Jonathan Hobbs on greyhound racing: Graded racing the priority; trials may be imminent

A sign at Crayford reveals greyhound racing's impending suspension

Greyhound racing joined other sports on Monday when releasing its plans for a phased return post-lockdown.

May 18 has been pencilled in as a start date for trials with a minimum two trials per greyhound required by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) - one of which can be a sprint - which suggests meetings could start by June 1.

All is dependent on the government easing restrictions, although Boris Johnson is expected to give more information on the UK’s exit strategy this weekend. Greyhound racing, like a few other sports, is at the traps - waiting for the hare to be set in motion!

Tracks have been sent the GBGB’s Operational Policy - which can be seen here - and all stakeholders are encouraged to read what is a comprehensive document.

It’s ostensibly a five-stage plan to normality, albeit with the words ‘under constant review’ running through it. The situation remains fluid, but the social distancing and biosecurity measures detailed by the GBGB will serve the sport well in the corridors of power.

The document has been produced in line with recommendations from Defra and the DCMS and will ensure greyhound racing can join other sports in a phased return.

Nevertheless, for some, questions remain unanswered.

The Operational Policy is very much a blueprint for a return of graded racing only - with non-contracted trainers and open-race dogs clearly not a priority at this stage, presumably to protect social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel.

This is understandable in the short-term. It allows tracks to stage meetings to be streamed online by the betting industry, and Arc/TRP and SIS will this week be busy compiling schedules to feed the demand and begin to turn the industry’s wheels again.

Tracks are paid to stage meetings to drive betting revenue which supports welfare grants and prize-money which, in turn, supports trainers, their staff and owners, too. The last greyhound meetings were on March 23 - and kennel bills will have mounted up.

Financial assistance from tracks, the GBGB and the government itself has been welcome, but this is clearly not a bottomless pit and, as GBGB managing director Mark Bird said last week, a return to racing is best for our greyhounds’ health and welfare.

Nevertheless, owners and trainers will need encouragement that major competitions will be scheduled soon, too.

Tracks can satisfy their open-race greyhounds to a certain extent with invitation races and top-grade contests, but it is unlikely an open-race will be staged before July 1. Thereafter the entire open-race calendar will need looking at - possibly completely redone.

An October date for the Star Sports, Arc and LPS Greyhound Derby at Nottingham is still favourite, although is yet to be confirmed, with other competitions likely to be rescheduled or cancelled to accommodate the world’s greatest greyhound race.

Towcester: Could soon be staging greyhound racing again

For some tracks, the loss of a competition is unlikely to be too stressful. They will be keen in the first instance to get back racing, to stage meetings for Arc/TRP, SIS and RPGTV - potentially Sky Sports Racing, too - albeit all behind closed doors.

Only then might open-race events be added to the schedule, presuming that freedom-of-movement advice from the government allows tracks to once again encourage what is an ultra-important, perhaps essential aspect of the sport, to flourish again.

It’s what drives the dreams of owners and trainers - and breeders, of course. The hope of being involved in a champion inspires most of us in the first place.

Monday’s news certainly brought light to the end of the tunnel but, as with every industry, the coronavirus pandemic will leave its legacy on business - and some have expressed fears that one or two tracks might never open again.

Certainly those tracks without contracts to stage meetings for the betting industry are staring down the barrel. If they rely solely on customers through the gate, and a behind-closed-doors policy remains in place for some time, how do they operate?

And when they are eventually allowed to open their doors, will the trainers who served them previously have found somewhere else to race their greyhounds?

These are questions that will be answered in the coming weeks, but never more has the phrase ‘only the strong will survive’ been appropriate.

However, while one or two doors may shut, another could open with Towcester still on course to reopen this year. The Northamptonshire venue plans to be a hive of various activities - as and when social distancing rules allow.

Greyhound racing will be very much at the forefront of its plans, as it was when the track staged the Greyhound Derby in 2017 and 2018. On that note, read on...

Derby finals from the archive...

Make sure you keep in touch with RPGTV. The channel is still showing plenty of greyhound content before the live action can resume - and is planning a Greyhound Derby special shortly.

The month of May should have seen the closing stages of the Star Sports, Arc and LPS 2020 Greyhound Derby at Nottingham, but the event has been postponed along with so many other major events.

However, to mark what should have been a real celebration of the sport this month, RPGTV is taking a stroll down memory lane with re-runs of Derby finals and input from a host of familiar faces.

It promises to be fun - especially given one or two might be sporting ‘lockdown looks’!


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