Jonathan Hobbs on George Curtis and proposed measures in place for when greyhound racing resumes

Action from last year's Greyhound Derby - who will reign at Nottingham this time?

Jonathan Hobbs looks at the proposed measures in place for when greyhound racing resumes, while saluting 'gentleman' George Curtis.

Whenever the restrictions imposed by lockdown are loosened, greyhound racing will be first out of the traps to return.

That has been the message from GBGB managing director Mark Bird right from the start, when the sport was the last show in town - and details have now been provided to DEFRA and the DCMS on how greyhound racing will operate when given the green light.

Social distancing and strict biosecurity measures have been detailed to government departments and tracks have, or will be, informed as to how the show will be back on the road as quickly as possible - again when it is safe and, importantly, right to do so.

So how will any return work? How long will it take for tracks to produce racecards given that every greyhound will need to re-qualify? And which tracks will be best equipped to resume racing quickly - bookmaker or privately-owned? Should there be a difference?

A working group set up to detail and plan for greyhound racing’s return is acting on the sport’s behalf, although there has been some disquiet about the make-up of that group - some promoters believing they are being excluded from important discussions.

Hopefully certain assurances are forthcoming and the sport can work as one towards a return - with GBGB boss Bird navigating a path between contrasting views and opinions on best practice to achieve a behind-closed-doors return as a first step.

That best practice will certainly include ensuring the demand can be met, especially for the ‘betting shop’ service provided by the SIS and TRP tracks.

Trainers will be given as much notice as possible for a ballpark return date. The fitness of greyhounds in their care is likely to vary from trainer to trainer - some have home gallops and other facilities to exercise. Others don’t, relying on walking only.

In many cases that level of exercise will be sufficient, but nevertheless the effect on form will be an issue for the betting fraternity - so tracks will be asked to stage as many trials sessions as is possible, again in line with social distancing and biosecurity measures.

For form and fitness these trials sessions will be vital. Handslips could be initially allowed - not normal practice, of course, unless you are schooling a hurdler - and a bare minimum of trackstaff and kennelstaff would be required, as would be a vet on site.

Any return signalled could see racing back within a matter of days, but not as we know it. Even before lockdown, when racing was operating behind closed doors, greyhounds were loaded in the traps and collected at the pick-up in a way that ensured social distancing.

Those procedures will continue in any return, with many believing that it could be another month before racegoers are allowed in - probably in line with any announcement on social gatherings, pubs and restaurants. Restrictions on numbers looks likely initially.

For most owners, trainers and kennelhands these measures will be a small price to pay as they seek a safe return to normality and a much-needed relief on the financial pressures the coronavirus pandemic has caused. And the same applies to tracks and their staff.

However, all of this is balanced against the tragic effects of coronavirus. There can be few people out there now not directly affected by Covid-19, whether that is a family member or friend, which means any way out needs to be planned fully and safely.

Rest In Peace, 'Gentleman George'

George Curtis, who died last week aged 96, was one of the greats.

His association with Ballyregan Bob produced the biggest story in greyhound racing ever when the outstanding brindle broke the world record of consecutive wins - given the BBC Nine O’Clock News was interrupted to allow viewers a chance to witness his 32nd straight victory at Hove - and sporting history.

They were heady, different days, of course, but December 9 1986 will be forever etched in greyhound history.

And so will the John Power Showdown at Wembley the year before when a huge crowd turned out to see the clash between Ballyregan Bob and Scurlogue Champ. The occasion was fantastic, a real ‘I was there’ moment in the sport, albeit the race itself was anti-climatic - unless you were a Ballyregan Bob fan!

As the freakish Scurlogue Champ came to a halt - subsequently and officially declared lame, albeit some say he gave up - Ballyregan Bob was imperious and in full fight and on his way to another bloodless victory. If Scurlogue Champ was the people’s champion, Bob was the complete professional - and George was his trainer, and best friend.

They were a formidable duo and, as the Wembley clash with Scurlogue Champ showed, were willing to take on all-comers, plus travel to other tracks.

Just eight of his unbeaten streak of 32 races were staged at his home track Hove, where he famously broke the world record and established himself a household name alongside Scurlogue Champ - the most well-known greyhounds since Mick the Miller and some 20 years before Westmead Hawk arrived on the scene to join that elite group.

Through it all, George Curtis was Gentleman George. He dealt with numerous and non-stop press enquiries in his usual measured and unflappable way.

But then George had achieved pretty much everything by the time Ballyregan Bob arrived at his Sussex kennels. He had been champion trainer, handled Derby finalists, and had a CV and list of victories as long as any of his contemporaries.

He had trained such brilliant greyhounds as Upland Tiger, Glin Bridge, Yankee Express and Sandy Lane - so was certainly no overnight success come December 1986!

George was also held in the highest esteem by his peers. Nick Savva referenced conversations with George when discussing his own remarkable journey with a certain Westmead Hawk in ‘The Westmead Dynasty’, while Derek Knight was more than happy to have George around when he retired.

That’s because George didn't hang up his leads well into his 80s. He was at his happiest tending to greyhounds in his care - and how they ran for him, Bob especially.

RIP George.

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