PART IV: Issues Relating to the New Greyhound Regulator

Chapter 12

INDEPENDENT GREYHOUND RACING TRACKS

Introduction and Cultural Background

There are now only some 14-16 independent greyhound tracks offering racing in Britain unlicensed by the NGRC and its Rules of Racing. The numbers fluctuate as tracks close and reopen. But the independents, sometimes known deprecatingly as 'flappers', have been in relentless decline for decades as the changing social structure of Britain and its people's changing leisure tastes have moved against them. The number of independent tracks in 1960 was five times as high at 87. Currently, the remaining small rump of such tracks are under further serious threat from the costly welfare provisions of the new Animal Welfare legislation.

These independent tracks can no longer be viewed as a major part of our greyhound sporting industry. They have been from the beginning rooted in the old British working classes, often based in the coal mining areas, and their number has shrunk as those classes have diminished. Geographically, the independent tracks have retreated mainly into those provincial redoubts where some of the traditional conventions of old working class life persist, as in the North East, the North West, Scotland and in South Wales. The social facilities at the present tracks to some extent also echo the Working Men's Clubs and British Legion Clubs of immediate post-war Britain. These tracks may over time disappear altogether with the social changes occurring in this country, coupled with the hostile pressure put on them from the licensed sector and as government imposes the mounting costs of welfare regulation.

Animal Welfare Legislation

The Duty of Care provisions in the new Animal Welfare Act 2006 apply to all, including the independent track operators and those who race their dogs at such tracks. These operators cannot opt out of the Act as they have historically opted out from the NGRC regulation. They will be vulnerable to prosecution if they fail satisfactorily to perform the specified Duty. The Act will seek to impose a common uniform welfare standard across all greyhound racing and the secondary legislation to be introduced under the Act will have particular relevance to the independent sector. It is unlikely and undesirable that this welfare standard will be set lower for the independent than for the licensed sector. There must be a single common standard for all. How that secondary legislation might specifically operate for the independent sector is described in chapter 11 above (Regulations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006).

The Current Situation

The burden of this new legislation alone may quickly put paid to all or most of the independent sector. Not everyone in British greyhound racing would weep at that outcome. The independent tracks are often, maybe usually, viewed with distaste and disapproval by the greyhound racing establishment. We received comments from individual promoters, regulators and bookmakers which suggested that they would be happy if the whole sector were to be eliminated. Some of this distaste, especially from the NGRC, may derive historically from social attitudes which today are outdated and irrelevant. But some of the longstanding disapproval is based on the regrettable reality of significant parts of independent racing.

Too many of the independent tracks are shoddy in appearance and have long been unsatisfactory both in terms of integrity and welfare. Kennelling facilities can be primitive, if they exist at all. Greyhounds arrive in the backs of cars and vans and may, on hot evenings, be kept without sufficient air management or hydration. Only a few tracks have veterinary attendance (a couple of them, interestingly, with good mobile facilities) so there can be a painful delay awaiting an 'on-call' vet if a dog is injured in racing. There may be no pre-race veterinary inspection of greyhounds (it being done cursorily by management) and dogs may therefore run when unfit. Worst of all is the kind of situation which has been reported to us where some disreputable individuals buy van-loads of cheap poor-quality dogs, from Ireland or from NGRC tracks, select the able ones for unlicensed racing and shoot the rest.

Record-keeping and tracing of dogs at independent tracks is often very rudimentary. There is no testing for drugs. Consequently, issues of racing and betting integrity have been of concern in the past and off-course bookmakers shun this market. However, it should be noted that the prize money and betting turnover at current independent tracks is now usually so low that it is claimed that there can be little financial incentive for 'fixing' races. Integrity concerns may therefore today be much diminished compared to the betting coups of yesteryear. Of more continuing concern may be the use of drugs to mask injuries in order to 'get a run' and the disguise of greyhound identities when running at an independent track in preparation for a 'coup' at a licensed track.

