New Track Ratings System a step in the right direction

The IGB has announced a new Track Ratings System which is, according to their statement, ‘of crucial importance in the Integrity Management of the industry’ and ‘will ensure greater transparency in its Racing and Grading Systems’.

This is a very positive move and while it’s arguable how accurate the new listings are, it is certainly a step in the right direction. But the standard ratings don’t account for the nightly variations in the speed of the surface and they won’t stop greyhounds spinning around the faster tracks in 28 seconds and below — something which increases the risk of injury.

Could Conor Crowley, a Director on the Board of Limerick Stadium and, at 20 years of age, the youngest person to serve in such a position, have the solution to both problems?

Some seven months ago, Crowley was instrumental in introducing the idea of the ‘going stick’ to the greyhound community here in Ireland.

The penetrometer, as it is formally known, is a tool used to gauge the compaction of soil by accurately measuring the force required to push the tip of the tool into the ground and the energy needed to remove it an angle of 45 degrees.

Horse racing folk may be familiar with the instrument as, following a 12-month trial, it was written into the rules of racing in the UK that, from January 1 2009, the use of the stick was to be compulsory at every track, with a reading report to released on the day before final declarations and on the morning of the meeting itself.

At that time, Andrew Cooper, clerk of the course at Epsom and Sandown, described it as ‘a management tool rather than an arbiter of what you end up calling the ground’.

But horse racing is run on turf and all the grass tracks have disappeared from greyhound racing now, so how can this machine, which costs €4,000, be adapted to our sport?

Crowley explained: “The new track rating system is out and there’ll have to be something to back it up. I see the going stick as something that can give a clear idea how a track is running.

“On any given night, you could tell whether it’s fast or slow, and, through the gathering of data over a period of time, by how much. If you used the going stick at each of the tracks for a period of a month or two, you’d have solid data to back up the ratings.

“The lower the reading, the softer the going. So, a result of 5.0 would indicate an extremely testing surface, while 10.0 would indicate very firm ground.

“The day we brought it over from England, Mike Maher, the managing director of going stick developers TurfTrax, went around the track at Shelbourne and recorded it to be running at 7.6, which is good going. You could probably go as far as 8.0 and down as far as 7.0 and it would still be considered normal.

“If, on another day, the going is 8.6, then you know the ground is hard and the track will be running accordingly. It’s that simple.”

The purpose of the readings is two-fold. Not only do they provide an accurate assessment of the speed of the track, they are equally if not more important as an aid to providing a safe surface for racing, something Crowley is keen to push.

“What I was looking at was using the going stick to provide a safe surface all the way around,” he added. “Once within those parameters, you could rate it 100 fast or 100 slow, if you like — it doesn’t matter as long as you know it’s safe for the dogs.

“At first I was hoping the stick would so something for the ratings, but the more I investigated it the more I thought it could be real positive from a welfare perspective. Used properly, it can be a diagnostic tool, pinpointing exactly where on the track the issues, such as hard spots and soft spots, are arising.

“If you run from a hard to a soft surface or vice versa, you have an increased chance of picking up an injury. No matter whether it’s an A7 dog or a Derby dog, when a greyhound sustains a bad injury, it’s not good for anyone involved or for the perception of those outside of it.

“In all sport, you will have serious injuries — they’re inevitable — but anything we can do to reduce them should be seen as a positive. If the sand isn’t right underneath, greyhounds are almost guaranteed to be getting injuries.

“If we can provide a safe running surface, we can prevent many of them and the going stick can help us do that.”

But how often would it need to be used? Tracks can vary in speed from the start of racing to the end — something, it should be added, which is extremely rarely reflected in Irish racing. Will the grounds person or racing manager be lugging the tool around on a nightly basis?

Crowley added: “The make-up of the machine at the moment is such that it has a 100 millimetre probe at the end of it, and a shear test on it, which lifts a bit of sand on the way out. That means it wouldn’t be ideal to use during racing, but it would be a very useful tool to use before the track is plated for racing, and again after racing.

“You would need to test the ground at a minimum of 10 points around the track: one at the entrance to the bends, one on the crest of the bends, one at the exit to the bends and two in each of the straights.”

The going stick has been on trial in greyhound tracks around Ireland for some time now, but the results have, as yet, not been released. Does that mean that the idea has met with resistance?

“It has been on trial here for more than seven months and the IGB seems to be very open to the idea,” Crowley insisted. “But there has been no move yet to buy the machine or to do anything formal with it.

“It has also been trialled in Britain, and provided a range of interesting results, including pinpointing which tracks are safest. If it proves successful, I believe it’s a tool that could revolutionise greyhound racing.

“Used right, it could even bring back racing on grass,” Crowley suggested.

A discussion for another day, perhaps.

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