Greyhound racing in New Zealand
Late one evening the reception on my television disappeared and, in an effort to recapture it, I discovered a channel devoted to racing. At that moment it was “The Dogs”. Suddenly the screen was filled with fabulous young women, holding placards bearing the dogs’ racing names and numbers high above their heads. The women wore skimpy tasseled lamé outfits, and looks of fixed concentration (due perhaps to the difficulty of navigating through a dog track in skimpy outfits and stilettos). Men in white coats followed, looking anxious, determined and a little out of place, gently guiding a greyhound each. The greyhounds were slender and elegant despite the fact they were sporting their own tasseled lamé outfits. Next morning I set forth on a hunt for the sparkling lamé filled world of greyhound racing.
“They are dogs, people think they are somehow different, but they are not. They want to run about and chase things.”
So said Gary Harding, the New Zealander who has arguably poured more money than anyone into creating the ultimate racing greyhound in the country. Gary was taking me on a tour of his 70 ha property at Tirau in South Waikato. We were among the juvenile runs—a vista of lush green grass, rolling hills, perfectly ordered fencing, and identical kennels. And (coatless) dogs in pairs frolicked about, eager at the fences for a quick pat.
Harding was cagey about the number of dogs on his property known as “Thrilling Kennels” but my estimate was around 250. According to the register of trainers kept by Greyhound Racing New Zealand (GRNZ), Harding trains just five dogs. The rest of the dogs are owned by Harding but trained by public trainers.
Ten months had elapsed since I’d stumbled into the televised world of dog racing. In the interim, I had visited dog tracks all around the country and spoken with dozens of owners in an effort to understand greyhound racing. On the surface, it appeared quite straightforward—eight dogs, a circular track and a lure (bunny): the fastest dog wins. However, having laboured my way through the rule book, stared blank-eyed at paperwork involved in getting a dog into a starting box, and listened to a plethora of viewpoints as to how to make a dog run fast, I could only conclude that, in fact, it was a fairly complicated business.
For a start, there are several millennia of history to contend with. The earliest records of greyhounds or greyhound-like dogs come from the age of the early Egyptians. The gentle nature and elegant physique of greyhounds made them attractive company, while their sharp eyesight equipped them well for hunting. The dogs were held in high esteem, and images of them are found carved on the tombs of several pharaohs. Images of an early form of greyhound racing, a sport known as coursing, are also said to be etched on some tombs.
Sometime later, greyhounds pop up in the Old Testament, mentioned by name in Proverbs 30 v 31 as one of four things that “is comely in going,” to use the words of the King James version. By 1014, greyhounds had made their way to England, leading King Canute to enact “forest laws” whereby only nobility could own and hunt with the dogs: commoners faced beheading if found in possession of a greyhound.
This law lapsed over time but the greyhound retained its elitist associations. By the 1800s, the ancient Egyptian sport of coursing had evolved to embrace not only two or three greyhounds, a field and a live hare but also lords, ladies and bottles of champagne. The greyhounds were released in pursuit of the hare and were judged by men on horseback at various points along the track. Under test was the dogs’ ability to turn and contain the more agile hare. The ultimate survival or death of the hare was not necessarily relevant to the score.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Billy the Kid had co-opted greyhounds into his “Wild West Show”. The bloodlines of his dogs are traceable to today’s racers. General Custer is also said to have been a greyhound fancier, liking nothing more than to sleep in the parlour surrounded by twenty or more. But it was a lesser-known American, Owen Patrick Smith, who had the greatest impact on racing. In 1912 he invented the mechanical lure that shaped greyhound racing into the sport we know today.
The very first greyhound to set foot on the shores of New Zealand came in style aboard the Endeavour. The dog had the privilege of sharing the botanist Sir Joseph Banks’ cabin by night and by day was put to work ashore chasing down small game.