Overall, the general case against the very continuance of the independent sector, as put to us strongly by the BGRB, the NGRC and by some bookmakers (and apparently shared on welfare grounds within government), is that the independents contribute nothing financially to the central industry and can be the source of welfare scandals which damage the reputation of the whole sport. Certainly there is no case for assisting the preservation of the lowest grade tracks. We anticipate that the higher welfare standards and regulatory costs predicted under the new Animal Welfare Act will nudge them into oblivion, with few tears shed.

Our General Approach

However, the independent sector, according to our limited observation and the evidence we have received, does exhibit a wide spread of quality, of both virtues and vices. The spread extends from the better run tracks, which in our view should be encouraged to survive and meet all modern welfare and integrity standards (some have clearly stated that they wish to do so), to the bottom end of shoddy tracks, which probably have no decent reason for being in business in the twenty-first century.

This Review has observed both the good and the bad aspects of the independent sector. We believe that it is important not to forget or ignore the virtues of the better independent tracks and the positive contributions they do make both to the sport and to the leisure enjoyment of certain sections of the British sporting public. Our general approach is to suggest that the positive side of the independent sector should be encouraged, while the negative aspects should be eliminated. We recommend that the new greyhound governing and regulatory authorities give consideration to taking this broad approach.

The 'positive' aspects of the independent sector, where it has been estimated some 4,000 greyhounds race each year, include the following:

  • Many of the best trainers commence their careers and learn their initial skills at independent tracks. As one commentator observed ‘even Premier League footballers began playing in the parks’. New owners also often test the water at these tracks.
  • Many young greyhounds begin racing on these tracks to establish their talents and dispositions. Trialing and schooling is done there (with the understanding if not the formal approval of the NGRC since schooling is not sufficiently available at licensed tracks).
  • Veteran and slower dogs extend their racing careers by racing at independent tracks.

In more general terms, though not necessarily less important, the independent tracks can make a contribution to the social life of some British regional communities. There are, and this Group has met, greyhound racing devotees who actively prefer participating in independent racing. For many, it is an important part of the pattern of their sport to race (though against the Rules for NGRC registered greyhounds and their trainers) both at licensed and unlicensed tracks. Independent operators told us that at least 30% of their entrants were NGRC registered greyhounds, though with disguised identities. We are told that this "cross-fertilisation" is more prevalent in Scotland and the North of England where proximity between licensed tracks and independents is more common; that is not to say, of course, that the presence of an "NGRC" greyhound on a South Wales track is an unheard of event.

Such committed customers of the independent sector are primarily personal owners and owner/trainers on a small scale. Many have only one or two greyhounds, while in a recent survey of 116 trainers who kept more than 5 dogs they on average trained only around seven each. This demonstrates a different and smaller trainer profile from that operating in the licensed sector, which is dominated by professionals with large teams of dogs, usually contracted to a particular stadium. Many of the greyhounds running in this unlicensed sector are not of the highest class ability, though they still appear to give and get pleasure from racing.

Participants in this distinctive sporting life spoke strongly to us of their support for the independent sector. An independent owner said: ‘We like to be always with our dogs and not hand them over to some NGRC trainer and then not see much of them again’. Another said: ‘Ours is a more personal one-man-and-his-dog atmosphere, unlike the NGRC tracks, and especially BAGS, which are like a factory production line. We want to walk with our dogs and have them to live with us at home, not kennel them.’ A trainer said ‘what we want is a nice friendly track where people know each other and the one or two-dog man can enjoy his racing’. (We observed that enjoyment on a warm evening at Westhoughton). They seemed to be under the impression that, once registered with the NGRC, the independent promoters, owners and trainers would be obliged to change the whole character and atmosphere of the sport they love. One independent owner summed up the differences between the two sides of greyhound racing as ‘the licensed sector is a business, ours is a hobby’.

To these devotees the independent sector is the grass roots of the sport, primarily used for dogs which are not good enough for licensed racing but where racing them still gives great pleasure to their owners and probably also to the dogs. Although there is still some small-scale betting at these tracks (though not off-course), independent racing is more a social sport than a professional betting medium . The days of 'big coups at the flappers' are said to be over, though we cannot assess how true that is. Independent racing as currently pursued makes it possible for a working man or woman to care for one or a couple of relatively cheap dogs of modest talent and take them racing without a superstructure or regulation, kennelling etc. It would be a pity if that pleasure were to be bureaucratically removed, except where, as sadly it sometimes does, it involves welfare and integrity problems. We do not believe that the purpose of this Review is to accelerate that process other than where there genuinely are those welfare and integrity concerns.

