When, as an eight year old, you have paraded a one eared greyhound wearing mascara, (the dog not the handler) for a flapping ‘touch’ and trained in America, Ireland and Walthamstow, you can reasonably claim to have a broad experience of greyhound racing. In a sport rife with ‘overnight experts’, ‘Young Ernie’ Gaskin has deeper dog roots than most – writes Floyd Amphlett.
There is so much to tell about Ernie’s life in greyhounds, but clearly only one place to start . . . .
Ernie said: “It was in the mid-1970s and one of my earliest experiences of greyhounds. Dad owned and trained a cracking staying bitch called Dancing Dolores who had reached a St.Leger Final (4th to Tartan Khan). He had given up his NGRC licence, was living in Newmarket, and was running a few greyhounds on the flaps.
“Dancing Dolores and my dad were besotted with each other. She was a lovely bitch and there was a real bond between them. Although she was close to retirement, Dolores was still a quality stayer and dad, wanted to win a staying open at Bury St.Edmunds. But there were two problems. Firstly, Dolores was showing her age by then so dad got the mascara out to paint out her grey whiskers.
“The bigger problem was that she missing an ear and was so quite distinctive to the greyhound men. The story that we were told when we bought her was that when she was a pup, there were two litters being reared side by side and the breeder’s daughter accidentally put Dolores back in the wrong paddock where the other dam attacked her and bit her ear off.
“So I was given strict instructions that when I paraded her, not to let anyone see that she was missing an ear (any recognition would have meant her price being slashed by the bookies). Thankfully it all went to plan and she duly landed the gamble.
“It is interesting looking back that although dad had trained for many years (he trained a Derby finalist in 1960), five years later, when he re-applied for his licence, the NGRC had obviously heard about his time on the flaps and would only give him a permit.”
Ernie’s flirtation with the USA lasted around a decade, as owner, kennelhand and trainer during the 1990s. It included an 18 month period training at Lincoln Rhode Island plus a period working in greyhound racing’s spiritual home at Abilene in Kansas, home of the ‘Nationals’.
American kennels and American greyhounds are very different from what we might expect in Britain or Ireland. Picture a room with double tier cages going around at least three of the walls. There are typically three outdoor paddocks but paddocking the dogs is a very different experience to the UK.
One person simply unbolts each of the doors, the dogs jump out and trot out to the paddock, where there might be 30, all muzzled, but wandering around together. Dogs and bitches are paddocked in separate sessions but they are generally let out at least six times per day and cages are never soiled.
Ernie said: “The system wouldn’t appeal to most greyhound folk in England. Their first reaction would be ‘battery hens’ though the dogs seem entirely happy. When they come back in, they all know which is their cage, and they can’t wait to get back there. Its their safe environment and the dogs love routine. But I can’t imagine leaving 30 of our racing dogs alone in a paddock.
“The American dogs are fed quite differently with a dry meal and they probably feed around a pound and a quarter of meat to each dog. Personally, I am not convinced that it is necessary but it works for them.
“I don’t necessarily think that the dogs are better trained, I would probably say they are trained better in England and Ireland. But I think it is likely that Pat Dalton and Don Cuddy in particular probably raised training standards with their influence.
“But I really admire the efficient way that the Americans run their tracks and their kennels. I only have a small kennel, so it doesn’t take a lot of organising, but when I ran graded dogs at Romford, I used the American example, with a big white board listing every dog and every activity: trials, races, treatments, the lot. How you could remember everything otherwise is beyond me.”
Having visited Ernie when he was training in Abilene, I reminded him of an observation that he had made back then relating to the temperament of the dogs.
He said: “The American dogs were so much more laid back, a bit like Irish coursing dogs. You could cut nails or do anything with them and they weren’t phased. At Lincoln I was handling a kennel that was primarily American bred dogs, next door to Pat Dalton’s kennel which contained a lot of Irish dogs. Our lot were quiet and docile, Pat’s dogs were having a go at each other and generally much more feisty.
“I suppose things have moved on a bit in recent years with changes in the quarantine laws meaning we have a lot more Australian and American breeding these days. These days there isn’t really such a thing as ‘Irish bloodlines’, they are a global breed.
“No matter how long you are in this business you never stop learning”
The use of physios including people such as Bradman and George Drake is a long established among dog men. However massage preparation is something that Ernie has adopted since his return from America.
He said: “I noticed how successful Mark Wallis and Patrick Janssens were in particular using Ron Mills and I have certainly taken it on board. I regularly ask Ron to check over my dogs and have been getting excellent results.”
All will be tested between Thursday and Saturday evening with the bulk of the kennel stars spread around the open scene. First up is the extraordinary sprinter Lambeth Way at Hove tonight (Thursday), followed by the two Coronation Cup finalists at Romford on Friday and Newinn Cracker and Mane Mane on Saturday at Crayford.
Ernie said: “I expect Lambeth Way to win. The preparation for Droopys Aoife and Roman Empire has gone exactly as I would have hoped. There are a couple of trade secrets that I have implemented but otherwise, they don’t need much in a week, just to freshen up.
“I thought Newinn Cracker ran very well at Crayford last week and he looks perfectly drawn in red. I also expect a big run from Mane Mane in the hurdle race. He is a wonderful greyhound with a great attitude. He jumped three hurdles after breaking his hock but he has lost none of his enthusiasm for racing.
“The going was against him at Central Park but I expect further improvement on Saturday night.”