The recent closures of Peterborough, Belle Vue and Poole has inevitably focused already depressed minds on the future of the industry. I suppose there must have been a time when greyhound folk weren’t gloomy but since I’ve only been going racing since 1972, I don’t remember it.
Even during the so-called ‘golden era’, greyhound racing was perpetually under threat.
In the 1930s, the church were pushing hard for a ban to save the country’s moral soul from the social decline of gambling.
Thank God for the war.
After World War II the Government couldn’t afford to ban dog racing. It was raped for tens of millions in tax revenue, decade after decade, Labour and Tory.
At that stage, greyhound racing was Britain’s second highest attended sport behind football. Horse racing was being left behind.
But with a combination of 98% combined taxes of the dogs, plus incredibly stringent regulations on fixtures and tote deductions, led to the big investors like South London Stadiums and Tote Holdings walking away.
To be fair, GRA tried to stick with it but gradually started selling off most of their least lucrative sites.
By the late 1950s, there was the threat of TV and in 1963, the opening of betting shops and the introduction of betting tax.
The fact that the shops were opening was just tough. Customer choice, market forces and all that!
The problem was, the betting industry was still screwing dog racing by betting on it, but not paying a penny for the privilege. Legally tracks couldn’t even demand that on-course bookies pay a proper fee.
The bookies were leeching off horse racing too – but, by law, had to pay for the privilege via the Horse Racing Levy.
Oh to have slippery friends in high places – the twin seats of Government.
In the last 20 years, the issue of greyhound welfare has seemingly become the main threat to the industry.
Is it though?
In my view, the biggest threats are currently:
Greyhound welfare hasn’t gone away. But such is the progress made since the setting up of GBGB, it is no longer the greatest threat to the industry.
If I am an EFRA civil servant, I am thinking: ‘The Animal Welfare Bill might have raised a high bar, but if you clear it, how can we threaten to shut you down, without raising it higher?’
The re-homing issue continues to be among the thornier issues and the recently announced greyhound bond scheme has raised argument and debate.
I have received numerous ‘calls of concern’. In the words of one of the industry big beasts: “Why do we need it? You are putting extra costs on owners. The issue isn’t finance, it is re-homing ex-racers. And how is one coordinator going to keep track of 7,500 dogs coming into and another 7,500 leaving the industry every year?”
On reflection, I don’t consider it that simple, on at least a couple of grounds, th0ugh I would accept there is an argument, ‘if we are already re-homing 90% without a bond, is it really necessary?’
But . . .firstly, owners aren’t necessarily being asked to pay more, they are being asked to pay up front, rather than at the end of racing careers.
Secondly, while I do accept that it is impossible for one individual to take responsibility for 15,000 greyhounds each year, was that really the job description?
Or is it one of monitoring resources and accountability?
The days of throws £Xm at Greyhound Trust and saying “Go home some dogs and we have no input into how many” are long gone.
It’s a complex and emotional debate guys.
However, I hereby call out any Board director who thinks they can just inflict this, or any other scheme, on the industry without being held accountable.
We have long held concerns over the decline in industry ‘practitioners’ – a word I had never heard applied to greyhound racing prior to the Donoughue report.
There is no doubt that the number of people looking to own, train, breed or generally care for greyhounds has been in decline for decades.
This is an aging industry still relying on folk who first laid their hand on a greyhound many many years ago. It remains a long term concern but there are factors to consider.
In terms of trainers, the reliance on aging handlers isn’t universal. For example, Ladbrokes Coral tend to be ahead of the game. Consider the ages of the trainers at their four tracks.
Though that policy is far from universal. Wander into a lot of racing paddocks and you’ll be knocked over by the waft of Deep Heat and Werthers Originals.
In terms of owners, we have already lost a huge number who didn’t feel that the rewards justified the cost of greyhound ownership; a situation exacerbated by the reliance on daytime betting shop meeting.
That situation has been largely deflected by trainers (almost always reluctantly) owning more of their own dogs. From a financial and welfare perspective that makes zero sense in the long term.
But sadly, this is an industry that never seems able to look beyond immediate survival.
For previous generations of greyhound folk it would seem incredible that the continued decline in attendances is not THE biggest factor affecting the future of racing. Though it is perhaps the saddest.
Consider Belle Vue had the best (pre-Covid) Saturday night crowd in the industry, but that wasn’t enough to save it.
Crowds are still important, particularly when they are well catered for, and the best, by far, are the Ladbrokes Coral tracks.
Romford on a Friday, or better still a Saturday. Crayford, Hove, Monmore, all great places to visit.
A vibrant attendance brings atmosphere, new supporters and owners, and lets not forget the financial benefits of a full restaurant, busy bars and active tote.
The point is this though – which could Romford least afford to lose, its five/six SIS meetings per week or its crowd?
Belle Vue and Peterborough didn’t close because they couldn’t attract significant custom – at least in a post Covid world. They closed because they didn’t have enough contracted meetings.