Clearly, there are many such concerns in the unlicensed sector, especially relating to welfare, veterinary supervision, medical facilities for injured hounds, kennelling provision, track surfaces, and inadequate tracing and record-keeping. These concerns and deficiencies will vary from track to track. However, it should be noted that some important aspects of greyhound welfare may be superior in the independent sector to the welfare situation at some licensed tracks. Because many of the independent greyhounds are personally owned as pets by people who care passionately for them, they may be treated better than in the 'mass production' atmosphere of the larger licensed tracks with their contracted trainers. Certainly the re-homing issue should be less acute where the greyhounds are kept as pets at home throughout their lives. Also of course, were the independents to disappear overnight, there could, apart from those cared for at home, be a welfare problem relating to the disposal of the surplus of greyhounds, which could arise in the case of those owners and owner/trainers who run larger numbers of dogs.

Perhaps the above description of the positive side of some independent greyhound racing will be seen by the NGRC and the BGRB as an overly-romantic view of the unlicensed sector, though it is not a misrepresentation of some of what was seen at one of the best of the independent tracks. But it is our opinion that it would be a great pity if the better positive aspects of the independent sport were to be lost through social hostility, over-regulation and focusing only on the financial aspects of the sport.

A Future Direction

Looking to the future, with new welfare legislation and a new authority governing and regulating the greyhound sport, it should be an objective of the ruling bodies to assist the better independent tracks to prosper and to achieve common welfare and integrity standards. This will involve positive attitudes on both sides which have not always been demonstrated in the past. The greyhound establishment should make sure that the old style 'Club snootiness' is clearly buried in history, as to a great extent it actually already is. A change of attitude will also be required among some independents, who have stated that they just ‘do not wish to join the Club’. This latter objection may derive from social alienation and historic hostilities; or because of the financial costs and administrative burden of being regulated to meet the required standards (some of those who have recently moved to the licensed sector have found the transitional burden heavy); or because some independents foolishly wish to connive at integrity and welfare malpractices which the authorities rightly would not tolerate; or simply out of independent spirit (to which the independent promoters have a human right). However, we believe that the extent of opposition by the remaining independents to accepting regulation is diminishing. This process should be facilitated by our recommended disappearance of the old Club and the absorption of its regulatory arm into the new GBGB. Indeed, two former independent tracks (Pelaw Grange and Kinsley) have recently chosen to change status and race under Rules.

The question now is whether and how to facilitate and accelerate that process of integration of the small remaining group of suitable independent tracks? Obviously, financial incentives from the governing body would help, though the promoters and bookmakers might resent paying that financial subsidy. But the issue is not just about money. A number of other practical obstacles to integration exist. Some of these are summarised below:

Welfare

There can be no compromise on welfare. The independent tracks are, under the new legislation, already subject to common welfare standards across the board; these requirements will become more rigorous and specific when the relevant secondary legislation comes into force in 2009. Some independent operators have stated firmly that they are keen to implement the legislative welfare standards even before 2009 and they have asked Defra to tell them ‘what they need to do and they would get on with it’. The remainder may be left to disappear.

Veterinary Surgeons

The Animal Welfare Act requires that the animal be 'protected from pain, injury, suffering or disease'. Injury during greyhound racing is sometimes an inescapable element of the sport and, no matter how good the facilities, some injuries are inevitable. Hence we expect, and indeed have recommended above, that it should become a legal requirement for rapid professional treatment to be available at all tracks when an injury occurs. That can only be provided if a vet is present with equipment suitable to provide emergency care on site. Some independent tracks now do provide veterinary care at a level similar to that available at a licensed track. But most do not, some having only a vet 'on call', involving painful delays until treatment - if, indeed, that "call" is made at all. Thus we have recommended that, as a function of the secondary legislation, a veterinary surgeon, with appropriate medical equipment (which could be a mobile facility shared among tracks) must be in attendance at each track for racing and trials. A problem would remain if the contracted vet did not turn up for the meeting and so fall-back arrangements with a locum would be required. Furthermore, in order to comply with licensed rules, a vet at an independent track would need to carry out pre-race inspections of greyhounds - not currently the case.

