Confusion, guesswork, allegations, bias and “let you know later” are some of the descriptions that might be applied to statements and figures offered at the NSW parliamentary hearings. The main offenders, but not the only ones, are animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA.
Much of the innuendo started last October when the ABC’s 7:30 report opened with a statement which set the scene; “The sport of greyhound racing has for years been tarnished by allegations of systemic doping and corruption”. Really? I read all the papers but have seen only a very occasional item from the same Fairfax journalist, who obviously has strong views about the worth of greyhound racing, and who failed double-check her sources or to obtain a good range of views, as required by her profession’s code of conduct.
The ABC program, also subject to the same protocols, offered no real background for its statement and followed up only with adverse comments from a few people who claimed illegal drug use was widespread. None of those respondents has been able to substantiate those claims subsequently, and they were generally based on hearsay anyway. Reliable sources reveal that a lengthy interview with an interstate greyhound official was cut to a few seconds on screen.
Of course, some abuses do occur, which is why authorities swab winners at every TAB track in the country, and sometimes others as well, and why kennel inspections are routine across the state.
The perspective that was missing from the ABC’s report was the absence of any inquiry into the use of drugs in general, given that they are a routine part of caring for the racing greyhound. Some of these remain in the system for longer than others, which is why authorities nominate “safe” periods which should be utilised prior to racing. Many are not banned as such, but are illegal if given too close to a race meeting.
However, over time, there have been many changes in the list of banned drugs, in the recommended safe periods, and in the quantity deemed to be illegal (ie if found at the time of swabbing).
A classic case occurred last year when the country’s biggest trainer, Graeme Bate from Geelong, was found guilty of using excessive testosterone on his bitches (to stay off-season) and disqualified for several months. In fact, Bate had continued dosages he had been using for 40 years, only to find that the legal limit had been halved. Bate should have known, of course, but it illustrates the somewhat arbitrary nature of rules made by authorities, often after receiving fresh technical advice.
There are other cases, in both horses and dogs, where minute traces of drugs found in the animals might well have been caused by close contact with a human handler who had been doing the wrong thing, or by contaminants a long way down the food chain. In either case, various stewards have ended up accepting some not guilty pleas from trainers. They have recognised that, over decades, the world outside has changed significantly, and that laboratories are now sharper than ever.
Whether some of these drugs have any effect on performance is also a grey area. EPO, for example, will not make the dog go faster than its normal top speed but will help with endurance. This is why cyclists have used it. It’s banned anyway, as it should be, not least because over-use is dangerous.
The question of injuries is more obscure.
The Greyhound Freedom group, which is opposed to any dog racing at all on emotional grounds and which demonstrated outside the hearings last week, carried banners calling for an end to taypayers’ subsidy of greyhound racing. In fact, last financial year TAB betting alone in NSW contributed over $21 million to the state coffers.
It also claims its surveys showed that over two years there were 36,689 racetrack injuries and 970 racetrack deaths on all Australian tracks bar 20 non-TAB tracks in NSW (it did not comment on non-TAB tracks in SA, which has two, and in Queensland, which has one).
In a period of that length Greyhounds Australasia data shows there would have been around 8,100 meetings, 85,000 races and 350,000 competitors (this is an estimate as GA figures have not been updated since 2011). That would suggest that over 10% of starters were injured and a bit over 0.2% of all starters died, if you accepted the claimed injury rate.
But those ratios are well in excess of GRNSW experience which shows that only just over 0.2% were injured and 0.1% died. The rare deaths would almost all have come from badly broken hocks and the like, where a vet assessed there was no possibility of recovery and the dog was in pain. The differences in the figures are probably explained by the fact that Greyhound Freedom had its data collected by volunteers who scraped them from stewards post-meeting reports on the internet. Exactly how they did that job is unknown.
In practice, of course, those reports show that the vast majority of those injuries were minor and required either no intervention or a spell from racing of a few days. Terms like “grazing”, “superficial bruising” and the like are in common use. Others would relate to muscle strains, which might require 7 days or longer.
Clearly, the Greyhound Freedom claims are highly suspect, as is their methodology.
Tomorrow we will expand a bit more on this subject.