AS WE head into the new year and take a moment to reflect on 2019, there is much to be positive about and look forward to.
It has always been my view, as you will know, that welfare has to be the priority for greyhound racing. Thankfully, the current regime at the GBGB, led by Mark Bird, seem to agree and they have been far more proactive in taking steps to improve welfare than their predecessors.
There is still a lot to do. Bird is the first to admit that. But we have made big strides in the right direction and of that, I am delighted and hope we keep pushing forward in this area.
One kennel where welfare standards are as high as can be, are those of Matt Dartnall. So I was really disappointed when he recently lost his job at Hove. I genuinely have nothing but respect for Ian Smyth and what he is doing at the four Ladbrokes Coral tracks, and I have spoken to him at length about what he described to me as “one of the toughest decisions of his career” in terminating Matt’s contract.
I haven’t been to a better kennel than Matt’s. He looks after his dogs impeccably and it is no surprise that he has a high strike-rate in graded races. Maybe he doesn’t have enough wide runners or lower grade dogs and I understand that’s what is required to fulfil a graded contract and the reason given for Hove’s decision.
However, I can’t help but feel that the situation is partly a result of the media rights battle and a demand to fill betting shop schedules. Dogs that tick the right boxes. Slow? Wide? But these are not commodities, they are amazing, living breathing animals that all deserve to be treated as such.
My biggest wish for 2020 is that SIS and Arc start talking and resolve their issues. There is too much pressure on so many areas of the sport, trainers included, and we need some respite and a more reasonable operating level.
On the track, some of the action has been simply breathtaking. None more so than the emergence of a new star in Ice On Fire. My personal favourite race of his was the Eclipse final. His early pace was astounding as he left his rivals behind and us to marvel at his sheer brilliance.
I hope 2020 is another year to enjoy him in all his glory including, of course, at Nottingham in the Derby.
Liz and Rab McNair have dominated the British-bred scene in 2019 and King Sheeran has been exceptional. I feel privileged to have been to their kennels many times and met their broods like Skate On and Shaws Dilemma and see the way they rear their pups.
Their set-up is second to none, but there is also something special about the McNairs. Rab has his playful side that the pups love, but there is also nobody more serious when there is a job to be done.
Liz brings the softer side – a quieter (not difficult!) more mothering nature which I’m sure the pups appreciate. To see their dogs so happy and off the lead in the field with them is a joy. For us, watching the breeding lines develop and progress is so exciting.
My other wishes for 2020 are fairly straightforward, starting with Kevin Boothby to make a success of Towcester. I have no doubt he will. Few will disagree the facilities there are second to none and I’m excited about his plans for the track and the racing there.
I’d also love to see more money coming into the sport, not just from bookmakers but outside sponsors too. This is a big ask. There have been companies keen to sponsor races, who are then targeted by antis and so they change their minds. We need to keep trying though.
For the sport – trainers and owners in particular – it is time to make full use of social media to showcase the dogs. There is a new wave of young people doing just that – keep it up guys. I, for one, love your posts.
Finally, two immediate rule changes I’d like to see. Firstly, one of Jonathan Kay’s bugbears in that any dog beaten a distance must retrial. Secondly, I’m back on the ‘man the bends’ drum. Surely, in the interests of welfare, these are two simple but obvious steps in the right direction?