Michael Watts MRCVS

My glass is seldom half full. I don’t do blithe optimism or blind faith. My comfort zone is generally towards the more cynical end of the spectrum in the bitter and twisted department. When it comes to rules and regulations therefore I find myself in a dilemma more than somewhat. I am not at all sure that you can make people do the right thing by the threat of legislative sanction. If you force the unwilling into doing something they are reluctant to do voluntarily are they ultimately doing the right thing? Besides, if they really want to do something no law on heaven or earth will stop them.

Cutting to the chase, the movers and shakers at Greyhound Racing New South Wales are considering bringing in a mandatory stand down time for any greyhound that falls in a race and have been taking soundings among official track vets to gauge their views on the idea.

My first instinctive response is to give the measure the old thumbs up. When push comes to shove any dog who finds himself ploughing a furrow out of the first bend with his chin or doing back somersaults through the air ending in a belly-flop on the track is bound to need a bit of down time to recover. That is just common sense.

If something is commonly viewed as common sense however, do we need rules and regulations to make it compulsory? The problem with relying on people’s better nature is that some folk do not have one. There will always be some geezer someplace who, whether through inexperience or ignorance, rushes an injured dog back to the track before he is quite ready. There will always be some low life who knowingly runs an injured or unfit dog so that it can find time later when the money is down. Such is human nature.

Maybe we do need some sort of legislation to keep in check the worst instincts of the thick and the bent, but if we impose an mandatory stand down on a dog who gets bowled over, for how long should it last?

Greyhounds that fall vary from the dog who gets on the deck after a bump at the first bend to the dog who sustains a stress fracture at speed and finishes up measuring his length. The former may be as right as rain the next day while the latter may have picked up a life-changing career-ending injury and may never grace the track with his presence again.

If we settle on a single arbitrary figure then we risk either unduly penalising the dog who has emerged from his tumble unscathed. At the other extreme there are clearly some dogs who will be off the track for far longer than the mandatory period. When the track vet examines a dog who has fallen scarce minutes before and who is hot, clabbered with sand and hyperventilating, it may not be easy to determine the extent of the injury.

If in practice a lot of the dogs who fall are unable to return to racing soon after completing their mandatory stand down then the whole business looks a bit daft and that brings the regulation into disrepute. On the other hand, by specifying a particular stand-down period, is there a risk of creating an expectation that a dog should normally be fit and well and ready to return to the track once this period has elapsed?

Call me a bitter old cynic if you will, but I worry that by imposing a mandatory stand-down of a defined duration there is a risk that this will be interpreted by the green and the bent as an indication of when the authorities might deem it acceptable for an injured dog to return to the track once more.

For how long should a dog who hits the deck be stood down anyway? Most of my Australian counterparts seem happy with a figure of seven days for dogs with no obvious injuries.

Coming from Ireland where dogs only race to win, or in preparation for the big final or for the night when the money is down, that figure makes me wonder how often the race some of those misfortunate dogs Down Under, if being sidelined for seven days is seen as a significant break from racing.

How can anyone look the “antis” straight in the eye and tell them to have sex and travel if they themselves regularly race dogs more than once a week? Judge not, that ye be not judged and all that jazz.

We need to set our own house in order before we can safely stick our heads over the parapet. That said, as a track veterinary surgeon I would probably want to have the duration of any stand down time determined by a higher authority. If I had any say in the matter then I would have the disgruntled trainers of dogs on the easy list grumbling about the unfairness of their lot in one ear while the connections of dogs that had lately come a cropper would be at the other trying to coax or bully me into cutting them some slack. A fixed penalty handed down from on high would be a whole sight easier.

In search of guidance we might look to other sports to see how they deal with comparable situations. A boxer who gets on the canvas and fails to beat the count will find his licence suspended for from twenty-eight to forty-five days and even more in some circumstances. Here the worry is concussion, with prolonged stand down times designed to reduce the risk of Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury which blights the later lives and darkens the twilight years of as many as one in five of our one time sporting heroes.

Greyhounds do not seem to suffer from concussion, although it is hard to be sure of this as the condition is subjective and might be difficult to diagnose in those who cannot speak. The track vet can hardly as a greyhound who has been bowled over at the first bend how many of his fingers he can see or if he knows what day of the week it is.

Nevertheless signs of head injury like reduced responsiveness or having pupils of different sizes are seldom seen in dogs who fall at the track, at least by the time they reach the vets’ room. Thankfully the injuries likely in a greyhound who has taken a heavy fall are musculoskeletal aches and pains. Much as I love horses, the thought of parting company with one at 40 m.p.h. somewhere on top of a birch fence is quite enough to convince me to keep both feet on the ground and admire them from a safe distance.

Those sufficiently tired of living who ride thoroughbreds professionally risk both the aches and pains and concussion, although even the most hapless is unlikely to get knocked out often enough to suffer the same fate as the unfortunate pugilists.

Dr Adrian Mc Goldrick, the Chief Medical Officer of the Turf Club, the regulatory body for horse racing in the Ould Sod, is on record as saying that “there is no real psychological evidence in humans with sports concussion that would back a minimum stand down period”. Currently, the stand down period for jockeys is based on clinical diagnoses based on impairment. Traditionally In the recovery phase after concussion, rest has been the cornerstone of management.

Expert opinion voiced at a recent conference on the subject that took place in Germany suggests that rest actually slows down recovery and that a supervised exercise programme may be a better option. So while a boxer may find himself on the easy list for months after a single knockout, a jockey may find himself keeping busy in the gym following a heavy fall. Not much help there then.

A mandatory stand-down is something of a blunt instrument which may look good on paper but which requires much skill if it is to be wielded accurately in practice.

Never much of a fan of a whole lot of regulation, I reckon that the person best positioned to judge when a dog is ready to return to the track after a tumble is the guy who handles him every day, his trainer.

Do we need a system of mandatory stand-downs in the U.K.? My advice, for what it is worth, is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.