Michael Watts MRCVS

The human race is an opinionated and argumentative bunch of individuals in my experience, incapable of agreeing on almost anything more than fleetingly.The followers of the leash, salt of the earth that they undoubtedly are, are nonetheless no different from the rest.

Thus it is that when I read that delegates to the Annual General Meeting of the Irish Coursing Club endorsed each and every one of the ten motions put forward by the Executive Committee my eyebrows raised more than somewhat. Either the Great and Good of the industry assembled at the Horse & Jockey Hotel that day in a mood of cooperation and consensus unusual on such occasions or the burning issues of the day had already been hammered out beforehand in a smoke-filled room someplace and All Good Men and True went on to present a sanitised and politically correct united front on 16th August. I like the cut and thrust of a debate myself and am a sucker for a bit of oratory. It surely does no harm for the democratic nature of the sport to be dusted off in public once in a while, with views and opinions coming from the floor of the meeting and the movers and shakers at the coalface arguing the toss before finally reaching some sort of compromise. Maybe I have a short attention span and am easily bored, but if nothing else an impassioned debate, with voices raised and fists banged on tables, makes the blood course a little faster in a bloke’s veins than a series of rubber stamping exercise nodded through by a compliant assembly. You have to move with the times I suppose. In the age of alternative facts and fake news maybe democracy and freedom of speech do not extend much further than the corner of Hyde Park.

Be that as it may, the first motion up for discussion concerned amendments to Rule (8), the so-called “twelve day” rule. Rule (8) is designed to prevent an owner entering a greyhound in several stakes, then waiting to see how the dog’s fitness is progressing or more probably what other dogs he is likely to come up against in each stake, before deciding where to run him and withdrawing him from his other engagements. Outsiders used to the less flexible wold of the G.B.G.B will be surprised to learn how easy it is to withdraw a greyhound from a coursing stake. The practice of allowing a dog to run a course or two effectively for schooling purposes then withdrawing him is routine, To be caught running a horse in public for training purposes without making a serious attempt to win its race would bring the wrath of the Stewards down upon the perpetrators like several tons of bricks, and rightly so. While the practice of making multiple future entries and cancelling most of them at the four day stage is nothing unusual in the world of horseracing, in the greyhound game where there are more constraints on the number of runners this approach would cut up cards badly and cause club secretaries headaches of elephantine proportions. On the whole therefore Rule (8) has to be seen as A Good Thing. As it stood prior to this year’s A.G.M. the owner of a greyhound who competed within twelve days of being pulled out of another engagement, or his agent, was “subject to disciplinary action by the Executive Committee” whereas the penalty for so doing in the newly amended version has become the disqualification of the greyhound involved, with any dogs beaten by the disqualified greyhound being promoted as appropriate. That looks to me like a watering down of Rule (8). Why was that necessary or even desirable? If it ain’t broke lads, don’t fix it!

There is nothing new under the sun, they say. The next motion up for consideration concerned adverse analytical findings, which seems to be the politically correct phrase for what in the past would have been called in common parlance a positive drug test. A spade may very well be an agricultural implement, but why not keep things simple and just call it a spade? This year it was proposed that “ upon the receipt by the Secretary of an adverse analytical finding, and having met the requirement of Paragraph 15.3 and prior to an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the presence of the drug being held before the Hearing Committee, a notice shall appear in the Sporting Press newspaper notifying that the Secretary has received such and adverse analytical finding; the name of the prohibited substance, the name of the greyhound concerned; the name of the registered owner(s)…..at the time of the taking of such a sample and the date upon which and the place at which the said sample was taken.” A motion from the floor that called for drug testing at local meetings was introduced at the 2014 AGM. Since then the silence has been deafening. If there is to be even a pretence at some degree of integrity in the sport it is imperative that the I.C.C becomes more open and honest about positive test results. This motion was most welcome but it could and should have been introduced years ago.

The third motion up for discussion was similarly a matter of tying up loose ends left over from the 2014 AGM. It concerned the sanctions to be applied to greyhounds giving an adverse analytical result. Previously whether by oversight or deliberate subterfuge dogs subject to a ban on racing could pay their debt to society largely during the close season with the ban potentially only involving forty days of the actual coursing season, a penalty which was famously described by Radio Kerry’s Patsy Lynch as ”like asking my granddaughter to give up ice cream in January”. The proposed amendment made it clear that any ban was to be served during the coursing season, giving the penalty real bite. Again the amendment was necessary, but was needed way back, when an oversight or a spot of constructive ambiguity allowed the cute hoors a chance to escape almost Scot free after a positive drug test. Part of this amendment related to sanctions to be imposed on track dogs racing in Northern Ireland. The revised text approved at this years AGM makes it clear that an ban on racing after the artificial quarry only applies to Northern Ireland. This may seem odd to outsiders, and perhaps a retrograde step, but it recognizes that while the I.C.C. is the regulatory body for racing on the track in Northern Ireland the I.G.B controls racing south of the Border where the I.C.C cannot enforce any sanction anyway.

