The act of racing one greyhound against another is not necessarily hazardous for the dogs. View racing at Odense (Denmark) and rarely will you see an incident resulting in serious injury but Odense is one of the few tracks where greyhounds run on a straight course (over a 260 metre distance).
In Britain, however, as in Ireland (and a number of other countries where greyhound racing is held) the dogs run on an oval-like circuit that essentially comprises two straights leading into tight bends. This configuration can prove lethal for the greyhounds with the risk of injury rising significantly when dogs are pitted against each other.
At the time of writing there are 25 tracks regulated under the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) and 12 independent venues across England, Scotland and Wales.
Whilst all of the above are oval-like in configuration, variations exist from track to track in length of straights, banking and tightness of bends. There exists also huge disparity in the depth of sand (used for the surface and middle layers) and composition of base layer that in turn can affect the performance of a track.
Such variations impact on safety as does the maintenance of the track, operation of the mechanical hare, trap draw, grade, race distance and weather conditions. Research to date, however, would indicate that even where all factors relating to safety are judged ideal the frequency of injuries will never fall dramatically whilst dogs are competing on oval-like circuits.
In May 2008 the track at Owlerton (Sheffield) received both a new surface and drainage system costing in the region £125,000. General Manager Dave Perry was reported saying: “It is all about the welfare of our greyhounds here at Owlerton. The resurfacing of the track will improve our already high standards.”
Owlerton was a track that Perry apparently considered “one of the safest in the country” prior to the work carried out and with no change in its configuration was there ever likely to be a notable reduction in dogs injured?
On Greyhoundscene - the largest internet forum for UK members of the racing fraternity - the following posting was made in July 2008: “What’s going on at Sheffield - injury rates (have) nearly trebled since the track re-laid the surface at massive cost. All sorts of injuries being reported by all trainers - shoulders, wrists, gracilis, hocks… there'll be no sound dogs left at this rate!”
Similarly, two months following ‘improvements’ at Yarmouth Stadium in June 2010 to include a new surface and drainage and costing £190,000, owners were reporting a notable increase in the frequency of injuries - many serious - in both trials and races.
Anomalies in injury rates are inevitable and looking long term I would not expect such rates at either Sheffield or Yarmouth to be higher. By the same token I would be very surprised if either were to fall significantly.
Yarmouth Racing Manager Bill Johnson, speaking in August, believed the level of injuries had changed little since the work carried out. Perry said the injury rate at Sheffield had fallen but refused to say by how much as he felt the information could be used by those who appose racing.
Of course it’s good PR to claim 6 figure sums are being spent in the name of welfare, and I have no doubt that welfare is a factor (injuries to greyhounds are costly for both the owner and the business of racing) but if changes to the track have at best only a marginal impact on safety what other motive could there be for the money invested?
A clue can be found on another internet posting, again concerning the work at Sheffield: “Hopefully (it will) make the conditions fairer and remove the bias when the rain comes.”
Both the promoters and GBGB are seeking to protect and strengthen the integrity of racing. A good track surface, properly maintained, is a prerequisite for a consistent racing environment. This in turn gives the betting public the assurance that race outcomes are based solely on the dog’s ability.
It is further hoped that money being invested in ‘welfare’ will reduce the number of meetings cancelled due to bad weather that again can be very costly for the business of racing.
Injuries, Perry Barr
In a thesis published 1992 and titled The Nature and Incidence of Greyhound Racing Injuries, Agnew BP examined a record of injuries across 953 race meetings at Perry Barr (Birmingham).
Perry Barr was converted from a grass/sand track to a modern all sand facility in 1978 and data was examined from both before and after the change in the running surface was made. It is data relating to the modern facility that of course carries particular weight and the statistics make for interesting reading.
1612 injuries were recorded across 748 meetings. This was broken down as follows: shoulder, 205; carpus, 475; metacarpus, 24; forefoot, 127; hindmuscle, 227; hock, 58; metatarsus, 5; hindfoot, 144; cramp, 234; combination, 54; miscellaneous, 59.