Given its high rent, ARC clearly determined that it was more financially beneficial to transfer the two contracted meetings to its other four tracks – despite the popularity of the The Zoo.
Peterborough had one ARC meeting per week, Poole had one/two depending on the time of year.
For a track like Yarmouth, with only two contracted meetings, a paid attendance is vital to survive.
The most extreme example of the non-dependence of crowds would be a track like Henlow. It doesn’t need customers through the gate. In fact, given the extra staff needed during the Covid era, it would probably cost more to race with a crowd in attendance.
Bear in mind that most BAGS/SIS fixtures offer free admission anyway.
A little bit like the situation concerning trainers, this particular writer might be accused of crying ‘wolf’ too often over the year.
Flagging up the decline has been accurate, but not spotting the coping mechanisms was shortsighted.
Problem: A decline of owners. Solution: More owner trained dogs.
Problem: Not enough trainers Solution: Ex-flapping trainers have switched codes. Tracks have changed grading policy whereby trainers from more than two hours drive away can have all their runners on one meeting.
Problem: not enough greyhounds Solution: Close tracks and re-distribute their dogs. Lower grading time to allow slower and older dogs to keep racing. Run more handicaps. Turn a blind eye to fighters and dodges.
All very well – but they are finite solutions.
Sooner or later the decline in breeding outstrips a more casual reduction in demand. We are seeing signs of this already with a rise in the price of racing dogs.
Belle Vue had a significant racing strength but the loss of Peterborough and Poole won’t create a reservoir of spare racers.
Grading times are now so slow at some tracks, and handicaps are now so staggered, as to be farcical.
In terms of the veterans, even the lowest level graded sprints eventually take their toll on seven year olds.
Things haven’t been healthy for a while. In 2019, Ireland bred the smaller number of greyhounds on record, 2,324 litters, down roughly a third in a decade (3,165).
But then came Covid.
I reported in July that matings in Ireland for the first seven months of the year were down 30%. They included almost three months worth of pre-Covid matings.
What will the final 2020 figures show? A decline of 30%, 40%?
The thing about breeding is that the effect is (almost) immediate and not easily reversed.
The 2020 whelps will be the bedrock of the 2022 racing strength. Even if the switch was flipped today, and breeders could be persuaded to resurrect their operations, it would take a year for a significant number of bitches to come in season, be mated and have pups on the ground. It is then another 15 months – minimum – before those hounds make the track.
Dog shortage? We ain’t seen nuthin yet!
1 MEDIA RIGHTS ISSUE
The biggest threat to the industry, by far, is the media rights issue.
In its most simple form, dog racing is now (almost) entirely dependent on the betting industry for its income and there is more ‘product’ than it wants to pay for.
I have previously written that, according to my calculations a 12 track industry could produce races every eight minutes during an extended racing day, for 364 days per year.
(YES! I know that such a small nucleus raises all sorts of other issues – but there is no space for that debate in this article).
It seems inevitable that sooner or later, the betting industry will get what it wants and overnight (probably) six tracks will be cut loose.
But at this point it is worth reflecting that there have already been a raft of changes since the media rights conflict began two and a half years ago.
At that stage, ARC/TRP had 13 tracks, including Towcester, and, we were told by some in that camp, confident of striking a deal with the bookies and wiping SIS out within months.
Now ARC and SIS have nine UK tracks each.
In other words, neither provider would be unable to produce a UK-only service on their own.
Hence the nightmare scenario:
Last year SIS lost a court case to ARC – ironically nothing to do with greyhounds – which will cost them £50m (give or take a Belle Vue). What if Ladbroke Coral were to do a deal with ARC for their four tracks, plus the four ARC tracks, and pick off the best of the rest?
We could lose a third of our tracks virtually overnight. Without the Ladbroke Coral income, SIS would probably be wound up.
It could happen, though it definitely wouldn’t be that simple.
For example, how would William Hill, Betfair/Paddy Power, Bet365 etc, feel about the greyhound product being cornered by their commercial rivals?
Thankfully, there does appear to be some breathing space with the Ladbrokes Coral deal with SIS due to run for another two and a half years.
And by January 2023, who can guess how many of the current 18 tracks will still be trading?
When I was a kid, most greyhounds seemed to be fawns and brindles (of all shades). Blacks were still sought after and blues were rare. There were many more ‘white ands’ – a colour combination usually associated with coursing.
The influx of blacks, black/whites and blues from Australian bloodlines came to the fore in the 1990s and absolutely dominated. It became quite common to see all six blacks in big finals.
Gradually though, the American bloodlines have added a variety of colours and I was caught by the combinations from Imelda Grauer’s headshots of the recent Champion Stakes Final at Shelbourne Park.
Very pleasing on the eye and great news for the homefinders!
It is a sign of the times to see greyhound racing embrace diversity among local cultures with Newcastle inviting the local imam along to take prayers and conduct the draw for the All England Cup.
It is the first time that such a prestigious honour has ever been carried out by someone as culturally diverse as a Smoggie.