According to GRNZ’s historian, Sam Fletcher, it was Governor George Grey who was responsible for bringing coursing to New Zealand. On Grey’s orders, hares were shipped to New Zealand from Australia in about 1868. They acclimatised so well that they soon became pests on the farms where they had been released. The hare problem then led to the introduction of greyhounds as a remedy, and by 1877, the New Zealand Federation of Coursing Clubs had been set up. Coursing, which could also consist of releasing two hounds to chase down a wild hare that had been flushed from cover in the fields, continued in New Zealand until 1954, when it was banned. Coursing overlapped greyhound racing, which began in 1934. A year earlier a drag hare was imported. This was a contraption involving an upturned cycle, a long bit of rope, a stuffed hare and two men feverishly hand-pedalling it. Nowadays the job of lure driving, which requires a certain level of skill, is generally performed in a small shed located inside the track. The driver has a motorised lure, controlled by a large lever, the skill being to keep the lure just far enough ahead of the speeding hounds to keep them interested.
The Gambling Act of 1908 legalised gambling on horse racing, but did not apply to greyhounds. Not until 1970, following much lobbying by what is now the GRNZ, was the act amended. Legalised betting allowed greyhound racing to start to make profits, used to improve tracks and to generally become more professional.
It’s my first visit to a greyhound track, the Hutt Park Raceway. In the trackside bar, I study the racing form. A complicated business, as it seems that every detail of each dog’s biography is noted as a series of numbers, letters and abbreviations. Not a form for the novice and without a key I’m completely baffled. However, the dogs’ names strike a certain chord; Karaoke Phil, Fools Paradise, Homebush John, Cyrus The Virus, Thrilling Faith, Moo Moo Me.
I wander to the kennel block where the greyhounds have been retrieved from the pre-race kennels and are being readied for racing. Handlers ease their charges into their racing vests, adjust their muzzles and allow them to take a quick pee.
I try in vain to strike up conversation with a couple of people, but they aren’t keen to chat. A relatively small number of trainers and owners regularly pit their dogs against one another at the eight tracks around the country, and interlopers are not that welcome.
There are two groups of trainers: public trainers who train dogs owned either by themselves, another individual or a partnership (two people), or a syndicate (three or more people owning shares in a dog) and owner/trainers, who own all the dogs they train—a maximum of three dogs. Any more and they must become public trainers.
Registered with the GRNZ are around 60 public trainers and 450 owner trainers. Owner/trainers may remain registered even when they do not have any dogs running in the current season, which in 2005–6 involved nearly 300 scheduled race meetings.
Back on track, the people and dogs wait. Some handlers rub fondly at the flanks of the dogs and whisper affirmations into their ears. Others check their watches distractedly, ignoring the dog waiting patiently on the other end of the lead.
Dogs pour out of the kennels with a pleasing regularity and they return from the track huffing and puffing. Most look animated by their race but are whisked back to the trailers to wait for the journey home.
Race day involves a certain amount of careful checking. Dogs’ ear tattoos (a different number in each ear) are checked against their registration papers, which also note the dogs’ markings and colour. The dog is then weighed and it must be within one kilo of its last racing weight. If it isn’t, it can still race, but the trainer is fined, an amount that increases with re-offending. The rules dictate one person must call out the weight to a second person, while a third person notes it on the dog’s race card. This generally happens over the reverberating din of barking in the concrete kennel block.
A vet checks each dog for anything that could enhance or detract from its ability to race and to ensure no bitches are on heat. Dogs are then taken to a secure kennel block where they are kennelled in race order. Trainers or handlers can only enter this secure area when accompanied by a track official. The dogs can remain in these kennels for between one and four hours. Identities are again checked once the handlers have collected and dressed the dogs in their racing vests.
Random drugs tests are performed at the end of races, less random if officials have an inkling of mischief. Positive tests are rare.
All of these measures are designed to make race-fixing as difficult as possible and ensure the general health of registered greyhounds. The lack of jockeys mean greyhound racing is a more “pure” activity than horse racing. This debatable purity is the very thing that attracts many trainers to the sport—it is dog against dog on the track.
When I eventually make it to the trackside, feeling a little overwhelmed by all my new-found knowledge, the track steward spots my camera and offers me a tip: “Quick, if you run over to that lamppost you’ll be where the lure stops.”
