Sunday 19 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Dogs in distress as Limerick white elephant casts long shadow over the post-Tiger era

Hold The Back Page

Harold's Cross Greyhound Stadium. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Harold's Cross Greyhound Stadium. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Eamonn Sweeney

The announcement by the Irish Greyhound Board of the closure and planned sale of the stadium in Harold's Cross has provoked an angry response. The Dublin Greyhound Owners and Breeders' Association's planned picket of Shelbourne Park prompted the IGB to cancel not just race meetings at the stadium but the annual Irish Greyhound Awards. DGOBA secretary Mick O'Keefe accused the IGB of "seeking to destroy a deeply-valued part of Dublin life".

Acting board CEO Dr Sean Brady describes the proposed sale as "unavoidable" and "absolutely essential", and a 2014 government-commissioned report on the industry did recommend that Harold's Cross be sold to help the IGB get out of debt. But Harold's Cross is paying the price for the board's past mistakes. The anger felt by many has to do not just with the closure but with the fact that it comes after an utterly disastrous decade for the sport.

The saddest thing is that the previous decade was a golden era for greyhound racing in the same way that the '80s was for Irish basketball.

In 2005 the sport was enjoying its highest attendance figures since the late '70s. In 1995 the total attendance had been just 580,000, by 2005 it was 1.39 million. That decade saw betting revenue increase by almost 500 per cent and prize money increase eleven-fold. Greyhound racing had apparently managed to reinvent itself for a new Ireland. The corporate trip to the dogs was a signal outing of the Tiger era. The opening of a magnificent new stadium in Cork summed up the bullish mood of renewed confidence.

Little over a decade later it is as though all the progress made in those years has been set at naught. By 2014 attendance had fallen to 644,000, and betting on the tote - which at its height challenged that of horse racing - had fallen from €51m to €11m. To make matters worse, the IGB found itself saddled with debt as a plan to repeat the success of Cork by building a new stadium in Limerick misfired. There were cost over-runs on the project and its eventual cost of €21m bears a striking resemblance to the board's current debt of €20.3m.

The board had expected Limerick to be a success, earning 85 per cent of the profits realised in Cork. Instead it has been a loss-making enterprise and a millstone around the sport's neck. The decision to build it was greyhound racing's equivalent of the bank guarantee. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General found that the board hadn't done their homework properly when deciding to build the new stadium in Limerick. What must surely rankle with Dublin greyhound people is that Harold's Cross does turn a profit but will be sacrificed to pay for the failings of the white elephant beside the Shannon.

Greyhound racing undoubtedly suffered because of the crash but has been unable to recover ground in the same way that horse racing has done. Chairman during the boom years, Paschal Taggart, stepped down in 2006 after a Government report criticised the board's firing of CEO Aidan Tynan, who had been unhappy with what he felt was the IGB's lenient attitude towards doping offences. It was an unsavoury affair but Taggart's dynamism has been a loss to the sport.

The impression of a sport in crisis isn't just confined to the attendance figures. Doping continues to be a problem. The Morris Report, commissioned by the IGB itself, found "significant deficiencies in Irish anti-doping and medication control policies. It found the national greyhound laboratory doesn't have the facilities to detect important medications and doping agents at the levels required for effective anti-doping and medication control". A series of critical reports on RTE Radio 1's Drivetime led to more unwelcome headlines. In December CEO Geraldine Larkin resigned. The Harold's Cross closure put the tin hat on another annus horribilis.

Greyhound racing deserves better. It is, after all, not just a sport but an industry which in 2010 was estimated to employ over 10,000 people. Though that figure may have dropped since then the current parlous state of the game is more than just a sporting problem.

There is nothing inevitable about greyhound racing's decline. Things were this bad 20 years ago when, interestingly enough, it was also proposed to sell Harold's Cross before the minister responsible, Jimmy Deenihan, forced a U-turn. The current minister, Andrew Doyle, describes the sport as "part of the fabric of the Irish sporting scene", which "provides significant public good, both as a social outlet and as a provider of vital employment, especially in rural areas".

These are fine words, but greyhound racing needs the politicians to show some leadership as well. A decade of drift has left this great sport in dire straits. Another 10 years like this might finish it off altogether.

The Last Word

The essential problem with any Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight is that, if it's boxing, McGregor hasn't a hope - and if it's MMA, Mayweather is similarly disadvantaged. McGregor partisans might come out with the 'Conor is such a great athlete, he'll be able to take on Mayweather at boxing' line, but that's bullshit - pure and simple. He got beaten by Nate Diaz in his own sport last year, he's hardly going to defeat one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport.

So given that it's going to be virtually impossible to devise any format which gives both fighters a chance, if the fight takes place it will have more to do with publicity than sport. There have been comparisons with the ill-fated bout Muhammad Ali once fought against Antonio Inoki, but you know what Mayweather-McGregor would be really like? One of those imaginary contests which fascinate primary school kids. Would a polar bear beat a lion? Who'd win between a crocodile and a shark? These are incredibly interesting questions.

If you're nine years old.

* * * * *

You know what really would be an incredible contest? Douvan versus Altior. The former has now won 11 races by an average of 12-and-a-half lengths and is currently 1/3 favourite for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Willie Mullins' horse has never been extended and seemed like the kind of wonder horse who comes along once in a generation. Until last Saturday at Newbury.

Nicky Henderson's Altior suggested that, in this case, lightning has struck twice in close proximity when he won the Betfair Exchange Chase by 13 lengths over Champion Chase second-favourite Fox Norton. Since winning last year's Supreme Novices hurdle by seven lengths, Altior has won four chases by an average of 25 lengths.

He's currently 2/7 to succeed Douvan as winner of the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham next month. We will probably have to wait until next season to see a clash between this extraordinary pair - but, when it happens, a proper clash of the titans lies in store.

* * * * *

At Down Royal last week, the beautifully-named Honest Robber struck a blow for those who believe it's never too late to set out on a new career when winning the St Patrick's Punter Pack Handicap Chase for trainer John 'Shark' Hanlon. Because, while the winner is 12 years old, he only made his debut last July - and this was his first victory. Honest Robber had been 20/1 the morning of the race before being backed in to 8/1, so it's a heartwarming story all round.

On board was Rachael Blackmore, who completed a 53/1 double on the day for Hanlon. Blackmore has 23 wins this season. Given that horse racing is one of very few sports where women compete directly against men, the achievements of such riders as Blackmore, Nina Carberry and up-and-coming English star Lizzie Kelly, who won a memorable double at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, deserve a bit more recognition.

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