in the kitty.
We had our own website, did the lot really. Then it all got a bit much.
What were some of the best dogs?
There were a lot of them. Gatlin Bale was not beaten in any race past 600m for nearly a year. If he were around today he would be winning over $200,000. Denzil Bale was a terrific dog. He was a bit shy and kept to himself around the place but he was a monster when he got to the track. Awesome Paul (the first greyhound to grace the front page of Punt) was a fantastic dog, too.
What qualities do you need to train dogs well or can anyone who is fit do it?
You have to be an animal person. You must be able to relate to them, like them, learn how to read them, tell whether they are happy with the world or not. You have to be a good learner because you do a lot of learning and you must be open-minded about new ideas.
Exercise and diet. Is that the guts of it?
Technology has changed training in recent years. Walking is fine. They freshen up with it and mainly you have time to observe them. But you must do more galloping to up their anaerobic strength. We gallop them quite a lot. You have to place them well, too. We had one dog, Slugwhite Bale, which won four or five maiden races.
What do you mean by technology?
Electronic treatments for muscular problems mainly. Lasers, ultrasound, magnetic blankets, heat lamps. Most trainers have at least one of them.
Are the top dogs any different to handle or train than the average one?
The really good ones in my experience seem to just know what they are on the earth for. They do all the right things, as if they have been here before. I cannot remember ever having a top performer who was a prick to have around the place or had bad habits like chewing the kennel.
What are the equivalent of bowed tendons and the suspensory problems in greyhounds?
Hock injuries are the worst. They are usually career-threatening. Toe problems are serious on grass tracks. You must remember these animals are accelerating from the stand to 65km/h very quickly.
Stakes have gone through the roof for dogs. What about the costs?
When I started training the fees were $7 a day and now they are about $12. We get 15 per cent of the stakes. So it is still pretty reasonable. And if they spell for about two months which is a long spell for a dog you can get them to the trials after three weeks work.
Do you have any preferences for racing distances with the dogs you train?
I didn't when I was building up the team! Personally I am not a fan of sprinting dogs. It is just me. I enjoy the 500m-and-up races best.
From what you have seen, what is your tip for the rich Platinum Paws final?
I don't think we have seen the winner yet. There are some dogs qualified for the semi-finals (this Friday) in Australia. I have got a feeling one of them might win it.
You have never regretted leaving the Post Office?
A few years ago I had to have a change of direction. Everything got a bit much and I was having trouble handling the pressure. I used to wonder then, sometimes, what it might have been like to have stayed. I would have had my weekends free for one thing. But overall I have been able to do things and go places I could not have achieved in the Post Office.
Courtesy : David McCarthy, The Press