Easier said than done. The lamppost is more than the length of a rugby field away. I set off moments before the greyhounds exit their boxes. Painfully aware of television cameras and trackside spectators, I attempt an athletic dash. Alas, the pack of hounds laps me. Twice. In my defence, they were traveling at 70 km an hour.
Back inside the clubrooms, I realise perhaps only a half dozen people are there simply to watch the dogs racing; the rest are racing them. I put the low attendance down to it being a week day afternoon, but TV coverage has had a major impact. The TAB racing channels show every greyhound race in New Zealand and some from Australia live. So, most punters choose to watch from the comfort of their homes or TAB outlets, betting either by phone or via the internet. TAB turnover for the 2004–05 season was $90 million off-course, $3.2 million on-course and $2 million in fixed odds betting.
Another factor is that GRNZ considers some of their venues to be “non on-course venues”, meaning they do not actively promote trackside spectators, but focus their promotional efforts on venues that are more spectator-friendly. Indeed, 70 per cent of greyhound meetings are aimed at TV rather than attracting real spectators. Nonetheless GRNZ is working hard to increase the public profile of dog racing with initiatives such as “Sprint Club” which have been marketed directly to the Asian community in Auckland, putting on Asian language commentaries and stationing hosts on track to ensure all feel welcome.
These promotional efforts are mainly focused on the bigger feature race nights, where spectator numbers are generally larger. Although spectator numbers are not kept, Lance Bickford, GRNZ CEO, says, “There have been significant increases in on-course attendance for feature meetings over the past two years.”
One feature race that is now heavily promoted was initiated in 1970, when the Auckland Greyhound Racing Club seized the opportunity to renew ties between royalty and greyhounds during the Royal Tour by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. Confronted with the club’s novel gift of a live dog, Royal Commission, Prince Philip graciously accepted, but imposed an important condition: the dog had to remain in New Zealand.
The Duke had a gift of his own to offer: a stylised silver dog collar, which was duly dubbed “The Duke of Edinburgh Silver Collar”. It is now a highly prized trophy which is contested once a year at Manukau, one of GRNZ’s flagship tracks, where in 2005, $45,000 was the stake money on offer to be divided between the three fastest dogs.
While the race itself looked much the same as all the others I had seen—dogs running fast around a track—the clubrooms appeared to have been decked out in homage to the Duke himself: fancy table-cloths, chefs in white hats and, the piece de resistance, gold baubles dangling from the television sets.
The talk at the track was revealing. Shortly after arriving I heard an old hand introducing a newcomer to the nature of the game: “Greyhounds, it’s the poor man’s gambling sport.” However, poor may be a matter of perception. Later, in the area where the owners were gathered to collect the last of their dogs, I overheard the following exchange:
“So, how much did you put on the tote?”
“$400 and you?”
“Oh between $300 and $500.”
Clutching my betting slip receipt, I no longer felt like the high roller I had when I had passed $5 to the nice lady behind the TAB counter. Just as well since Run to Paradise failed to deliver and I lost my investment.
Having seen the dogs at work, I was keen to get an insight into what went into getting them to racing form. So it was that I found myself at the gates of “Yennora”, a Huntly property owned by Denis and Pam Schofield, a husband-and-wife team who are among the most respected and successful trainers in the country. My progress beyond Yennora’s gates was impeded by more greyhounds than I could count. On the crisp winter morning I was pleased to see that they too, were all wearing coats, albeit casual ones, made of polar fleece. With some trepidation, I waded my way through the jumping, barking and snazzily-dressed horde to the front door. Pam was surprised to see me and told me that I was due tomorrow not today. Covered in paw-shaped mud marks, I attempted to make up for the unfortunate first impression by mentioning that my sister had gone to school with the Schofields’ daughter, Anna. It worked. Pam clasped me into a hug and pronounced me part of the family.
As I sat with Pam and Denis at the kitchen table, the swarming hounds stole two pieces of carrot cake en route to my mouth. Denis lost his cake too, but under different circumstances. Each time Pam’s back was turned, he dished out helpings to the dogs with a shifty smile and a wink.
The dogs in the house (between seven and nine, I kept losing count) are all ex-racers and share the Schofields with a chocolate Labrador, a remnant of Pam and Denis’ pre-greyhound racing lives. The dogs were meant to be a retirement hobby, but have turned out to be an all-consuming passion.
