GREYHOUND racing in Ireland has changed immeasurably in a decade. In the heady days, stadia were full and regularly upgraded, their dining tables the destination on a Friday and Saturday night. Now, tracks have closed as tastes have changed.
Cycles are part of business and perhaps the Covid-19 crisis has brought us to the bottom of greyhound racing’s graph from which point the next natural movement is upwards.
When the coronavirus lockdown is eased, greyhound racing must come out all guns blazing. Irish Greyhound Board chief executive Ger Dollard understands the opportunity that may lie ahead, and is confident racing is ready to make the most of it.
“Like all industries, it is a setback, but there are many industries that are worse affected than us. When you look at the publicans, and places like cinemas, and anywhere there’s large congregations, you’d wonder when they will get back to any sense of normality,” Dollard said. “Like everybody, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, so we’re keeping the show on the road as far as we can.
“From the tracks’ point of view, we want to fully comply with the protocols, so we have told track staff they’re not to attend but we have worked an arrangement whereby maybe, for half a day or a day per week, they can go in to do essential maintenance, so we are ready when it comes around to it.
“And from the greyhound industry point of view, we showed that we can do it behind closed doors.”
The Government has banned all gatherings of more than 5,000 people until at least September 1, but what hasn’t yet been revealed is to what scale smaller gatherings will be permitted. It’s likely there will be no patrons at early meetings, as the country takes small steps back towards normality.
“Where we are coming from, we would hope to resume quite soon after May 5,” Dollard said. “We are race-ready, the tracks are being maintained on a once-a-week basis, and if we got a green light on that date, we would see ourselves up and running very, very quickly.”
“We were the last to go and, on that basis, should be one of the first to come back. We have shown we can do it.
“From a gathering point of view, if you have a 10-race card, that’s 60
greyhounds. Some people will have more than one greyhound, but you’re looking at about 60 people, plus a few stewards, so you’re talking very small numbers,” he said.
Shelbourne Park is the country’s flagship track, but, as such, depends most on greyhounds from all over the country. For the restrictions, it might make sense for it to open only for ‘local’ meetings and for the classics. Programmes at regional tracks are, by and large, filled by local runners, for whom travelling to a behind-closed-doors meeting is not a major issue.
WITH each passing month, major events are being lost and it remains to be seen whether they can be refitted into the schedule. There is also the concern that racing behind closed doors does not cater to sponsors, and that could have a detrimental effect on major races, in which outside investment is highest. Nevertheless, there will be opportunities.
“The idea would be that we would try to get back to a normal schedule, if you like, but that will be difficult, as there will be a lot of competitions that have been lost in the last number of months,” Dollard said.
“We would have a concern about sponsors. They have been very supportive to us, but running behind closed doors obviously doesn’t give them bang for their buck, so we will have to sit down with them and figure out what works best.
“The profile, and the return you get from it, is very much reduced, but our sponsors have been excellent, despite the RTÉ programme last year,” he said.
“People thought we lost an awful lot of sponsors, but our income from sponsors in 2019 was slightly higher than the previous year. That’s thanks to the crowdfunding that was done by Jimmy Barry-Murphy and others in Cork, and the Friends of Limerick, in Limerick.
“And we had one or two new sponsors who came on board last year, so there is a good, solid sponsorship base that is committed to the greyhound industry.
“If we get back, and are one of the first in the queue, that might be an attraction in itself for sponsors, insofar as they will have some way to get their names on show, whereas I think a lot of the other sporting events won’t be back as quickly as greyhound racing.
“If we did get back quickly after May 5, I think we would probably be ahead of the UK. Before we were in lockdown, our meeting in Tralee was one of the few live events globally that night.
“RPGTV and the betting exchanges became involved and they were very happy with the presentation, very happy with the quality of it, and it does give us a platform to knock on those doors again, which we have been doing over the last month or so. And SIS, I expect, may like to take some extra product from us.
“There is no doubt it does give an opportunity for us to say: ‘We have greyhound racing, we have a sporting product, and it’s something that works well.’
“Of course, we don’t know whether we’ll get the green light May 5, May 12, June 5, or whenever, but the important thing is that we’re ready and have a number of options and, when we do get a date, we’ll hit the ground running.”
Meanwhile, for the duration of the closure of the tracks, the IGB continues to provide the greyhound care package, which gives €2 per day to every greyhound on the racing system at the point of lockdown.
“We were very keen to ensure people weren’t left with no support, and I think the Greyhound Care Scheme has worked. We paid out for 6,606 greyhounds and it’s costing around €400,000 every month, but we see it as being essential from a welfare perspective, and to ensure there is support for the greyhound community, so they can keep the dogs looked-after and fed and trained, in the absence of racing,” Dollard said.
“We wanted to ensure we got money out to people quickly, so didn’t want to have an elaborate application system. If you were on the Race Management System and you had trials or had raced in the previous 42 days, you were covered.
“I know, like every system, there are probably a few anomalies, and people might feel hard-done-by or left out, but I think we have captured the bulk of what needs to be captured and I think people do appreciate the support.”
Dollard believes people’s attitudes have changed during this crisis, and the knock-on effect can be a greater appreciation of the sport.
“In terms of greyhound racing and where it will be in a few years’ time, I think what this crisis has shown, across the board, is that people have moved a little back to nature, and to the care of animals and their involvement with animals. Hopefully, people who didn’t have a love of, or interest in, greyhounds prior to this will have a renewed interest.
“From an industry perspective, in every crisis there are some opportunities and we have many of them, in terms of the betting industry and the international betting exchanges perhaps becoming involved.
“But there’s no doubt the challenges facing the greyhound and horse racing industries are still there. They will be exacerbated in the short term, after Covid-19, but I think it has also brought people together, and I would expect, like in many industries after this, there will be a united front, as we all need to work together to build on what we have.”