2019 was a hugely successful year for the Ladbrokes Coral quartet of greyhound tracks, though it was delivered in a surprising variety of ways. 2020 looks just as exciting
Building a new Roar-mford
The biggest story in racing in 2019 was the opening of the converted Millennium Grandstand at the transformed Romford. But behind the smiles and celebrations, is a tale of doubt, stress and dogged determination.
Between the dramatic shutdown of facilites in November 2017 and the re-opening in September 2019, Karen McMillan was brought in as the new Stadium Manager and it was to prove far from an easy assignment.
She said: “When I first arrived the staff morale was absolutely rock bottom. The majority didn’t think that the new stand would ever be built, even when the scaffolding started to go up.
“I have a background in retail and it was never like that. I enjoyed working in a great atmosphere in the shops, but this was bleak. Nobody seemed to have any motivation. There were lots of arguments, not helped by nearly six months of delays. It was a far tougher job than I was expecting.”
But it all became worthwhile in a moment shared with boss Ian Smyth as they waited for the first race on the night of the grand re-opening.
Karen said: “I didn’t know what to expect. I had only ever known 350 in the stadium. The atmosphere was just so different with a full house.
“It was just as the hare started to move that we suddeny heard this enormous roar. It was incredible. I don’t mind admitting that it made me well up. I looked at Ian and he shuffled away and mumbled ‘I’ve got something to do’.
“I’ve heard the Romford roar plenty of times since, but that first time was very special. I finally got what it was all about.”
The bubble burst slightly immediately after the opening date as crowd numbers dwindled but it proved an opportunity for Karen to add the fiinishing touches.
She said: “We were short of staff and we spent a month snagging. Time well spent. But then the build up to Christmas was excellent and it has been very good ever since.
“Last weekend I was told was traditionally the quietest weekend of the year and for whatever reason, we had 1,100 through the gates on Saturday. It was manic.”
Without a traditional ‘greyhound background’ Karen has brought many fresh ideas to London Road. They include engaging with youngsters, the Romford Juniors.
She said: “On a Saturday morning, after the sixth race, we invited the youngsters down to meet the dogs and ask the kennel staff questions about them. They absolutely love it. We have had up to 50 at a tiime and they are all given a rosette.
“We have one lovely special needs little girl who was so shy when she first came down and now absolutely loves it.”
Among Karen’s other innovations are theme nights. The first is Chinese New Year on January 24/25 when the Pavilion will host 100 diners each night, to include Chinese cuisine, fortune cookies, the full works. It sold out within a week and we have been inundated with requests for similar nights.
It will be followed by charity meeting in aid of Children With Cancer UK.
Karen said: “Originally, it started out as a charity meeting for Sammy Jo Brandon, a young Essex lady who later died of breast cancer.
“Last year the meeting was split between two charities and we were asked to do something again this year.
“We have sold 250 tickets plus 200 on Group On, and before the meeting at the end of the year we are already close to £5,000, which I think has taken the organisers by surprise.”
There is no doubting that Karen sees 2020 as a full year of blank canvas.
She said: “I have plenty more ideas for special events throughout the year, and we have a happy team of staff to help deliver it.”
Monmore setting retirement standards
In May, Monmore will get the six figure racing circuit upgrade that has made such a huge improvement to racing at Crayford and Romford in the past two years.
Its fortnightly open races continue to draw the leading open race kennels and few tracks have received more praise for the racing office’s ‘can do’ relationship with trainers.
Head of Stadia Ian Smyth said: “Ultimately, you can judge how your stadium is performing by the calibre of its open race entries. Yes, the trainers are attracted to the £500 open races, but it is only two years ago that we couldn’t fill the Gold Cup.”
However, there is one aspect of the Monmore set-up that is so successful that Smyth is using it as a template for his other tracks. It is the Greyhound Trust Wolverhampton – retirement kennel.
Smyth said: “They were magnificent once again in 2019 with 205 greyhounds re-homed and set the standard that others should aspire to.”
In fact, such is the success achieved by Monmore that Smyth has been persuaded to increase his contribution to the Greyhound Trust, which already stands at a third of his welfare budget – but there are strings attached.
He said: “We need value for money. That doesn’t mean greyhounds going into retirement kennels and not being re-homed. They need to be moved on.
“We pay for a significant number of kennel spaces and it is unsatisfactory that there are so many greyhounds unable to leave trainer’s because the system isn’t working. I will be monitoring it closely.”
Hove looking for the competitive edge
With a complete refurb of the restaurant, a new owners lounge, a changed racing distance, plus new stadium and racing managers – Brian Murphy and Daniel Rankin respectively – nobody could suggest that 2019 was a quiet year at Hove.
2020 will see changes in trainers and racing and it started off with the controversial cancellation of Matt Dartnall’s contract – a subject that has been much discussed on social media, but not one that Ian Smyth was not prepared to be quoted on for this article.
The recent signing of George Andreas to be followed in the summer by the switching of Belinda Green from Crayford, plus possibly one other significant arrival, will give the racing manager his strongest kennel strength in some time.
However, it will be other tweaks in racing that may provide a clue to Smyth’s strategy.
He recently unveiled a series of Track Championship events across all his four tracks and he plans to beef up the competitiveness of graded racing, in some cases at the expense of open races.
He said: “We had a number of complaints from the local bookies about some of our Thursday night open races at Hove, and I think they had a point. A number of them were uncompetitive with one of two runners standing out and the race made up with average graders.
“Going forward, I don’t intend that anything should change at Romford on a Friday. Monmore will keep its fortnightly opens, which are popular and well supported, though there may be seven or eight, instead of twelve.
“But is general, I plan to lose some of the minor opens, including Hove on a Thursday. We will still run them, but probably closer to the timing of major competitions.
“But this isn’t a money saving scheme. Any money that doesn’t go into open racing will go to the graded dogs.”
40% few injuries at Crayford
In some ways, it could be argued that the least happened at Crayford in 2020. Or – you might argue that it had the biggest, best, but least publicised news story of them all.
Very early in his tenure, Smyth set-up the most comprehensive injury detection system and the data has continued to pile up.
Late last year, a year after the track’s major circuit upgrade, we reported a somewhat nervous statement from Ian Smyth that Crayford’s injury rate was “upwards of 25% down”.
Now, feeling a little less fearful of tempting fate, and having studied the figures in greater detail, he is prepared to acknowledge that injury reduction in 2019 was in fact “in the region of 40%.”
So what lessons have been learned, and do the types of injuries vary from track to track?
He says: “No, there is no clear pattern of one type of injury with the exception of the increase in sand burns when we first relaid Romford.
“They seem to be related to the moisture content in the sand. I would like to see if we can evaluate an optimum level of moisture which we can try to maintain throughout the tracks.
“The other thing that seems obvious is the comparatively high level of incidence of injuries at the second bend, not the first.
“There are probably two reasons for this. Firstly, there is a lot of traffic, including the traps at the second bend. It is also the part of the track where the greyhound increases the force on his hind legs as he looks to accelerate after coming out of the bend.
“But I don’t take anything for granted. A couple of weeks ago, Katie O’Flaherty was telling me that she is currently on a very good injury-free run, and then a few days later, one of her dogs picked up a major injury.”
Unfortunately, there are a group of individuals on social media who seem to take a great delight in injuries at Crayford.
Smyth said: “I was asked recently if it was true that we had had one meeting with three broken hocks. Absolute rubbish What is the matter with these people?”
(“Pond life” – Ed)