It was feeding time so I tagged along to the kennels. No carrot cake for the racers. Each dog gets its own special formulation to keep it the right weight for racing. Pam introduced me to each dog personally by its racing and kennel name and provided various biographical details: how many races it had run, what sort of condition it was in, who its kennel friends were and other incidentals about its personality. The winning ribbons and memorabilia each dog has won adorn the outer door of its kennel. Apparently, the dogs like to look at them.
The Schofields (along with their son David, who won Young Trainer of 2004), are public trainers. Some public trainers charge a weekly training fee, but the Schofields prefer a performance-based payment system—they take a cut of the dog’s winnings.
I left the Schofields with the sense that Pam and Denis saw each animal as an individual with a personality and emotional needs. Understanding the dogs was a vital part of the Schofields’ approach to training. And given that between July 2005 and May 2006 the 43 dogs in their care earned $424,399.30 from 662 starts, resulting in 168 wins, 125 seconds and 90 third places, it seems they are doing something right.
Bob Van Meeuwen, a vet and greyhound trainer of thirty years’ experience, backed up the approach taken at Yennora, telling me, “You are there for the dog, not the dog for you”. For Bob the psychology of the race is as important as the physique of the dog. He believes that as a trainer a large part of the job is to deliver the dog to the starting box with minimum physiological damage and maximum focus. Bob also reckons that only a small number of the puppies born make it to the top grades of racing.
Prize money varies greatly; on a weekday race meeting it can be as little as $320 for a win, $150 for second and $90 for the third place-getter. But big feature night races can have prize pools in the tens of thousands of dollars. It can be a hard road if your dogs aren’t winning regularly, with basic expenses like feeding, housing and transport then quickly outstripping winnings.
What happens to the dogs who don’t or can’t run fast enough? This question had been worrying me since my first visit to a track, when three dogs who had suffered injuries during racing were euthanased. After talking with many owners and trainers, I have concluded there are four possibilities: dogs are kept racing even when making a loss because the dogs and their owners enjoy it, the dogs become family pets, the dogs are put to stud, the dogs are euthanased. Last year, 413 dogs were de-registered with GRNZ and roughly 1400 dogs were registered for racing in the 2004–2005 season, although usually only 300–400 of these actively race. Efforts are being made by GRNZ to protect the retirees. A re-homing facility has been set up in Sanson, under the name “Greyhounds as Pets” (GAP). There, dogs are put through a programme to ensure they are tem peramentally suited to family life, away from the track.
With the average greyhound’s racing career spanning only two to three years, peaking when the dog is two-and-a-half years old, in theory it has another 10 or so years of life left. Jacqui Eyley, the GAP coordinator, believes the biggest problem they will face in finding homes for ex-racers is the public perception of the nature of greyhounds. Most people think of them as muzzled, bunny-killing, speed machines. Yet, contradictory as it seems, they are also gentle and docile animals.
Ray Adcock is another trainer who remains concerned for his hounds even after they have run their last race. With over 1000 wins under his belt, he has been labelled “the master trainer of New Zealand”, but wriggling in his armchair and looking sheepish in his Dunsandel home, he seemed uncomfortable with the praise.
Ray has retired from greyhound racing a couple of times but has always been drawn back to the sport. He has now accepted that it will be till death do them part for him and his dogs. The great pleasure in training for Ray is in working out what motivates individual dogs, getting to know and understanding them, and tailoring his training accordingly. I wasn’t able to watch Ray in action, as my presence would have been too distracting to the 30 dogs under his training. However, we ambled about in the green grass of his property (well-irrigated to prevent paw injuries) chatting about greyhounds. As a public trainer Ray doesn’t own dogs and laments the fact that while a syndicate will enjoy talking about their dog while they are in the pub, they rarely want it as a house pet once it has run its last race. His support of GAP is wholehearted.
