Michael Watts MRCVS

It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times. As another year dawns it seems to be the done thing to review the last twelve months and speculate more or less wildly about the twelve months that stretch out before us so here is my ten cents worth. “Last chance to dance” is a catchphrase much used by the course commentator down our way as he tries to coax the punters into making one final investment of the last race of the night before the traps rise for the last time.

The atmosphere as the last night’s racing of the year draws to a close is akin to that in the dancehalls of the rural Ireland of my youth. There is so much of the “Good Night, God Bless, Safe Homebonhomie flying back and forth that you would think that the track was closing for all eternity rather than for just a fortnight. .Still and all in the season of goodwill to all men t is nice to know that folks treat you as a friend, at least once in a wee while.

It is after all the personalities and the characters as much as the dogs themselves that create the atmosphere and the craic that draws the public to the track, although a reduction in the bar prices may have something to do with it too. After spending the festive season ensconced in the bosom of my family, I will not be sorry to get back to the company of the Usual Suspects once racing kicks off once more. Now I like to think of myself as a tidy kind of guy, although ‘Er Indoors would probably disagree. When the track closes for Christmas I like to tie up the loose ends and would clear my desk if I had a desk to clear.

My time-honoured ritual involves leaving a bottle of what at the price of it should be half decent cognac in the Racing Office for the R.M. to sweeten him or soften him up before e-mailing him the injury statistics for the year just concluded. I am a card-carrying Luddite myself but I must admit the internet has its moments. It enables you to break bad news without having to duck or run, a great advantage for those whose running days are behind them and who do not duck as quickly as they once did.

This year the statistics told a tale less sad than in some other years I could mention. That is not to say any champagne corks are popping in these parts .When push comes to shove there is no acceptable level of injury. One greyhound injured in a race or a trial is one dog too many.

There is never a time when you can rest on your oars and bask in the reflected glory of a job well done. Having said all that, looking back over the preceding twelve months, fewer greyhounds suffered career-threatening injuries than in many another year. If this year’s injury statistics were better than last year’s, then the name of the game next year will be to reduce them still further. There is very definitely no room for complacency.

So what can be done to reduce the incidence of injury in race dogs still further? How long have you got?

You could write a book on the subject. Frankly, I wish somebody would hurry up and do just that. In general terms there are three groups of factors that we need to consider: those relating to the track itself, those relating to the greyhounds and luck, or the absence of same.

As far as the track goes, its dimensions, the radii of curvature of the bends, the length of the straight sections between them and so forth are largely dictated by the size and shape of the site and therefore pretty inflexible. You could of course move to a greenfield site and build the track of your dreams from scratch but, given the current dodgy financial state of the greyhound industry, you would need to get the six numbers up on several Saturday nights first. I don’t do the lottery myself as I have a problem issues with state-sponsored gambling. My Presbyterian grandfather would be proud of me.

Anyway if you had that kind of dough, would spending it on a dog track be a smart move, given the present parlous financial state of the greyhound game? I rest my case. That pretty much knocks that good idea on the head. Without razing the existing track to the ground and rebuilding it, we can tweak this a little to make the track safer. Maybe the curvature of the bends cannot be changed easily, but the banking can be altered by adding more sand and grading it appropriately. The lengths of the straights cannot be changed but perhaps the distance between the traps and the first bend can be altered so that the dogs have settled into their stride before they hit the changing curvature of the bend.

That would involve shifting the winning post a little, but how many of those in the grandstand can get a clear look at the winning post anyway, and how many sixpackers are happy to watch the finish on CCTV? We can frim and preen the track surface too, to remove stones and prevent jarring soil impaction and to enhance the existing drainage. If there is a nip of frost in the air spraying the track surface with a salt solution helps reduce the temperature at which the surface freezes. If ice does form despite our best efforts we can harrow the surface, which will at least tell us how deeply the sand is frozen and thus if there is any real prospect of racing any time soon even if it cannot completely resurrect the surface. The track surface then we can do something about. And the chances are that our trusty R.M, is already working on it long before the doors re-open next Friday.

Then there are the greyhounds. Now I can cast an eye over them before they go out to race and withdraw the obviously injured or unwell but the fact that the rest appear sound going to traps is no guarantee that they will finish the race sound, or finish the race at all come to that.

The Racing Office guys are relying on the connections of the individual dogs to do their best to produce their charges fit and well on the night and able to give the punters some sort of a run for their money. Greyhound trainers are of course the very salt of this earth, but, truth to tell some are good, some are bad and most are somewhere in between like the rest of humanity. A greyhound returning after injury may when the chips are down prove not to be as well mended as he first appeared and break down again. The bitch trialling back in after her seasonal rest may not be match fit, and so come to harm.

The novice dog may stick his foot in the hare rail because he knows no better. Other newcomers who look the part break legs because the rearer scrimped on the feeding in their youth. I don’t think I need to labour the point any further. You all know the story as well as I do, if not better.

Finally there is luck, fortuna imperatrix mundi. What makes one dog check into the bend and baulk the dog behind him? Why does one dog stand on another’s foot and spike it? How does a dog run thirty races in his career without incident, then break his hock in a solo trial? The guy who trains my dogs used to say that if it wasn’t for bad luck I would have no luck at all, and that I must pray to the wrong God, as I couldn’t get a decent draw to save my life.

The truth of the matter is that if every dog ran up. Or down to expectations and every race panned out as expected our sport would be boring in the extreme. It is luck that provides the variety which is the spice of life. In 2017 luck was on our side, and the number of dogs hurt at the track fell. This yer luck may desert us.

The incidence of injury at the track is not entirely under our control but we are going to knock our sock off working at the parts of the equation that we can influence to try and keep the injury rate as low as we can. Fingers crossed, toes too!


Twitter: @GSUnderTheRadar