This necessary imposition of the presence of proper veterinary provision at all tracks may alone lead to the closure of a number of independent tracks, which need not, in these circumstances, be regretted. If tracks cannot provide proper veterinary and hence welfare facilities, they should close or be closed. For a discussion of the veterinary provision, see the chapters on The Role of Veterinary Surgeons (Chapter 15) and Regulation and the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (Chapter 11).

Drug Testing

Currently, no independent track to our knowledge conducts drug testing - and of course the NGRC, whose sampling stewards conduct testing at licensed tracks, currently cannot do it for those outside the NGRC's jurisdiction. However, the Club has informed us that it would be willing to conduct testing in the Independent sector if it were financed to do so. As now, any independent seeking to transition to licensed status would, of course, need to comply with the Rules as they apply to drug use and testing

Kennelling

The Rules of Racing require that greyhounds are kennelled at least 45 minutes before racing, mainly as a protection against them being given prohibited substances. They are also required to be kennelled until, in the case of BAGS racing, 15 minutes after they have raced. But many independent owners prefer to race at the independent tracks specifically because they do not wish to use track kennels (and object even more strongly to licensed trainers' kennels). They argue that keeping dogs locked up for several hours without sufficient water and exercise is inhumane, thus they prefer to keep their dogs under their own supervision, as described above. Some dogs are anyway temperamentally unsuited to mass kennelling and become stressed and cannot race well if so kennelled.

Independent operators argue that these kennelling Rules are not necessary for them since they claim that in their racing there is little or no incentive to tamper with dogs. This issue would require careful negotiation between the authorities and the independent operators about whether track kennelling is needed at all at smaller tracks with no off-course betting and, if needed, to what standard. But as an issue it has not apparently been an insuperable obstacle to those tracks which have recently chosen to change status to race under Rules.

Statistics and Record Keeping

The independent tracks are currently not required to keep records or a database of runners from registration to retirement, though that situation may change when the new welfare regulations come into force. Some independent operators do now attempt to keep records but the administration is patchy, time-consuming and expensive; and inputs to databases involve skills and money with which few independent tracks are equipped or able to provide. However, such information must be available to centralised industry databases if the sport is in future to be able to track the whereabouts of all racing greyhounds from cradle to grave, or at least to retirement. Injury data also must become an established requirement so that valid research can be conducted. Hence adequate record keeping and database management should be a requirement for independent tracks if they are to be accepted into the licensed world of greyhound racing. The tracks may require initial modest training and investment to achieve these standards.

"Veteran" Racing, Schooling, Trials and NGRC Sanctions

Veterans races help to extend the useful racing lives of greyhounds and so reduce the problems of retirement and re-homing. But few such races are available in the licensed sector for older, slower dogs and we believe that more effort should be made by racing managers to accommodate the demand. However, if there really is no capacity for an increase in the number of races for greyhounds in this category in the licensed sector, then a case emerges for encouraging some of these smaller (but adequately regulated) tracks to continue offering such veterans racing opportunities. This argument equally applies to providing schooling, although it should be noted that the NGRC Rules of Racing do not preclude any track, licensed or unlicensed, from schooling. Trialling, however, is a different matter because of integrity issues relating to the recording of form and time-keeping.

Currently, greyhounds which race under Rules may not also run on unlicensed tracks and their licensed trainers suffer heavy penalties for doing so if exposed. As mentioned above, in fact many greyhounds do so race, usually under false identification, including allegedly some preparing for licensed races. This is because they can race on an independent track without recorded form and thus subsequently attract a bigger betting price in a licensed race (although this practice would now probably amount to cheating under the provisions of the Gambling Act). One consequence of the heavy sanctions which may be imposed on those found in transgression of the Rules of Racing in this respect, is that they act as a major deterrent against the independent sector cooperating with industry-wide identification of greyhounds through its databases. Any new regulatory authority, working to encourage the better parts of the independent sector to join under its umbrella thus enabling the construction of databases covering the whole industry, might seriously consider whether such sanctions would continue to be necessary if proper records were kept.

