It came about because John Mullins – who usually uses the English language so sparingly you might assume he was being charged by the word – described Towcester’s inaugural Derby Final night as the “best greyhound meeting I have ever been to”.
I realised I had seriously missed out.
My selfishness mother, who had chosen to enter the world 80 years earlier on the closest weekday to last year’s final, AND accept the invitation that the family dutifully offered to celebrate it, had robbed me of my first Towcester Derby.
So Lord H’s greeting was hardly the hyped-up Derby introduction that I was expecting.
But the maverick track owner was buzzing like a bad-kenneler who had just been driven through a field of bunnies.
The reason? The Towcester team and sponsor Ben Keith had managed to lure some of the cream of national media to the Derby lunch and Ian Herbert’s full page article in the Mail – which talked as much about welfare and industry funding, as it did about the Derby final – was part of a greater plan.
It is no coincidence that Towcester were among the first to pledge to re-home all their ex-racers and the only track to publish its injury and euthanasia data.
As a former Government minister under Margaret Thatcher and Lords Chief Whip under John Major, Hesketh developed a strong belief in the power of the major newspapers to influence Government opinion. For example, he is convinced it was the national media campaigns that forced changes in the law relating to FOBT machines in betting shops.
Don’t be surprised if his lordship delivers a couple of stinging blows to the big firms in the coming weeks. This is a man on a mission.
If he succeeds, the whole industry benefits – or at least those taking their welfare responsibilities seriously!
(His efforts may be coincidentally supported by a strategy currently being lined up by GBGB’s Mark Bird – more to come on that in due course)
Meanwhile, outside the racecourse with the most high profile welfare record in the industry, the ignorant rabble were reminding greyhound racing why we can never deal with them.
In screaming insults and abuse, they gave us another wake-up call that welfare was never on their agenda. They are not interested in improvements in conditions for greyhounds. They simply want any sport banned that involves animals, no matter how humane.
*Perhaps they should have protested outside a West of England travellers site where a stolen greyhound is genuinely being exploited and the police are too frightened to intervene! GBGB offered to help with a £500 reward for ‘information leading to the return of the dog’ – an offer that trainer Kevin Hutton courageously declined for fear of putting more greyhounds in line to be stolen and ransomed.
Among those ‘animal exploiters’ being abused as she arrived was Diane Bakewell, attending her first greyhound meeting since the closure of her beloved Hall Green.
The family kennel was closed and daughter Kelly recently joined Team Janssens. But then greyhounds are in the blood of the family who trained Westmead Hawk for his early races.
Diane still has 25 ex-Hall Green racers who she is keeping and funding herself in the old racing kennel.
In theory, that burden should slowly decline – and it was until a couple of weeks ago when a trainer from the North West threatened to have two ex-racers put to sleep if they weren’t re-homed. Diane stepped in immediately.
Diane has been given a few bags of biscuit and the £3.50 per day hand-out from GBGB soon ran out when Diane explained that she had no plans to “re-home” her ex-racers, they were already at home.
So if anyone is looking for a genuine cause to support, I can think of few more worthy.
I soon caught up with John Mullins on what is becoming his annual pilgrimage.
As good as last year?
“Just look at the place” he said, “Everybody goes on about losing SKY coverage. This place is way more important than that! In fact, if Towcester ever closed, you might as well shut the game down.”
(That’s probably John’s word allocation used up until about August)
Another man steeped in the history of the Derby is Tony Meek, who trained both Ringa Hustle and Moral Standards to win finals at Wimbledon.
“The days of being called a Derby winning trainer are long gone” he suggested, “these days people just say, ‘that’s Robert Meek’s brother’”
A widely respected and widely travelled physio, Robert is in demand throughout the country and includes local handler Kevin Hutton among his clients.
“I drove here just to see the plans for the place before the greyhound track was built and thought, ‘it can’t work’. How wrong was I? Personally, I think the circuit is a bit too wide, but it is a magnificent facility. Towcester has given the industry back its pride and belief.”
It would be fair to say that Rab McNair was never slow to let his feelings be known about the limitations of Central Park as a racing circuit.
Despite it being his closest track, he refused to race there and even boycotted the Trainers Championship meeting. Ongoing improvements have seen him relent in the last year, but he was absolutely buzzing on Saturday night about the recent renovation work carried out by Gavin Smith.
As he contemplated another flawless performance from King Turbo in the British bred race, Rab said: “Central Park is now a magnificent track. The bends are beautifully banked, and the surface is just superb. Everybody knows how much I used to think of the Wimbledon circuit, but I genuinely think Central Park is now better. Great credit to the management for what they have achieved there.”
Actions speak louder than words and he and Liz recently applied to join the Sittingbourne based track to introduce two recently schooled litters to racing.
They include the greatly anticipated first pups by his Wimbledon track record breaker Eden The Kid out of Skate On (dam of King Elvis, Queen Anna etc etc).
So how are they going?
Returning to his flapping roots, Rab promptly cocked a deaf ‘un.
He is more interested to know – will Star Sports lay 200-1 about any member of the litter winning next year’s Derby?
Now that sounds like a sportsman’s bet Mr Keith!