Miles McDonell, of Te Horo, trains just six dogs. His dogs are not only racers but faithful friends. He showed me how he takes afternoon naps with them. The intricacies of his awareness of them as individuals surprised and reassured me. Miles, like the Schofields, keeps ex-racers as pets. He refuses to put a dog down, choosing instead to use word-of-mouth to find homes for dogs and guiding the new owners into helping a dog adjust from a life of racing to one spent sleeping on the couch.
There is some international trade in dogs, with the standards of New Zealand breeding stock improving all the time. The trade is largely one-way, into New Zealand from Australia, via the importation of semen and live greyhounds. New Zealand dogs do occasionally race in Australia, but stake money there doesn’t tempt many New Zealand trainers.
Dogs change hands regularly. You can pick up a New Zealand dog for as little as $450, but how well that would race against a well-performed Australian import costing $15,000 is debatable. Puppies bred in New Zealand from average stock sell from between $400–$1000, while those with better breeding can go for around $1300. But again, Australian imports glean the highest prices, $2000–$5000, for a puppy of good breeding.
In New Zealand dogs are allowed to “get on the bunny” at the end of the race. However in Australia they are denied this pleasure. It is thought that perhaps this quirky rule means that some dogs which are average racers in Australia perform much better in New Zealand. To track the international movement of a dog there is a “greyhound passport”.
Assisting a puppy to reach its racing potential is the work of the trainer, and methods vary enormously. Some trainers run their dogs daily, while others, like Miles McDonell, never run them, choosing instead to keep the dogs at a steady level of fitness by regular walking. Gary Harding has the only “bull ring” in the country, a circular pen with a central mechanical arm that whizzes about bearing a lure. His young dogs are regularly trained in the bull ring to get them into the rhythm of chasing.
Others have tracks on their properties that the dogs run on regularly, while some run the dogs only at official tracks. Official qualifying trials are held to determine whether the dogs are up to racing standard with respect to speed, behaviour and chasing instinct.
Some trainers keep only greyhounds of the same sex, feeling that males become too distracted when the females are on heat. The type of food and nature of supplements provided are also individually driven. Methods of injury prevention and cure also vary enormously, many kept as tightly guarded secrets. Some dogs are regularly bathed, some get treated to a weekly spa, while others receive therapeutic massage. However, all trainers seem to provide their dogs with periodic pedicures, healthy claws being vital to a dog’s ability to run at speed safely.
It was the biggest racing night of the year. At the Christchurch track, Addington, the Southern Trust New Zealand Cup was the main feature and the winner would take home $42,900, from a pool of $75,000. I was lingering around the Racing Channel’s on-track studio, listening to the off-air comments, when I noticed the placards. Finally a chance to see the glamorous girls who had appeared on my TV screen almost a year earlier. I was momentarily disappointed to see they were clad in tartan rather than lamé, although I’d long since worked out the race I had seen on-screen took place in Australia. Perhaps tartan was a nod to climatic differences.
The race ran in record time, 29.95 seconds over 520 m and a win of $42,900 for Big Sam Junior trained by the Schofields. They also trained the third place-getter, Entrepreneur, an Australian import bought for a meager few hundred dollars.
Big Sam Junior, whose kennel name is Brutus, got to wear a splendid red satin coat with white tassels, and Denis Schofield received a handsome trophy. It was the dog’s second big win in as many months. He also took out the Oxy-Shot New Zealand Shootout and Brutus has won over $100,000 in the season to date.
Despite my year of involvement with greyhound racing, I’m still incapable of telling a good race from a bad, picking a winner, or working out what all the abbreviations on the form guide mean. Although I’ve spent innumerable hours talking with people about dogs running around in circles, I still don’t know what makes a winner. My best guess is that it is a combination of luck, the right routine, a good fit between trainer and dog, respect for the dog, good breeding, and lack of travel sickness on the dog’s part. The most crucial factor, though, is perhaps the most obvious—a burning desire on the dog’s side to get that bit of sheepskin. You can be sure that the fastest dog in the world has a purpose in mind, and is not just running about aimlessly.
As a punter, I have decided that the spirit of training is crucial, and it is something I can now pick immediately—from the way a person holds the dog’s lead before a race. And for what it’s worth, my five dollars will always go on the dog whose trainer whispers affirmations into its ear before a race.