Are the tracks getting quicker — or the dogs?

Winning times are down - but how much of it is due to better track maintenance, asks Tommy Lyons.

Are the tracks getting quicker — or the dogs?

Just days ago I watched a fascinating video, filmed in 2014, by David Epstein, for which the subject was ‘Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?’

Epstein is an investigative journalist, who wrote the New York Times bestselling book The Sports Gene: Inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance.

The complexities of the subject are obvious, but Epstein began with a comparison between Jesse Owens, the famous 100m sprinter of the 1930s, and Usain Bolt, the fastest man ever timed.

Crudely comparing Owens’ record 10.2 run in 1936 with the 9.77 recorded by Bolt in the 2013 World Championship, Epstein explained that, had they run in the same race, Bolt would have finished 14 feet in front of Owens.

In less than a century man would appear to have gotten considerably faster. But did he?

Much of that improvement, Epstein posited, can be traced to advances in technology.

Bolt, he said, propelled “himself out of the blocks, down a specially fabricated carpet, designed to allow him travel as fast as humanly possible. Jessie Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran. Rather than blocks, Jessie Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig a hole in the cinders to start from.”

Clearly this wasn’t a level playing field, and thus Epstein explained that biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints indicated that, had he been running under the same conditions as Bolt, he would have been within one stride of the Jamaican. Allowing for the accuracy of biomechanics, there may not have been so much improvement after all - if any.

How does that relate to greyhound racing? Perhaps it doesn’t. But it didn’t stop me thinking that, similar to almost all sports, advances in many areas, not least in track maintenance, mean greyhounds are posting faster times than ever.

Have a look around at almost every track in the country and it will become blindingly obvious. If you can’t dip below 28.50 you have little business heading to Shelbourne, and sub 28.20 runs are commonplace at many venues. That’s the reality.

It’s unreasonable to think that week in, week out a greyhound will be at its peak, and the Laurels, the final of which was won with authority by Skywalker Manner last Saturday night, got me thinking whether or not conditions could be too quick for a greyhound.

The obvious reason for such a notion lies with the three sub-28.00 runs in the stake. Each of the three failed to run up to that level subsequently. With the three runs across two nights, conditions were ideal on at least twice in the competition.

There wasn’t any great surprise in seeing Farloe Rumble dip under the mark in the second round. Third in last year’s Derby, he may not have the type of early pace which usually prevails at Curraheen, but his overall pace is phenomenal and, when he got loose, he was able to break through the barrier.

Despite going on to run-up behind Skywalker Manner in the final, it’s reasonable to deduce he wasn’t at his very best for the remainder of the competition.

It was a terrific achievement by Curious Boy to break the track record on the same night, not because it was a surprise but because he is just months shy of his fourth birthday. He gave his all in defeat after missing the break in the following round but thereafter wasn’t quite at his best.

And then there was Must Be Jack in the semi-finals. A dog with a sub-28-second run at Shelbourne, his 27.96 run here was anything but a surprise. As he found trouble at the bend in the decider, it’s impossible to know how well he would have performed, but he certainly wasn’t as sharp at the break and thus would likely have struggled to replicate that achievement.

And we could go back a few years to Ballymac Vic, who, likewise, went under 28 seconds, but was knocked out in a subsequent round.

Were there mitigating circumstances in all cases, or should we give some credence to the possibility the huge run may have taken the edge off the greyhounds?

In all instances, the trainers did their job, producing the greyhound at the peak of their powers. And they were rewarded by the performance.

Of course there isn’t an owner or trainer alive who would not like to see their greyhound posting a sub-28-second run. As long as the tracks are safe, there isn’t a great issue, but the question is whether or not all tracks should be maintained so as not to be too quick.

Like the bounce factor in horse racing - when a horse runs a huge race on its return from a long break and then fails to back it up next time - we may never know whether this is just coincidence or there is a scientific basis behind it, but it’s certainly food for thought for punters.

If Epstein’s lecture is directly relatable, it’s not the greyhounds which are getting quicker, but the tracks. And what is the point in that?

Staying with the Laurels for the moment, the two to take out of the final must be the winner and third-placed Ela Alecko.

While 12 months is a very long time in a greyhound’s career, Skywalker Manner looks the type that could come back next year and successfully defend his crown.

The beauty in his performances is that he doesn’t need to do it all from the front. He has that determination to get through even when he misses the kick and, as a quite lightly raced sort, there could be more to come.

His trainer, Graham Holland, admitted having some doubts about whether or not the Derby trip will suit. Perhaps a return to Curraheen could already be in the back of connections’ minds. Or maybe the English Derby will prove too big a draw.

Third-placed Ela Alecko ran a cracker after getting early trouble, but he is certainly beginning to deliver on his early promise, and wherever he goes he should be respected.

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