Career ending injuries are commonly hock related and out of the 58 listed above 2 greyhounds were recorded retired and 21 were recorded destroyed. This data, however, is based solely on the immediate post race decision.
Particularly notable is the injury rate as a percentage of runners rose from 4.6 for the year prior to conversion to an all sand facility to 6.6 for the year following conversion. The percentage rate for the all sand facility does later fall (3.9 being the lowest figure) but the difference is not as great as might be expected for the change made in the track surface.
Notable also is the figures for single limb injuries as a percentage of total injuries recorded that rose from 65.2 for the grass/sand track to 81.2 for the all sand facility.
The survey at Perry Barr is one of a number of similar studies both in Britain and abroad across which there exists a lack of uniformity in the recording of information and findings. Where consistency, however, does exist is in the analysis of data and the evident correlation between numerous injuries and track configuration.
Agnew concluded that the principal causal factor for injury patterns was the “definite and set task demanded of these athletes; the racing at speed on tight anti-clockwise tracks.”
Sprinting into a bend increases effective body weight and a human will respond to this by extending the duration of contact each foot has with the ground. As a result, forces on the legs are said to remain constant.
A study, however, by Usherwood JR and Wilson AM and featured in Nature (Vol. 438), found that in greyhounds observed there was no notable change in foot contact timings when the dogs entered a tight bend. As such, forces on the limbs were calculated to increase by approximately 65%.
The use of banking will reduce horizontal loads and this in turn may see a reduction in injury rates. It has been calculated, however, that the degree of banking required to negate such forces would be so high as to generate additional hazards for the greyhounds as well proving almost impossible to maintain.
Indeed modern thinking with regard turn one is to keep the banking to a minimum so allowing the outside dogs to remain wide with the optimum level more a judgement than a science and not easy to ascertain.
At best the bends on a track can be made safer but not safe and injuries are inevitable with the site of injury frequently dictated by the direction of turn. World renowned veterinarian Alessandro Piras gives a figure of 96% for the incidence of central tarsal bone fractures occurring in the right leg.
Bergh MS, in a thesis examining this phenomenon, noted: “These fractures have been classified into five types; all of which usually contain a dorsal slab component. The cause of these fractures has not been rigorously investigated, but it is suspected that racing in a counter-clockwise direction on oval tracks produces cyclic overload of the medial compartment of the right tarsus.”
Dee JF and Dee LG further link track configuration with injury patterns: “The fact that the race is run on a circular track, in a counter-clockwise direction, exacerbates the stresses of racing. These increased stresses are substantiated by the locations of metacarpal/metatarsal injuries: they occur most frequently on the ‘rail’ side of the affected foot, specifically metacarpal V of the left foot, metacarpal II of the right foot and metatarsal III of the right foot.”
Whilst many of the injuries greyhounds sustain are linked directly with the forces generated through cornering, many of the more serious that include long bone fractures are the result of a fall and/or collision with other dogs.
The potential to lose footing when negotiating the tight bends of a track at speeds of up to 40 mph is high for a greyhound running solo. Pitch six greyhounds against each other and there are an alarming number of incidents in which greyhounds collide and fall.
A survey by Greyhound Watch covering all tracks governed by the GBGB identified turn one as the point on the track where the greatest number of incidents occurs. In January 2010 alone, 109 dogs were recorded falling/brought down in turn one against dogs not finishing/finishing at distance, with the true figure likely much higher.
The above including 4 greyhounds that fell in the opening race at Mildenhall on 15 January, 3 falling in the penultimate race at Nottingham on 05 January and 3 falling in the second race of the evening meeting at Newcastle on 23 January.
As the dogs hurtle into turn one they are reaching a higher speed and are more tightly bunched than at any other point in the race. The result can be mayhem. Further compounding the situation can be wide runners allotted an inside trap (and vice versa) and pups running with seasoned dogs.
