Owners and trainers are returning to racetracks as lockdown measures are eased

Jonathan Hobbs: Greyhound racing needs to ensure owners feel welcome

We are back to normal now. Okay, normal-ish!

On the track we’ve just had the Colossus Bets Silver Salver at Central Park and we’re in the midst of the Coral Sussex Cup and Regency at Hove, the RPGTV-backed All England Cup at Newcastle and Champion Hurdle, back at Central Park.

Trainers are busy again travelling and setting targets for their open racers, with the GBGB Calendar updated fortnightly with events confirmed - the Produce Stakes at Swindon was a high-profile inclusion this week - and dates are being worked out for competitions such as the Oaks and Kent Derby.

Of course, the Star Sports & ARC Greyhound Derby has already been scheduled, taking in the month of October at Nottingham, so most tracks and sponsors are playing ball, which is fantastic - especially given the current behind-closed-doors policy forced on them. Hopefully this will change shortly.

For owners, things have clearly not been straightforward - they’ve not been a bed of roses for trainers either, but let’s concentrate on owners here. During lockdown they faced, in some cases, three months of kennel bills bereft of prize-money and then, when racing did start, were not allowed into the track to see their runners in trials or races.

All understandable and very much key to the GBGB’s spot-on biosecurity guidelines, which allowed greyhound racing to be the first sport to return post-lockdown, but nevertheless frustrating. However, things are moving in the right direction as a recent missive from the GBGB shows, allowing owners to visit trainers’ kennels from July 26.

This will involve certain Covid-19 safety guidelines, but is clearly progress.

Visiting your pride and joy’s kennel on a Sunday has long been a major reason why owners become involved in the first place, a part of the cherished experience of ownership which has been denied to owners - and vice-versa our sociable trainers! Social distancing and booked appointments notwithstanding, visits are back.

Whether that completely assuages the strength of feeling felt by a number of owners presently is unclear, but it’s a start - and so was the recent launch of the National Greyhound Supporters Club founded by David Mitchell.

Mitchell also helps run the Blue Tick Racing Syndicate and is looking to bring together owners, trainers and breeders under one umbrella organisation to provide a united voice when it comes to the future direction of the sport - ‘Stronger, Together’ is its mantra.

Time will tell which direction the NGSC takes. It follows a long list of bodies and organisations - NAGO and GOBATA to name just two - who made progress in certain areas and their efforts should never be dismissed or derided, instead applauded.

Stronger Together

It’s the same with Greyhound Trainers’ Association. Genuine efforts made by people with the sport in their heart and those efforts do ultimately get heard by the powers-that-be who, despite doubts in some quarters, do take them on board. The current regime most certainly does.

They know that governing bodies are there to be challenged and a fit-for-purpose governing body will rise to that challenge and deliver. The GBGB continues to deliver on so many fronts in extraordinary times - and is certainly planning for the future.

The launch of the Greyhound Retirement Scheme is the latest in a long line of positive announcements, especially when it comes to welfare. It will see owners pay £200 at registration, an amount which will be matched by the GBGB on the greyhound’s retirement and thus provide a bond of £400 to assist with the homing process.

The release of injury data as part of the GBGB’s eight-point Greyhound Commitment launched in 2018 underlined newfound transparency in the sport and greyhound racing’s ducks are very much in order when it comes to the modern-day expectations of an industry that cares deeply for its canine stars.

That box is ticked and provides the necessary base for a more dynamic approach to selling the sport. Moves to drive the business lie ahead, with resources used to improve the sport’s lot for the future, a future which definitely includes owners. However, because the GBGB is not a track owner, it massively needs the help of promoters here.

It is surely the responsibility of tracks to make the lot of an owner attractive, presuming they want the business. Likewise, if trainers need owners in their kennel, they have to contribute in making the experience of being an owner an enjoyable one and the very best do. It’s a team game, surely.

The most go-ahead tracks now have owners’ bars and areas and should continually work on engaging owners. Some might want to be left alone, others need to feel wanted. Publish newsletters, invite owners to special nights, offer to organise family celebrations. Again, the best tracks already do this and are well known for their hospitality, others not so.

Overriding most of this is the subject of prize-money. At some tracks it’s not at the level it should be - by some way - but the different media rights deals make any parity difficult to achieve or enforce. Market forces will still determine which tracks have the most successful and best remunerated trainers and therefore owners.

However, greyhound owners and trainers are not alone in their disquiet, as their horse racing counterparts face the same issues and angst, just look at the number of horse racing trainers who have packed up recently. How that situation pans out might well reflect on the fortunes of greyhound racing’s key players moving on.

Semi-final excitement

That’s the politics, now for the racing and get set for another cracking week with the aforementioned Sussex Cup and Regency, the All England Cup at Newcastle and Champion Hurdle all reaching the semi-final stage this week. The supporting cards are superb, as is Romford’s Friday night programme.

So plenty of racing to look forward to and well done here to the British Greyhound Breeders’ Forum who have tabled a series of competitions post-lockdown. These include the BGBF Swindon Produce Stakes, the BGBF British Bred Oaks at Doncaster and the BGBF British Bred Sprint at Towcester.

BGBF chair Liz Mort said: “It’s been difficult placing the events this year, but the important thing was to get the Produce Stakes positioned well in the calendar, as it’s a complicated competition to run and needs time. Staging it with enough breathing space before the Derby is superb and well done to all for making it happen.

“By the publication of the next GBGB calendar we’ll be able to add several more, including our British Bred Derby at Sheffield in December and the BGBF Nottingham Breeders’ Stakes, which will be in November. We’re also confirming plans for the Scurry and the Northern Plate at Newcastle. Watch this space, as they say.”

Mention of Towcester brings news of promoter Kevin Boothy preparing to add Saturday nights to the schedule there, with the return of socially distanced crowds very much planned for.

Racing manager Andy Lisemore reports that trials sessions remain busy with the anticipated second meeting of the week and the Northamptonshire venue has recently taken on a number of trainers including former Sheffield handler Paul Shore and ex-Peterborough trainers Dave Cook, John Ball, Rob Jones and Paul Crowson.

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