Mark Reason: Greyhound racing has gone to the dogs
OPINION: I am sitting in the house of a greyhound trainer. It is a world covered in dog hair. A greyhound stalks by, amiably sniffs my trousers and moves along. A race is about to be screened live on the television. The trainer tells me that a lot of late money will be laid on trap two and it will get up to beat the favourite. I must be in Dog Delphi. The oracle has spoken and so it comes to pass.
Through the back window you can see a magnificent racing animal being walked up the road. Through another window you can see the kennels. They may be more habitable than the house. These people love their dogs. They live for their dogs. But they are surviving on bones. The big trainers say they are going to run them out of town.
All over New Zealand the big corporates are ruining hardworking families. Every day another little shop goes bust. Every week mom and pop greyhounds trainers wonder if they can go on. They can't get their dogs in races and when they do, they always seem to get a terrible draw.
But the big boys seem untouchable. One trainer is currently under investigation by the Racing Integrity Unit and by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Photos have been taken that allegedly show the trainer attaching a live possum to a lure. But the quality of the photographs is not good. It is a hard charge to prove.
Phil Holden, the new chief executive of Greyhound Racing New Zealand, says, "The RIU carry out random kennel inspections and they have never found any evidence (of live baiting). The current investigation is with the RIU and the SPCA. That's live as well.
"A process needs to be followed. There is an investigation under way. We've handed it on. They're dealing with it. They've got to validate if any of that material is real."
Holden gives me hope. Greyhound racing has a lot of problems, but Holden seems determined to put in better systems. The sport swirls with allegations of drug use. Two years ago David Scott abused his position on the board of GRNZ. He used privileged information to instruct a trainer to issue an undetectable drug. Scott was not banned for life. He was banned for 11 years.
Why not a life ban and why do most trainers seem to routinely receive nothing more than a fine when their dogs are found to have a prohibited substance in their systems? Dogs of leading South Island trainer John McInerney tested positive for procaine in 1997, heptaminol in 2001, codeine and hydroxystanolozol in 2010, caffeine in 2013 and ketoprofen earlier this year.
Curiously stanolozol is the drug that disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for at the Seoul Olympics. In the human world, athletes are held responsible for what they put in their body. But greyhound trainers successfully plead that their dogs have been fed contaminated meat from livestock.
In the latest case involving McInerney the Judicial Control Authority observed "there was no malicious intent" and "Mr McInerney maintains a very professional kennel of the highest standard".
In June, 2013 Marcy Flipp's dogs tested positive for a number of prohibited drugs that had been administered through a product called "canine EPO". She had a previous offence in 2003, but "the committee did not regard it as such (an aggravating factor) given it was 10 years ago."
The following year Flipp was found guilty of kicking a dog at a race meeting. The prosecutor wanted the offence to be considered in the light of previous offences, but the committee ruled that the previous penalties "were of no assistance to the committee as none involved an improper act similar to that in the present case".
The trainer I spoke to alleged that doping was commonplace in the sport, that fields and draws were frequently fixed and that the committee of GRNZ never did anything as many of them had vested interests.
I put these charges to Holden. I also observed that there had been several races this year where one trainer had eight or seven dogs in a field of eight. That surely opened up the future possibility of race fixing given the ease of offshore betting in today's gambling market. I also wondered why follicle testing (for drugs), which was supposed to be introduced in February, had still not come in.
Holden said, "The RIU are the people who have to physically do it (follicle testing). There have been some challenges round the methodology at their end. We've been applying some pressure, but random testing should be in within the next week."
When I spoke of the perception that races could be manipulated by a trainer with multiple dogs in the field, Holden said, "We would agree with that. We want national field selection like they have in Australia. We want a box draw process that is independently audited. We are focused on putting in a national field process that will absolutely change the nature of fields and bring in transparency.
"We are working on it now and looking to discuss it with the Rules of Racing Committee at the November meeting. We would like to bring it in early next year. I'm fairly hopeful it will be straightforward."
The election results thunder on through the land. Politicians talk about the increasing inequality of society. It is no different in greyhound racing. Lisa Cole and John McInerney dominate much of the scene. The big corporates are pushing the smaller trainers to the wall.
Brendon Cole, who does much of the training in the Cole kennels, has been threatened at the track. Objects have been thrown onto the tracks in front of the Cole dogs, endangering their welfare. It is not so very different from the rebellion and protests that go on in much of the western world about the inequality of our society.
But if there wasn't hope, we might as well all give up. Holden views greyhound racing as a sport, not an industry. He says, "The word 'sport' resonates. It's about passionate people, competitive athletes, i.e. our dogs, and then there is the tribal aspect. We love our sport, we love our dogs and they love to race. People really do care about their dogs. If they don't, it isn't a sport."
Holden knows there is a long way to go before the sport will be accepted by the broader community. But he sounds like a man who will stand up for the little guys. He says, "There is a bright future for the small trainer who love their dogs."
Looking out of the window of the Delphic Doghouse, it doesn't look too bright over the hills in the distance. But these people respect Holden and they want to give him a chance. In so many ways, he is their only remaining hope.
- Sunday Star Times