Playing With Figures – Not Kindergarten Stuff (Part 2)

To provide some further perspective to the arguments about injuries and breeding at the NSW parliamentary hearings, we can pull out data from our own records (culled by computer query from Australia-wide race fields) showing that there are just on 14,000 greyhounds racing at any one time, the number varying a little between hot and cold seasons. That measure has seen only a tiny rise in the last few years.

At the same time Greyhounds Australasia data tells us that breeding is actually waning. There was a significant drop from 2003 to 2011 in litters registered (minus 10.0%), or an even greater drop if you take 2005 or 2006 as the base year. In sympathy, the number of greyhounds named fell by 1.2%. No information is provided on un-named pups but the other changes would suggest they also fell.

In other words, the RSPCA’s plea for less breeding is misplaced as it has actually been taking place. Thoroughbred breeding has also dropped at the same time. (Whether that is a good or bad thing is in the eye of the beholder). Moreover, the arithmetic also indicates that more pups out of each litter are now hitting the racetrack. The RSPCA does lots of good work, but when it gets into attack mode it should remember that it’s affecting the livelihoods of thousands of families and get its facts right.

Anyway, its credibility is suspect. For example, it has plunged a huge amount of resources into its opposition to thoroughbred jumps races, but said not a word about hunting, show jumping or three-day cross country carnivals at state, national and Olympic levels, where horses have to negotiate far tougher obstacles than any in a normal hurdle race, and where horses change hands at big prices. The sport is huge in Europe, attracting royal patronage and large crowds to the main events. Still, as in greyhound racing, the horses seem to enjoy the competition. So, too, when jumping at pony clubs, or in the wild – it’s what they do.

Besides that, the RSPCA says it does not bother collecting breeding statistics from any other types of working dogs, pets or horses. This is curious, given its wide-ranging responsibilities. You might also wonder why it is targeting the greyhound which has maintained its purity over 6,000 years, in sharp contrast to sometimes crazy mixtures of canine crossbreeds which now attract queries about their propensity to genetic faults. There are numerous examples, a Labradoodle being one.

The key point, of course, is that over those millennia, man and greyhound have always maintained a close relationship and the breed’s natural characteristics have always been of value to its owners – and vice versa. This is precisely why the breed has been maintained at a high level. For example, King Henry VIII demanded that, before attending his court, all noblemen must first have gained experience in training greyhounds (for hunting). Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, had statues of his favourite greyhounds built in the grounds of one of their castles. Locally, 19th century crop farmers in South Australia used greyhounds to control invasions by kangaroos. And so on.

Returning to the issue of racetrack injuries, two comparisons bear thinking about.

First, greyhounds are the athletes of the canine group, usually well fed, trained to the minute and subject to considerable professional care and medical treatments – probably in sharp contrast to other dog breeds, like the foxie frolicking in suburban backyards or out chasing car wheels, or the farmer’s kelpie jumping off the back of the ute and busting its foreleg.

As with any athlete, some injuries will be normal. Take, for instance, AFL footballers, whose fortunes are documented within an inch of their lives throughout their careers. The AFL’s scientific review of 253,777 matches over 21 years reveals that 15,571 players suffered injuries sufficient to cause them to miss at least one match, or in some cases the whole season. That does not count those who were patched up and played the following week, but they would be considerable in number. Indeed, the day after the match is always dominated by “recovery sessions”.

No doubt NRL figures would be even higher due to the increased body contact. Similarly, track athletes are forever having to repair torn muscles. Even Rafael Nadal succumbed in the Australian Open to a painful back injury which caused him to miss later tournaments. And what do you do with Shane Watson’s calves or Michael Clarke’s back or any fast bowler’s problems? If you are an athlete, injuries come with the territory. The important point is not that they occur, but what you do about them and whether you have taken measures to lessen their frequency.

The second issue concerns track designs, which Greyhound Freedom admits was beyond it ken. That’s a terrible omission because it is arguably a significant contributor to interference which, in turn, promotes more injuries. So these folk are missing a key ingredient behind their complaints, albeit one that is not hard to examine.

Here, the industry is sadly in arrears in its study of the subject and in taking remedial action where faults exist. It’s an even greater pity because empirical data is readily available to pinpoint the trouble spots – via race times, TAB dividends, winning box numbers, race videos and, yes, fall and interference rates.

We can tell you that on average 5.2% of races involve a fall and that 32.5% of races involve runners which finish 20 lengths or more behind the winner – a proxy figure to suggest where higher or lower levels of interference are present. Those figures are almost always greater over trips with bend starts, some rising to 10% and 50% respectively. However, interference can occur anywhere, as it did in two races worth $118,000 each at The Meadows last Saturday night – the Zoom Top over 725m, won by the bolter of the field, or in the 600m Rookie Rebel where odds-on favourite Xylia Allen was sandwiched at the nearby first turn and finished 5th. That start is one of the roughest in the business.

This is an area where greyhound racing compares poorly with other racing codes and with other sports. It has failed to undertake sufficient, or any, studies to isolate the cause and effect of race interference. The code has drug information coming out its ears yet has done nothing to promote those track studies. Worse, in many cases, it refuses to recognise a problem exists, and regularly repeats past mistakes. That is unforgivable. Even apart from the welfare issues, it militates against customers selecting greyhounds for their weekend bet.

Generally, the parliamentary hearing has heard little mention of this subject but that may well change in time.

What a lot of people fail to recognise is that racing and competitive behaviour are in the DNA of both humans and animals. It is what allows the species to flourish, much as Darwin found when he uncovered the principle of the survival of the fittest. Rather than knocking it, it should be celebrated. Those who don’t like the heat should get out of the kitchen. The world offers many quiet spots for reflection.

(Next, we will look briefly at the most ignored person of the hearings – the customer).

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