In a one page fanciful article (courtesy of Our Dogs, 15 August 2008), Greyhound Star editor Floyd Amphlett, conjured up a romantic image of greyhound racing that had little in common with reality. “You build a kennel” writes Amphlett, “buy a greyhound, pay for its registrations, inoculations and the rest, apply for a licence and then race at your closest track. It is a hobby not so different to those of you readers of Our Dogs who enjoy agility training, fly-ball, or other assorted fun activities with dogs.”
Amphlett’s very evident fertile imagination is surely wasted as editor of a minority ‘news’ paper. The survival of racing is increasingly dependent on professional trainers such as Michael Peterson and indeed survival for the trainer is dependent on running a large number of dogs. Peterson’s kennel strength stood recently at 96 and he was to remark: “You need that many to pay the bills.”
Peterson - attached to Oxford - freely admits the ‘sport’ of greyhound racing is in turmoil, and in a series of forthright conversations gives an insight into the hard economics of being a trainer and the dog’s welfare.
It was dialogue instigated through yet another report of a greyhound found abandoned; a greyhound on this occasion that was raced and retired under Peterson. The white and black male called Chapelane Tom was picked up in the Croydon area mid July and taken to a dog pound. Luckily he was found a foster home and now has a secure future but who last owned Chapelane Tom had yet to be established.
The industries regulatory body should receive a completed form detailing the fate of all greyhounds retired but no such form for Chapelane Tom was ever received. Not to worry, Peterson keeps a record of his dogs. Unfortunately the book in question (for greyhounds retired in 2006) could not be found. The trainer, however, believed Chapelane Tom was adopted through the Watford branch of the National Animal Welfare Trust and had no doubt the dog was not homed independently.
Just four greyhounds have been adopted through the above branch in recent years and Chapelane Tom was not one of them. The search, however, for the 2006 book would continue or so the person making the inquiry was told.
Peterson has been training greyhounds for the last 7 years and took over from his father who has 45 years experience as a trainer. He is a major player at Oxford and a serious contender in this year’s Trainers Championship that is based on the number of winners.
It might seem a glamorous life but Peterson is running a business and the retirement of greyhounds is an additional drain on resources: “It’s hard to home racing greyhounds. The finances in this sport are piss poor. A lot of trainers are basically just covering their cost which to be honest with you I am. I am not making bundles of money, I’ve got a young family and I have eight to nine dogs here that need homing.”
Practical and ultimately financial considerations have seen an ever increasing number of trainers off-loading greyhounds independently. Peterson works with a number of rescues but keeps his options open: “I’m not being funny, anywhere possible to home a racing greyhound, ye know, anywhere.”
The trainer speaks favourably about Greyhounds 4 U (G4U) - a rescue that interestingly does not agree with yearly vaccinations, conventional wormer or flea treatment. Peterson’s dogs available for adoption through G4U are on occasion still running. Tragically that was the case for Aintsheapeach. The beautiful blue brindle female had been seeking a home through the rescue since May 2009 but was never to enjoy retirement. On 4 September 2009 Aintsheapeach was put-to-sleep after breaking her right hock in a BAGS meeting at Oxford.
Asked how many dogs he has lost at the track this year Peterson replied: “This year, probably four.” It was a question put to him in September and so whatever the actually figure might be, expect it to be higher come the end of December.
Aintsheapeach is one of a staggering 129 dogs to run on licensed tracks under Peterson during 2008. 69 greyhounds ceased running under Peterson during the same year of which 31 are not subsequently recorded racing (under a different trainer). Only 6 greyhounds from the latter figure are listed on greyhound-data.com either available for adoption or adopted.
Above figures highlight a movement of greyhounds that may surprise many outside the business of racing. Murtz Keano ran in Ireland before running on licensed British tracks under trainers S A Cahill, E Hall and M Daniels. The greyhound subsequently ran just 4 races under Peterson at Oxford and is now running in Denmark.
A new race owner is now sought for black female Reisk Ruby. The Peterson dog, born July 2007, is offered for sale “due to new stock arriving.” The terminology he uses is of course highly appropriate for a ‘sport’ in which the greyhound is just a commodity - essentially a betting medium - that official’s record in ‘units’. Ruby commands the relatively modest sum of £800 o.n.o.
The financial difficulties facing trainers are further compounded by the ‘elusive’ owner, as Peterson explains: “Say an owner gets himself into debt for some reason or can’t afford his kennel bill no more, suddenly you can’t get hold of the owner and then you’ve got 3 or 4 dogs lumbered with you. And to be honest with you 90 per cent of the time that’s what happens.”
It is a problem that has left Peterson significantly out of pocket: “I’ve got one owner that has moved up to near Newcastle and I can’t get hold of him. He basically owes me nearly 3½ thousand pounds which in this sport is a hell of a lot of money… He’s got one dog here, she’s four years old, OK, so… she’s probably got about 3 - 6 months left in her racing career tops and then basically I am lumbered with the bitch. I am lumbered with the bitch now because I can’t get hold of him.”
Peterson’s finances are further stretched this year after he was found in breach of rules 174 (i)(b) and 217 at a Disciplinary Committee Hearing on 14 April 2009 and fined £600. The judgement was made in relation to a urine sample that was taken from greyhound Arco Grace and found to contain procaine - a drug that can affect a dog’s performance and/or well being.
Arco Grace was available for adoption through G4U but is now with Oxford Retired Greyhound Trust who collected the dog from Petersons kennels on 6 October. A person speaking on behalf of the branch said of the greyhound: “It’s the worst bitch (health wise) we’ve ever picked up from any stadium and in actual fact he (Peterson) should be reported to the RSPCA.”
It’s all a far cry from the romantic image conjured up by Amphlett. Peterson describes the business of racing as a “very tough place, especially at the moment with the current financial climate.” And ads: “The sport itself is in turmoil, absolute turmoil.”
Since 1926 a total of 111 tracks were licensed under the now obsolete National Greyhound Racing Club. Under the newly formed Greyhound Board of Great Britain there remain only 27. The industry is crumbling and Peterson earmarks four tracks whose future would seem precarious: “Tracks like Coventry; how they survive I just do not know. There’s been a question mark over Hove for the last couple of years. Portsmouth, I think they’ve got probably a year maximum left on their lease… Wimbledon’s another one. (There has been) a question mark over Wimbledon for the last few years.”
From a welfare point of view and looking essentially long term, the closure of any track is of course good news. It is true the industry is responding to the outrage felt by an ever increasing number of people regarding the treatment of greyhounds but it would be naïve to think that any welfare initiatives are driven primarily for any reason other than wanting to protect the business of racing.
Many readers might have issue with Peterson. Many might have concern for the number of greyhounds the trainer has lost through injury or the 25 dogs not listed on Greyhound Data either available for adoption or adopted. Of greater concern, however, should be the fact that in the world of greyhound racing Peterson is one the good guys.
Put very simply the humane treatment of greyhounds and commercial greyhound racing are incompatible and that will never change. And in case you are wondering, Peterson never did find his 2006 book.