With the pressure to fill race cards it is inevitable that on occasion greyhounds are not ideally placed as Andrew Johnston posting on Greyhound Knowledge Forum is only too aware: “I had a pup run at Newcastle… it was bowled over 3 times out of 8 races at the first bend, a totally green pup thrown in with seasoned adult racers, the poor pup got so smashed up the third time it had to be put-to-sleep.”
The track bends create also a hazard for the greyhounds on the straights as all 4 turns (that make up one full circuit) influence the conflicting lines greyhounds will run on the straights. This again can result in dogs colliding, with potentially devastating consequences.
It is impossible to give an exact annual total for injuries sustained and greyhound’s euthanased as a result of injury. Such information is being collated by the GBGB but is not being made public (against a key recommendation within a Parliamentary Group report published May 2007).
Though it has to be said the industry themselves do not have precise figures. Data compiled is based on track veterinary reports and many injuries are diagnosed only the following day (for the same reason above data recorded for Perry Barr is not complete). It has further been claimed that certain trainers who, at the time of a meeting, suspect a dog to be lame are not always having the animal checked by the vet in attendance.
What information is available, however, gives animal welfare charities and the like a good indication of scale.
Before Walthamstow closed I spoke with the racing office who stated that about 25 greyhounds were put down as a result of injury at the track over a 12 month period. Yarmouth office has given a similar figure. The number of races held at Walthamstow across one full year represented 4.7% of the total for GBGB tracks alone (figure based on the last full year of racing). The same calculation for Yarmouth in 2009 is a disturbing 3.1%.
In August this year the Swindon Advertiser reported the deaths of 4 greyhounds in as many weeks at the local track, all the result of incidents described as “in-running collisions,” and during a particularly awful spate of injuries covering a 4 week period last year at Belle Vue (Manchester), 6 greyhounds had to be destroyed.
At a single meeting on 15 January at Sittingbourne, steward’s recorded 11 greyhounds lame and one greyhound having ‘brokedown’. A further 2 finished at distance after falling. The total for greyhounds recorded lame/brokedown across January-March 2010 at the above track is 75.
It should, however, be noted that steward’s comments only hint at the scale of injuries. Perhaps a better indication of scale is the fact that at any one time a professional trainer will likely have as many as half his/her greyhounds out through injury.
From a wealth of information such as above it is very evident that the number of injuries sustained annually on British tracks is a 5 figure sum, many of which are serious and result in hundreds of greyhounds losing their lives.
The GBGB state that a quarter of a million pounds was spent in 2008 “improving the safety of tracks across the country, reducing injuries and helping to extend racing careers.” The GBGB, however, have yet to publish any evidence that injury rates long-term at any track have fallen dramatically.
And with tracks that are seeing a spate of fatalities apparently already among the safest in the country such evidence is never likely to materialise.
The Swindon racing office, in response to the recent deaths detailed above, is reported saying: “No expense is spared ensuring that we have the finest sand and fixtures on the track, plus the best track preparation, veterinary and racing teams in the business.”
The “finest” didn’t save Rackethall Kenny, Swift Abel, Wots Er Name and Daytwo, nor will the “finest” prevent thousands of greyhounds getting ‘smashed-up’ across the country every year.
Oval tracks are perhaps the most dangerous environment in which to hold greyhound racing. To members of the racing fraternity, however, they are likely the most exciting environment. Will a greyhound get round in one piece and make the winning podium or will it be the greyhound’s last race?
Trainers are undoubtedly passionate about greyhound racing but I have yet to speak to a single trainer who is passionate about greyhounds. The dogs are nothing more than a commodity - essentially a betting medium - and for that reason I do not expect the industry to ever change, fundamentally, the nature of greyhound racing in Britain.
This subject is now covered in Behind the Lights, the Tote and the Non-starters, where additional information is provided.