After several years at the top of the greyhound training tree, Craig Roberts found the pressures of the job proving too much. In the second of a two-part series, he talks to David McCarthy about changes he made and his plea for a new greyhound track in Canterbury.
After being a major player as a trainer, you seemed to go quiet for a few years. What happened?
Look, to be honest there was so much pressure on I began to lose my way. The travel, especially, was a killer. I had Marcia Flipp as a foreperson and she helped a lot with the travelling, but it still left me working seven days and being away up north or down south for three or four of them. If you were racing at Auckland you would leave home at 4am for the ferry then drive through, getting there at eight or nine at night. The next night you raced and then left straight away for home. You might leave at 10pm, get to Welllington at 5am, catch the ferry and get home about two o'clock in the afternoon. We had 35 trips north on the ferry one season. I remember once we won the Silver Collar (one of the supreme major races in New Zealand) with Groovy Jewel. The boys wanted to know where I was going to celebrate. I told them I was having an 18-hour party with a steering wheel. That is how it was.
What did you do?
I went private training for Gary Harding, who had his main kennel up in the Waikato. I thought that would give me a better lifestyle and it improved things. We had a bit of luck, but in the end it wasn't ideal, and I again started taking outside dogs. But I keep the numbers down to 35 and my son Matthew is ready to take over the licence if he wants a career in the game. I don't do anything like the travelling I used to. I am looking to do more television.
How did you get into that?
It was through Mark Rosanowski again, really. I always believed in being available for interviews as a trainer. I thought it an important part of the job. I suppose I was quite good at that and it gradually became assisting someone at the big meetings and grew from there.
How did you find it facing the camera on your own?
Frightening. I am not an egotistical person. When someone else was asking the questions I was fine, but when I was asking them it was a sweat to know what the answer might be, how I would respond to it and that sort of thing. Some people are easy to interview, some are really hard going. I have gradually got used to it. It is another reason why I will probably give up my licence. There are a few mutterings about a licensed trainer calling the shots on Trackside. You get that, of course, no matter what.
Why are Australian dogs superior to ours?
Numbers, basically. They are also more professional. For years we only had backyard breeders here and we couldn't compete. It is different now. The top Australian dog, Brett Lee, stood for $13,000 one year though he is back to $8000 now. The dogs there are allowed 15 bitches a month all year round, so it is good money. Now we have access to the semen of top Australian dogs, which is a big bonus for us. In the next few years our dogs should make a lot of headway against the Aussies.
Why are you so strong about Canterbury having a second greyhound track. Isn't Addington enough?
In both the northern regions there are two tracks in each area reasonably close to each other. Cambridge, for example, is only an hour from Auckland. In each northern area they have a two-turn track and a one-turn one. We have to go to Dunedin or Southland for any other meeting. It is five hours to Dunedin and seven hours to Invercargill, and the trip does not seem necessary. Also, I think if there were a second Canterbury track around one turn it would help Southland develop more of its own dogs, rather than watch visitors winning all the races.
Where are you thinking of as the location of a new track?
I thought when the tax relief came in that a second track in Canterbury would be a no-brainer, but it has not happened. OK, it would cost the guts of $1m, but with the increased travelling costs now it would be a top investment. I see Chertsey pretty much going to waste as it is. Now it is not used for tote meetings and it is under the care of local domain interests it is not what it was. But it could easily be resurrected. The kennels are there and the track is there. Some sort of a stand is the only thing missing. I am surprised the industry has not moved on this one and I know trainers would really welcome less travelling with fuel costs as they are now.
Have you evidence that the profile of dog racing has risen, with its increased permits and stakes?
Definitely. When I meet prominent people in other codes now the most recent was (harness trainer) Gareth Dixon I find they are aware of what the top dogs are and are interested in what you do with them. That would not have been the case a few years ago.
You can apparently give hormones to bitches for racing. Is this an integrity issue for dog racing?
No, even though there is talk of rules changing in Australia, which would probably follow here. I am against any change. There are different types of hormones and the estrogen type we give them avoids seasonal problems. If we could not use them bitches could be out of action for large parts of the racing season and owners would not want a bar of them. That would penalise the industry in the long run.
Of all the great dogs you have watched but not trained, does one stand out?
I pretty well concentrated on my own. But probably Misty Anna. She was a legend in the old QE II days, though she never bred on like she should have. She was incredibly athletic and just a wee freak. I saw her one night cross a much bigger dog at the first turn of QE II and she went clean under his neck and got the rail before he knew what had happened.
Are our dogs as tough as they were then? It is often said the modern horses are not as strong.
Just like with the horses there is more breeding for speed in Australia and the stamina dogs are probably a little weaker than they were. It is like horses, too, in that you have to assess the female lines closely when you are trying to get hold of a top staying dog.
What is this story of betting on a race in progress at Forbury?
Oh, it is one Gary Cleeve loves to tell about me. We were down there one night and the dogs were in the boxes and they were still selling tote tickets. Then they were off and they were still selling tickets. Gary got to the window and just kept putting the money on. I was in the queue behind him pretty desperate to get on the one in front. By the time Cleeve finished they had twigged and closed the tote. As usual, I didn't get on. I don't have a lot of luck with the punting. I remember one night I had four dogs in a race, they ran one, two, three and four and I backed the fourth one.
That rubbing down dogs before the start. Does it really make any difference?
There is a difference of opinion about that. I always do it, rubbing down and stretching because the muscles are going to have a lot of pressure on them when they acclerate out of the boxes. But some older top trainers Ray Adcock is one do not believe in it. Ray had the big kennel in my early days of training and has had a lot of success. But I believe in it.
What does the future hold for Craig Roberts?
Probably more television and less training. Diane has been operating a cafe at Riccarton for a few years now and has recently sold that. If Matthew is not ready to take over training, the dogs could go under her name for a while. She used to do a lot of work with them. But a slightly easier lifestyle is our main aim.
Sometimes I have had a second thought. But I have had the chance to live my dream and go places and do things I probably would not have been able to if I had stayed on my original job path. No, I am very happy with how it has turned out.
Courtesy : David McCarthy, The Press