Jonathan Hobbs on greyhound racing: Open questions as racing nears return

Greyhound racing at Towcester

Monday sees greyhound racing join horse racing in returning to the sporting fray.

Meetings will be staged behind closed doors with strict social distance and hygiene measures in place, but racing ensures the wheels of the industry can turn again, protecting livelihoods, and allowing the sport’s canine athletes to do what they enjoy doing most.

Arc last week announced its schedule of meetings for phase one of the resumption and SIS are expected to release theirs imminently. Tracks across the UK have been busy trialling back their strengths with a two-trial minimum per runner.

The first week saw mainly sprint trials, with this second week now seeing four-bend trials. Tracks will be publishing advanced cards towards the end of the week and the new schedule is unlikely to be that much different to the previous one.

That said, the early-morning fixtures for the SIS roster are unlikely to be scheduled until betting shops reopen, although the status quo remains when it comes to the LadbrokesCoral tracks who were first out of the traps when it came to trials.

RPGTV is still planning for a June 1 return with Nottingham and Yarmouth set to kick off proceedings on the channel should it be given the go-ahead by its partners, although changes to the rest of the week are certain with no Poole and Peterborough (see below).

July 1 has been suggested as the date for open racing to return, although Towcester could beat others to the punch. They had trials last week and have expressed the intention to stage gala open-race cards - with Saturdays mentioned.

Clearly these would be hosted to attract weekend crowds to the picturesque Northamptonshire venue, but the current restrictions preclude that. Therefore, to generate revenue, those pictures need to be sold - and time will tell who snaps them up.

Romford’s Friday night fixtures have led the way for RPGTV, but Nottingham on Monday, Sheffield on Tuesday, Newcastle and Monmore on Thursday, Crayford on Saturday and Central Park on Sunday have satisfied open-race fans for a few years now.

Might an open-race card from Towcester on Wednesday be the last piece of the jigsaw? This would be before crowds are allowed back in, after which market forces and prize-money levels will determine how the landscape lies heading into 2021.

Then there’s the Derby - although that’s a whole other story. We need graded races back, then open races and competitions scheduled - but only after the dates for the 2020 Star Sports, Arc and LPS Greyhound Derby are confirmed.

Evening action at Romford

Farewell Peterborough - for now...

And so to Peterborough’s sad demise, the victim of the lockdown and enforced closure.

Yes, some greyhound tracks are under pressure, but no more than any other business that relies on footfall. How were Peterborough supposed to make money given a behind-closed-doors policy moving forward, they asked?

With no gate money, restaurant or bar takings to fund the business, they could only look to the betting industry to pay for its product and, while most tracks operating have a slice of the cake, Peterborough had no more than a cupcake. One meeting a week.

But ’twas always the same and the Fengate track seemed to be flourishing. They queued to get into Peterborough more than any track you visited - and once inside the grandstand and restaurant the place was generally packed, with a great atmosphere.

Knowing that suggests that Peterborough could rise again - in the right hands.

Had the owning Perkins family’s love of the game diminished over time, just as the generations of the Chandler family (not all of them) fell out of love with greyhound racing and chose to cash in their chips at the Stow?

Hopefully the comparison ends there and the bulldozers stay out of Peterborough.

Its obituary has been written a few times since it first opened 75 years ago and, while the cracks had been appearing for many years and conversations with trainers and racing office staff there highlighted some real disquiet, hopefully this is not fatal.

There is a huge catchment area to be satisfied by a multi-sport and leisure area.

It might require a fresh look, but has not lacked in investment in terms of creature comforts and its local marketing and presence was as strong as any track in the UK. Given changes and improvements to the circuit itself, it could be the real deal.

But as with everything just now, there’s an ‘if’ there.

Trainers face dilemma

The irony of all of this is how kennel strengths will be under less pressure now.

Of course, that’s no consolation to trainers - at Peterborough, Poole and Shawfield - whose livelihoods are under threat if they cannot secure a place at another track and begin to lose owners whose greyhounds need to run somewhere.

Trainers at Poole have been offered a chance to grade their runners at sister track Swindon. It’s not ideal but a short-term help, while several of Peterborough’s disillusioned handlers were in the process of moving on anyway it seems.

Others could be lost to the game sadly, or face longer journeys should they get a placement elsewhere. Hopefully the better prize-money they are bound to receive can ease the pain - life is about small margins at the moment.

Either way, the GBGB is there to help handlers and their greyhounds and, as part of the Board’s Greyhound Commitment, a short film was last week released which showcases the care greyhounds receive from trainers and kennel staff.

Catch it via this link.

Pledge will be sadly missed

Condolences to all at Norah McEllistrim’s kennel following the news that Mary Pledge died at the weekend.

Mary was the head girl’s head girl, whose association with Norah stretched back to 1974. A tribute has been posted on the kennel’s website page, where Norah writes: "Mary was a major support for me and she loved being part of the team and just keeping busy about the place.

"In all our time together we never had one row! Mary will be sadly missed by everyone."

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