While the smart refurbished restaurant and shiny 490 metre traps might be the more visible evidence of Ian Smyth’s influence on Hove, there are plenty of less obvious innovations also taking place at the seaside venue writes Floyd Amphlett.
After taking over as head of the four Ladbrokes Coral stadia early last year, and spending much of his early time sorting out the Romford rebuild, Smyth began an extensive fact finding mission.
Last summer we reported on his plans to study the racing operations including detailed injury data, track preparation methods and the kennel strengths at all four venues.
In terms of Hove, one of his first actions was to introduce a new 490 metre distance and follow that up with a new Category One event over that new course, the Coral Winter Derby.
More recently, the track have restructured their grading system, which has inevitably led to some confusion among track regulars. As will become obvious, the two schemes are not unrelated.
Smyth said: “We were asked in the very early stages of my tenure to look at a distance slightly shorter than Hove’s traditional 515 metres – a number of dogs, especially younger dogs were struggling to stay the distance and we felt a second distance would give trainers and owners the option to run over the new 490metres, over the existing 515 course or both.
“It has never been our intention to remove the 515 at Hove – it is part of the tracks heritage while being recognised as one of the toughest 4 bend tests anywhere in the country. To do away with the 515 trip would be unfair on those owners and trainers who have bought their greyhounds specifically to Hove for that reason.
“The 490 is popular with a good number of trainers and owners whose dogs are better suited to a less demanding test of stamina but 515 metres will continue at both graded and open race level with an equal split expected at graded level in the immediate future.
Our Open race calandar will remain biased towards the 515 metre test Hove is renowned for with our traditional Category One events over the 515 metre course including the Sussex Cup and the Olympic, plus the Brighton Belle all remaining in place.
“Inevitably, the increase in the number of 490 graded runners has meant that certain grades have become congested with too wide a spread of runners in the same grade.
“Hence, we have bought in an extra 490m metre grade, and conversely are losing two of the 515 metre grades.
“We also took the opportunity at the same time to re-evaluate the top grades. It has been obvious to everybody that we were unable to stage A1 events because the best dogs at the track were invariably unavailable due to our own, or other open race commitments.
“It would be too simplistic to say that ‘A3 is now the new A1’ because there was arguably a grade-and-a-half within A3 and some of those dogs will continue in A2 grade.”
There has been plenty of interest in the injury data collection study which is just starting to seep into the decision making process.
Smyth said: “We have been compiling the data with the help of the trainers. Only they know the full details behind any issues. They are with the dogs 24/7.
“Without that accurate feedback, it is easy to make decisions based on incorrect assumptions or based on the view of a minority.”
The first significant action was a result of the injury data was the scrapping, within the last fortnight, of D3 – the bottom 285m grade.
Smyth said: “We noticed that there was a disproportionate number of injuries in the D3 grade. When we looked for contributory factors, it became clear that there were a significant number of older dogs in that grade.
“Some were nearing the end of their careers and possibly with a bit of wear and tear and a greater susceptibility to sustaining injuries and a small number have been retired as a result of the decision.
“We were also aware of a myth emerging which suggests that the 490 metre distance was bringing an increased injury risk. I’ve even been approached by owners with apparent figures to prove it.
“It simply isn’t true. The injury data for the 490s is less than the 515s on a ‘per race’ basis. Perhaps it is because the dogs are not travelling quite as fast into the first bend.
“I am aware that the 490 isn’t popular with some owners and I have heard the suggestion that we should have introduced a second winning line and used the 515 metre traps.
“I discussed it with (Racing Manager) Jeff Piper who was at Wimbledon when they operated a double winning line. According to Jeff, apart from being a logistical nightmare, it was unpopular with punters who were often confused as to which line they should have been watching.
“If we had attempted to use a single new winning line, 25 metres closer to the last bend, that would have meant losing the 515 metre distance or putting the traps around the bend, which no one would have wanted.”
Racegoers, owners and trainers can expect more changes in the coming months at all four tracks as the data continues to pour in.
Smyth said: “Some of our findings have already led to changes in routine and procedures, particularly in track preparation, and the results have been extremely encouraging.
“But I am very conscious we have not yet been through a full summer and am loathe to start making claims until we have been through the full cycle.”
One question that the Star has asked repeatedly, but that seldom gets answered when injury data is being discussed, concerns the trainers themselves. Namely – do kennels at the same track vary in their rates of injuries, and recovery?
Smyth replied: “It is a valid question, and it is something that is also being assessed.
“We are looking at a wide variety of issues, from the types of injuries, all the way through to the number of dogs in each kennel, and the age profile of the dogs, both under 15 months, and those awaiting to be re-homed.
“I would hope there will be other initiatives introduced as we become more confident in the quality of the data.”