Jonathan Hobbs on greyhound racing and the English Derby

Action from Nottingham

Later today (Thursday) entries close for the 2020 Star Sports & Arc Greyhound Derby - and then the real headache begins!

Nottingham need to reduce an oversubscribed event down to 96 runners and many will be left disappointed. However, the fact we are having an English Derby is superb and the action will be fast and furious over the next few weeks.

Rescheduled because of coronavirus, this year’s Derby has been kept to five weeks of competition - one less round than usual - and has been shoehorned into an already busy schedule, the result of three months of lockdown. Great work in the circumstances.

The Irish challenge is sadly depleted given the travel restrictions, although some handlers across the Irish Sea have chosen to base their operation and campaign with a handler here - three-time Irish Derby-winning trainer Graham Holland, for example.

His team - the strongest overall if the betting is to be heeded - will be based at Dave Firmager’s kennels for the duration of the Classic, while others are taking up residency elsewhere. Some contenders have already joined trainers this side of the water.

Kilara Icon, a finalist in last weekend’s Irish Derby final, is a case in point having switched to Peter Harnden’s kennels. His brother Kilara Lion, the Yarmouth Derby winner, will also be in the line-up for Friday week’s first round at the Colwick venue.

Nottingham has staged any amount of trial stakes for the competition, the initial series finishing pre-lockdown in March when the Derby was postponed. Last month, a second series of trial stakes began and some likely contenders have been put through their paces.

Of course, allowing every single trial stakes winner into the 96 is a no-no. Connections might believe they have a right to an entry by winning one, but realistically that cannot be the case - especially in a year like this one given so many of them!

A greyhound’s complete profile will be under close inspection before his or her entry is accepted. Yes, race and trial form at Nottingham is a huge plus, but so, too, are overall race records in the UK and Ireland. The betting lists are probably as good a guide as any!

Sadly, those betting lists from Tuesday no longer included Ice On Fire. His muscle injury flared up again after a trial at Nottingham on Monday and Jimmy Fenwick and Dave Spraggon’s champion, the reigning Greyhound of the Year, has been retired to stud.

Bumper offering at Romford

Romford stages another double-header on Friday with back-to-back GBGB Category Ones given the Coral Guys and Dolls and Coral Cesarewitch finals take place at the London Road venue - following on from the Champion Stakes and Puppy Cup last week.

The Guys and Dolls is a unique event in the GBGB Calendar, separating the dogs (Guys) and the bitches (Dolls) in heats and semi-finals before bringing them together for the final - and a £7,500 shootout. Carol Weatherall’s Holdem Lauren is a warm favourite.

Crayford traditionally stages the Guys & Dolls, but the event was moved to Romford in 2020 given a switch of big-race dates plus the fact that Crayford only resumed Saturday night meetings last weekend. It returns to the Kent venue in 2021.

The Cesarewitch returning to the GBGB’s big-race schedule is fantastic news given its roll of honour, which includes no less than both Mick the Miller and Scurlogue Champ!

It has switched tracks over the years, having first been staged at West Ham in 1928 before spells at Belle Vue, Catford and Oxford - but disappeared from the calendar after its last running in 2012. Thanks to Romford and LadbrokesCoral it’s back.

Champion Stakes cracker delivers

Still with Romford: Smallmead edging out Desperado Dan in last week’s Coral Champion Stakes was one of the races of the year.

Neither deserved to lose after a superb buckle and a dead-heat seemed a real possibility in the immediate aftermath. However, John Mullins’ bitch had scored a narrow victory and took the £10,000 first prize for owners Lee and David Calcutt.

The victory completed a quickfire double for the Mullins family after brother David had won the Coral Romford Puppy Cup with Tenpin.

Success for Desperado Dan will have landed Patrick Janssens a significant blow in the Trainer of the Year race after his Yarmouth Derby victory a few days earlier, but Patrick didn’t see it like that. “The best dog won, she deserved it,” he said.

He told me that immediately as the photo-finish was announced, which was a really sporting response. But that sums up the game - and followed a superb gesture from trainer Paul Young and owners and regular RPGTV guest Ray Bourne a few days before.

Both were at Maurice Newman’s charity golf day in Essex, as was Gary Wiltshire. Gary asked Ray and Paul to recommend a good restaurant in Southend. They did, then phoned ahead without him knowing, and settled Gary and his friends’ bill in advance.

“That’s what greyhound racing is all about, fantastic people and why I love the game,” he said, having messaged RPGTV to thank both Ray and ‘Youngy’. Top work.

Hats off to generous sponsors

Well done to ‘Antigua’ owner Nic Jeal for a series of race sponsorships - happening now!

Looking to offer a boost to owners and trainers with pups during a difficult time, Jeal launched two ‘Young Guns’ events at Central Park and Sheffield - both £3,000-to-the-winner competitions for two runs.

Naming them after his Gymcrack and Select Stakes champion The Brinkleys Poet At Stud Young Guns are running (almost) concurrently, providing a separate opportunity for northern and southern-based trainers. Spreading the love!

In addition, and somewhat coincidentally, Nic and Amanda Jeal are sponsoring the Welcome To Hope Jeal Trophy - after their newish arrival last year!

“We had Hope late last year and she actually made it to the GBGB Awards in London in January as the youngest guest!” said Nic Jeal. “I always wanted to give something back to Crayford after winning the [Jay & Kay Coach Tours] Kent St Leger with Antigua Fire.

“We had a brilliant night that evening. It was a generous sponsorship by one of their owners Karl Brazier and we were looked after well. Myself and Amanda always said we’d like to return and sponsor a race when Hope arrived.

“It was going to be sooner, but for obvious reasons had to be delayed for when Crayford started their opens and Saturdays again. We’re just delighted that owners have been allowed back in at tracks to enjoy their greyhounds. It’s so important for the sport.”

Fingers crossed for Pestana

Finally, best wishes to Owen McKenna and Des Grace, trainer and owner of Pestana, whose injury in the final of the BoyleSports Irish Greyhound Derby Final overshadowed what had been an unbelievable Classic.

Pestana played his part in a memorable Irish Derby with those flashing starts and his track record is testament to his overall ability. Brilliant.

Ultimately it wasn’t to be and best wishes for his recovery. He’s in great hands.

Step forward Newinn Taylor for an incredible and well deserved victory. This prolific winner, trained by Graham Holland for Simon Taylor, is a machine and overcame a tonsils issue to be crowned champion. Again, utterly brilliant.

Well done all, especially sponsors BoyleSports and Shelbourne Park who in extraordinary circumstances did the sport proud. The baton now passes to Nottingham and, come October 31, a new English Derby champion will be crowned.

Bring it on.

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