Jonathan Hobbs on greyhound racing situation plus news from Towcester

Towcester: Could soon be staging greyhound racing again

Greyhound racing will this week present its plans to government for a behind-closed-doors return.

Although these plans will include no specific dates, GBGB managing director Mark Bird intends for the sport to show it can resume safely, allowing the wheels to turn again - crucial for economic recovery, especially when it comes to the welfare of greyhounds in the care of under-pressure trainers.

Greyhound racing was the last show in town before lockdown and Bird wants the sport to be the first back.

He has set up a working group which will present to DEFRA and the DCMS an operational plan including strict measures on social distancing and biosecurity to ensure the safety of trainers and track staff when the green light to begin racing again is finally shown. Even then, there will be work to do.

Special dispensations will be required to get the runners back on the kennel strength. There will be a balance between tracks being able to put a racecard together and ensuring the greyhounds are fit and able to compete, so a minimum number of trials will need to be decided on.

Of course trainers will be themselves ensuring their greyhounds are kept in condition with walking and, where possible, kennel gallops.

Bird wants the sport to be the best position possible to act as and when restrictions begin to be lifted, so the overnight news from Spain and Italy will give rise to optimism that a return to racing could be less than four weeks away. Both countries have eased some restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Time will tell how the UK reacts to the data and an announcement is expected later this week on the length of lockdown and/or an exit strategy.

In the meantime, the dogs will be well cared for ahead of a return to racing. The financial pressure on trainers has been eased by payments from the tracks they are contracted to and support from the GBGB, although longer-term the effect of all of this on owners - and prospective owners - is crucial.

A return to racing brings with it prize-money payments which helps with owners’ kennel bills. Even with financial assistance, trainers’ bills will be higher during this period and handlers have been quick to praise their owners who have maintained regular payments at a difficult time for all.

Additionally, a return will see betting revenue generated - again vital when it comes to payments into the British Greyhound Racing Fund (BGRF) which underpins the sport.

A new dawn

Somewhat ironically given the pressures faced by everyone in society, especially businesses, greyhound racing is about to see a new track open - or rather a former track reopen.

Towcester arrived in a blaze of glory in December 2014, becoming the first new greyhound track to open in 20 years. Within three it was staging the Greyhound Derby no less, with Seamus Cahill’s Astute Missile and then Kevin Hutton’s Dorotas Wildcat winning the sport's biggest event in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Both were great occasions, grand affairs with concerts after racing keeping the party going. Towcester had a touch of class, so missing in the years Wimbledon was barely hanging on as the home of the Derby. Towcester was a breath of fresh air, albeit even on the night of 2018 Derby Final things were unravelling.

Not long after, and because of myriad reasons not necessarily associated with greyhound racing, Towcester was placed in administration. The dream, it seemed, had died - so step forward Kevin Boothby.

The Henlow promoter, a huge greyhounds man, had been so impressed by Towcester on his visits to the Northamptonshire venue he bought the company! Okay, not quite, but a lease has been secured on the racecourse and he has set about righting the wrongs of Towcester 1.0.

Towcester 2.0 is different already. The racecourse stables are now kennels, with trainers Frank Gray and Tony Tuffin on site. More will follow and a kennel strength of 200 has been spoken about - with no travel required. That last detail seems the most pertinent given the current situation.

Before lockdown a May 23 launch date had been mooted for Towcester’s return. That looks unlikely now, although the track could still be in a better position than others to start racing. Unofficial trials have taken place, albeit with strict social distancing measures in place, and the changes to the track’s layout have been well received.

Built by the Hesketh family to stage eight-dog racing which would enable them to tap into international markets, criticism of the circuit centred on the track being too wide. The circumference has now been reduced, although Towcester will remain a Hove and Central Park-type running circuit.

Social networking while social distancing

Greyhound fans on Twitter have been treated to an array of information and activities to relieve any boredom in lockdown.

Recollections of past races, including footage and presentation pictures, continue to be popular but Romford’s Karen McMillan (@Romforddogs123) has proved ahead of the pack when it comes to a trip down memory lane.

Karen has been sifting through the boxes of memorabilia recovered from the track during its recent redevelopment, uncovering old racecards and pictures, and other history connected to Romford - including its staging of a boxing tournament in 1937.

Perhaps it underlines the need for a national greyhound museum or similar. Something else to consider when life returns to normal, whenever that may be.

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