The fourth motion up for discussion concerned guarding, which for the uninitiated is the perfectly legitimate mechanism whereby the draw for a stake is manipulated to ensure that greyhounds in the same ownership are not drawn against one another, at least in the early stages of the competition. It came as no surprise to find this issue coming up on the agenda this year following the controversy surrounding the 2017 Derby, the final of which was not run because the last two dogs left in the stake were in the same ownership. The National Meeting is the climax of the season in Ireland and the Derby is the jewel in its crown. When the Derby final is not run out, as has happened several times in recent years for various reasons, the whole meeting turns into a bit of a damp squib and punters are entitled to feel more than somewhat disgruntled. To be fair, the motion tackled the issue head on, making the running of the finals of the Derby and Oaks obligatory regardless of who owns of the competing greyhounds. This is a wise move, albeit a long overdue one. However as part and parcel of the same motion, there was a long and complicated discussion of the number of runners any one owner or syndicate can have at the National Meeting. Am I the only person who finds it more than somewhat bizarre that an individual owner or syndicate can win as many trial stakes as they like but can only have two runners in each stake at Powerstown? The proposed amendment to the relevant rule involves an arrangement whereby an owner who has more than two dogs qualified for one of the classics can transfer some of them into another ownership and still have them guarded in the draw. Would it not be simpler just to allow an owner or syndicate to win as many trial stakes as they can and run all those qualifiers in their own name, rather than forcing them to transfer some of them into the nominal ownership of a family member who would not recognise “his” dog if he tripped over it, or of a Mickey Mouse syndicate cobbled together for the job? There are already far too many nominal owners and too many owners who conceal their true identity behind syndicate with fanciful titles. Better still why not put an end to guarding at the National Meeting altogether? The average owner spends years upon years chasing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is success in a trial stake and qualification for Clonmel and generally finishes each season empty handed. Guarding is an issue that really only affects a handful of bigger owners, the movers and shakers who tend to wield undue influence in the Winter Game anyway. Why not abolish guarding, at Clonmel at least, and let every owner take his chance in the draw?

Next up for discussion was insurance cover for coursing clubs. For many years the I.C.C. has been able to obtain insurance cover for the affiliated clubs at a discount rate on the basis that all the clubs participated in the scheme. By so doing the Club claims to be able to meet the cost of the policy excess of any claim, saving the individual clubs, many of which are not exactly flush, a not inconsiderable sum. Recently some clubs have reportedly been taking out insurance cover through another country sports organisation, presumably because the premiums were more favourable. I am thankfully not privy to the internal financial arrangements at the I.C.C. but even those who still count on their fingers can probably figure out that if a large number of clubs opted out of the I.C.C. insurance scheme it might become unsustainable in its present form. On the other hand the I.C.C., which is usually staring penury in the face, may derive a useful income stream from the collection of insurance premiums, a nice little earner that it may be loath to pass up. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation – and you may be certain sure the general public will never hear the half of it – the delegates at the A.G.M unanimously voted to back the I.C.C. scheme for another wee while.

The sixth motion dealt with the setting up a Forfeit List, a register of persons who had been found guilty of breaking the Rules of the I.C.C and had failed to ante up the resulting fine within a reasonable time period. The low-lifes whose names appear on the Forfeit List would be considered Disqualified Persons who would not be “permitted to name, transfer, breed or course a greyhound or attend a coursing event in any capacity”. Like the author, many readers will be surprised to learn that the Club did not already have such a list. This motion has to be seen as an unqualified Good Thing as it seeks to fire a shot across the bows of those accustomed to having a blind eye turned towards their misdemeanours. It is better late than never.

Motion No.7 called for an increase in the prize money for trial stakes. As it stands the winner of a 32-runner trial stake takes home €1,000. The Great & Good at the I.C.C. would like to increase this to €1,500. Even this increased prize money is a pretty paltry reward for a dog who has had to go upfield five times. Besides, €1,500 would not even look at the cost of buying and rearing a pup with a fashionable pedigree that would stand any chance of qualifying for Powerstown. The winner of a 48-dog or 64 dog trial stake would in fuure receive €2,000 and the runner-up €600. Extra prize money is always nice, but the I.C.C Executive was only planning to fund the increase to the tune of €250, leaving the affiliated clubs themselves to pick up the slack. The representative of at least one club opposed the motion saying that if his outfit had to bankroll much of the increase themselves they would lose money staging their meeting. On a vote, however, the motion was passed.

48-dog trial stakes are a relatively recent innovation, introduced as it were by popular demand to cater for the large number of eligible puppies looking for opportunities to qualify for the classics. This correspondent has never been keen on them as they inevitably result in some dogs progressing bloodlessly through parts of the stake through being in receipt of a natural bye. It was interesting to read in the preamble to the eighth motion that the I.C.C. Executive had contemplating killing them off on the basis that the obliged some owners to attend the field on three days and that the final day’s program contained fewer courses than were traditional. Ultimately however they opted to submit another motion which sought to ensure that any natural bye would occur at the quarter final stage so that the semi-finals and final would be more competitive. This version of the motion was passed on a vote.

Motion No.9 was a largely technical one, designed to change the definition of “bred in Ireland” in the Rules of the I.C.C. so that it tallied with that in the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. Unsurprisingly it was passed on the nod.

The final motion of the day dealt with the creation of a small dedicated Fixture Committee to adjudicate in disputes between clubs concerning the dates of meetings, a task currently the responsibility of the already over-burdened General Purposes Sub-Committee. The proposal was for a Fixture Committee to be set up comprising a representative from each of the our provinces together with the President, Secretary and Treasurer acting in an ex officio capacity. The Committee would meet as often as was deemed necessary and its decisions would be binding and independent of the Executive Committee. This eminently sensible proposal was also carried on a vote.

With the A.G.M. done and dusted, the countdown to the new season is truly under way. The whole crazy merry-go-round starts off again at Kilflynn in the Kingdom of Kerry on Friday 29th September.