DJ Histon Q&A: ‘Speed and stamina are the two key ingredients for a greyhound going up Powerstown’

DJ Histon is the CEO of the Irish Coursing Club and manager of Powerstown Park/ Clonmel Racecourse. He reports that ticket sales are up for the highlight of the coursing calendar, the three-day National Meeting, which begins today.
DJ Histon Q&A: ‘Speed and stamina are the two key ingredients for a greyhound going up Powerstown’

Q: Tell me about your background in coursing.

A: The interest was sparked through my father. That’s where I got the love of greyhounds. I just wanted to work in the industry when I left school and was fortunate enough to get a position in the Irish Greyhound Board at the time, back in 1983. So I’ve worked in the greyhound industry all my life.

Q: What’s your favourite part of the sport?

A: The most enjoyable aspect of my job is certainly the hare husbandry side of things. Underpinning that is the work coursing clubs do in the conservation of the hare. One of the big bugbears we have is illegal hunting, which happens on a 12-month basis all over the country — basically packs of unmuzzled dogs chasing down the hare. Our clubs work closely with the gardaí and Wildlife Service in detecting, preventing, and assisting in prosecutions of that activity.

Q: Where do you source the hares for competition?

A: Every club has preserves, which is the habitat the hare resides in when there is no coursing. They work with farmers in ensuring the habitat isn’t compromised in any way, like getting farmers cutting silage to be mindful of young leverets in the field. Then in wintertime, as temperatures get extremely low, clubs will put food out for the hares in the wild. A Queen’s University study concluded that where you’ve coursing clubs, you’ve 18 times more hares than in the wider countryside.

Q: How common are hare deaths as a result of racing?

A: We would go by the study that tells the true story, looking at the total number of hares netted by clubs and the total number released last year, 99.3% of all hares netted were released back into the countryside. They would’ve all been dosed and treated for various ailments, so they’d be going back in a fit and healthy state. It’s heavily regulated and we think that’s one of the reasons why it’s surviving and thriving.

Q: How many dogs will be competing at the National Meeting and over how many categories?

A: We’ll have six events in total. The two main events in terms of prize money would be the Derby, sponsored by BoyleSports, and the Oaks, sponsored by the Horse & Jockey Hotel. Each of those have 64 runners and it’s a knockout competition, run over six rounds. There’d be 208 dogs competing over the three days and they’re your top, top greyhounds. To qualify for the National Meeting you have to be up there in terms of ability. Speed and stamina are the two key ingredients for a greyhound going up to Powers-town. It’s a tough test.

Q: At what age do the dogs hit their peak?

A: First-season dogs would be anything from 16 to 18 months when they start running and by the time the National Meeting would come around, they’d be two-year-olds. The dogs in the all-age competitions could be anything up to four years of age. Because coursing is run over the winter-period, the dogs are off for the summer, so coursing dogs are generally much bigger than track dogs and they tend to be more docile as well. They’re all greyhounds but there’s different bloodlines associated with the track and coursing.

Q: How are the dogs trained to course?

A: Coursing greyhounds can be walked between four and six miles every day until you get them to peak fitness. Then you’d hand-gallop them — literally one person would hold the dog or dogs at one end of the field and someone would go to the top of the field and call them. Coursing trainers or owners would massage their dogs as well before a run, just to warm their muscles up. You can’t train every dog the same and that’s where the real top trainers shine — they’re able to understand the needs of the dog and the training requirements.

Q: The Campaign for the Abolition of Cruel Sports are holding a protest ahead of the event to, as they say, “highlight the cruel practice of hare coursing and the ill treatment of greyhounds that are callously dumped once their ‘sporting’ days are over”. What’s your response to that?

A: Every year outside the National Meeting you’ve 20-odd people protesting, and inside the gates you’ve 10,000 people attending the actual event. Without coursing, you would have a much lesser hare population. All you’ve got to do is look across the water where they banned coursing and saw that. The UK Department of Agriculture conducted a review of the hare population in England and concluded that hunting is the biggest wildlife crime, sitting at 36%, conducted by non-coursing people. If something is being regulated and managed, then there’s standards at play. Our statistics strongly bear out against a lot of the claims made by the Irish Council Against Blood Sports and other such bodies. With 99.3% of the hares released back into the wild, I think any organisation would be happy with practically hitting 100%. Everything that we do is centred around the hare in terms of husbandry, rules and regulations, checks and balances.

Q: On one hand, it’s been banned in Britain and Northern Ireland in the last decade, but on the other a huge majority voted against a ban in the Dáil last summer. So, on balance, are you worried about the future of coursing in Ireland?

A: No, because I think politicians can see value in the work conducted by the Irish Coursing Club and its voluntary network of clubs. The simplest thing to do is ban anything. It’s much more difficult to roll up your sleeves, go out there and actually do something practical for the betterment of the Irish hare. The Irish Coursing Club have been doing that since 1916 and it’s our aim to continue to do that. If bodies such as the Irish Council Against Blood Sports are concerned about the Irish hare, they never, ever mention the issue of illegal hunting. They never flag it in the media, they never flag it in Dáil Éireann. They just focus on the Irish Coursing Club and the clubs that are doing voluntary work and yielding positive results in terms of hare conservation. I think their focus is misplaced.

Q: Tell me, are you from Clonmel originally?

A: No, I grew up in Adare, and that’s where I got my love of greyhounds. My father is 84 now and he has no dog at the moment but he’s still talking about getting one. It’s a great pastime, especially if someone is retired. It gets you out every day. You’ve to get up, walk the dog, gallop the dog, and you’re meeting people. There’s a whole social dimension to it.

Q: Will your dad be heading to Powerstown too?

A: He will indeed — he’s looking forward to it. He has his flask and sandwiches ready.

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