It is our view, which follows from our proposal in the previous chapter that it should be a regulatory requirement that greyhounds should race only in their Stud Book Names, that the Rules which seek to ban the participation of greyhounds, their owners and trainers in independent racing should be dropped. Failing acceptance of that regulatory proposal, a revised Stud Book Name Scheme should be re-introduced. We are aware that such a Scheme was put in place in 1987 but discontinued in 1991 because of a lack of interest on the part of the independent sector, as it was then constituted. However, perceptions and expectations have changed, as have means of recording and transmitting data, and we believe that such a step would promote the welfare of individual greyhounds through seamless traceability /integrity; eliminate any reason for hostility by the independents towards the new GBGB regulator; and would also facilitate the construction of comprehensive databases covering the lives and racing form of all greyhounds.

Future Options for Independent Tracks

In the future, the determination of the above issues will to a considerable extent determine the fate of independent tracks. A number of them, possibly a majority, may be forced out of business by the burden of additional welfare and regulatory costs. But a few of the better tracks may be able to meet those costs. If so, the question facing this latter group would be whether to remain independent or whether to move into the newly regulated environment. We believe that it would be to the benefit of the whole industry if these tracks could be encouraged to transfer into the licensed sector. One deterrent to joining the licensed sector would be the significant extra costs of regulation which might make the financial difference between their survival and oblivion. No doubt any new governing and regulatory body will, as has been the case in relation to the tracks which have recently transferred to the licensed sector, consider targeted financial incentives to facilitate that transition.

It might also be worth the GBGB considering whether formally to consider whether some of the smaller licensed tracks, whilst operating under full welfare provisions, might be able to race under a slightly lighter regulatory rein (possibly in relation to, for example, penalty levels and kennelling requirements). A parallel might be drawn with Point-to-Point horse racing; Point-to-Point steeplechases are governed by special Regulations agreed and published by the British Horseracing Authority and which cover in detail all relevant aspects under a lighter rein of regulation than operates in the main sport.

One objection to this approach in greyhound racing is that it could be seen as a device to escape proper regulation and to enjoy the respectability of licensing without paying the full price. However, it could be more positively viewed as a means of providing a vehicle (perhaps limited in term) whereby such tracks could prepare for transition towards full licensed status. Operating under a common welfare standard and a modestly lighter regulatory rein, these tracks could then, like Point-to-Point racing, continue to provide a minor though valuable grass roots contribution in terms of social leisure for some communities and, for example, schooling, possibly trialing, and veterans racing for the sport.

To assist this process, a 'Facilitator for Transition' might be appointed by the governing authority, possibly someone chosen from the promoters of those former independent tracks which have already successfully made the transition. The BGRF might then, for a limited period, also provide modest, targeted financial incentives, as it already does to such smaller tracks as Henlow, Pelaw Grange, Doncaster, Mildenhall, Reading and Portsmouth even though they have no BAGS racing and little off-course betting and so make a lesser contribution to the central finances of the sport.

Conclusion

The new greyhound authorities should seriously consider encouraging and offering transitional incentives to what could be a respectable and law-abiding element of grass roots greyhound racing, if there were to emerge a demand for such. It is to be hoped that such tracks would ultimately prosper and make the transition to full regulation, perhaps within a transitional process limited to one or two years. But it should not be the purpose to sustain tracks which breach common welfare and integrity standards or have no intention of making the transition to licensed racing. If that positive objective is achieved and a few more tracks survive with better welfare and integrity under a common regulatory regime, while tracks unable or unwilling to comply go out of business, then the greyhound industry would be the better for it. If eventually there then exists in Britain a single greyhound sport which is united under one regulatory regime, that would be an achievement to be celebrated.