Jonathan Hobbs on greyhound racing: 'Days not weeks' to announcement

An announcement on greyhound racing is expected soon

Paul Illingworth, the GBGB’s senior stipendiary steward, is the man heading up the working group which will oversee greyhound racing’s return post-lockdown - and his message to industry stakeholders is to be patient and to work together.

Illingworth, who came through the racing office ranks before joining the GBGB, says he understands the greyhound community’s desire to make a return sooner rather than later - and that the Board has the same goal. However, timing will be everything.

He told me: "We are clear [a return to racing] is what’s best for our greyhounds’ health and welfare. But it needs to be done properly, with due care and consideration - and at the right time."

Illingworth says the working group, which was set by by GBGB managing director Mark Bird, is "developing comprehensive plans for a responsible return to racing behind-closed-doors once the current restrictions can be eased".

He added: "The group is made up of GBGB Board and racecourse representatives, as well as myself as senior stipendiary steward, but is also taking advice from wider industry voices and experts – including on greyhound care and physiology.

"The return to racing will be a phased approach, starting with a trials process and then slowly building up towards a place where we can, when appropriate, resume normal racing in full.

"A phased resumption is essential for ensuring all the right controls are in place and working successfully, without risking the health of those working in the sport or undermining our high levels of welfare and integrity.

"Our top priority is always the welfare of our greyhounds. Whilst trainers and kennel staff, with the support of their owners, are doing a fantastic job of keeping up regular routines wherever possible, we need to make sure that dogs remain fit and in the right condition for racing. A stage-by-stage approach supports this, but ultimately the sooner we can get to some form of racing the better for these canine athletes.

"We have been really pleased and heartened by how everyone is pulling together through what is clearly an incredibly difficult time. That sort of spirit is going to be crucial over the coming months and is what will enable us to deliver a safe return to racing as soon as possible."

No exact dates can be given but the feeling is any announcement is a matter of days away, not weeks.

With several Premier League clubs returning to training and plans for major sporting fixtures such as grands prix being developed, albeit behind closed doors, greyhound racing is keen to show it can operate safely within government guidelines.

The GBGB believes it can be the first sport out of the traps and has detailed its plans to DEFRA and the DCMS - with tracks asked to employ strict biosecurity and social distancing measures.

Clearly, staging meetings in the first instance is the goal in order to protect the sport and its stakeholders economically.

Tracks and the GBGB itself were quick to offer financial assistance for trainers, but the pressure on owners to pay kennel bills remains - and what effect the pandemic will have on owner numbers in the long-term remains a concern.

And while graded racing will kick off the greyhound action, allowing the betting firms to broadcast live meetings, likewise RPGTV, a decision on open-racing and the major competitions is also keenly awaited by those in the sport.

An October date for the Derby at Nottingham is still being mooted, which would follow the Irish Derby at Shelbourne, allowing trainers to aim for both competitions - assuming travel restrictions by that stage have been lifted.

Of course, it is dangerous to assume anything given the current situation and the ‘phased’ return to racing spoken about by the GBGB can therefore be understood.

Thoughts with McGee

One of the best pictures I’ve seen on social media recently was the presentation for Hit The Lid’s Derby at Wimbledon in 1988.

Trained by John ‘Ginger’ McGee, Hit The Lid is regarded as one of the best Derby winners and the photo shows his son, John junior, with Hit The Lid on his lap of honour. Ginger had paraded the kennel’s other finalist Gino - and John jnr was not about to let go of the champion’s lead!

Sadly, John McGee junior, now a trainer in his own right and contracted to Newcastle, is gravely ill, reports his wife Julia.

The pair married at the weekend, which was John’s wish, and family members are now helping Julia divide her time caring for her husband as well as the kennel’s 50-plus team of greyhounds at their range near Hartlepool.

Julia McGee, who has worked for trainers Kelly Macari and Stuart Ray, in the past, says: "We are taking one day at a time, but John’s wish is that the dogs continue to be well looked after - and that’s what we’re doing.

"The lockdown has given me a chance to spend more time with John than would have been possible if we were still racing. Dave Baldwin, our local GBGB stipendiary steward, knows of the situation and has been absolutely brilliant."

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