goes to dogs as critics hound sport
- Ireland is going to the dogs - greyhound racing, that is
- in record numbers but critics say the sport epitomises cruelty
to animals and want it shut down. Greyhound racing was long
seen as poor man's horse racing, but flash new facilities
such as Dublin's refurbished Shelbourne Park, replete with
bars and restaurants, plus a renovated track in the southern
city of Waterford which opened with pomp and ceremony last
weekend, have made it one of the most popular sports in the
country. "We were going to go to horse racing but we thought,
'Well, no, let's go see the dogs'," said Tracey Ford, taking
in a night at Shelbourne with friends. "It's a bit different."
With some 90 million euros spent in recent years upgrading
Ireland's 17 venues, the tracks drew more than one million
people last year - a quarter of Ireland's population. Punters
wagered some 100 million euros, about half the amount wagered
on horses. "Greyhound racing is very exciting and it's fast
and furious and it suits the modern mentality," Paschal Taggart,
chairman of the Irish Greyhound Board, said, announcing annual
results which showed attendance had risen 16 percent in 2002.
The average age of those attending has fallen sharply from
what Taggart called the "cloth-cap crowd" to a predominantly
youthful, 21-to-35 age group, lured for an evening of "quick
bets, plenty of drink and plenty of food". He said the boom
coincided with a marketing campaign that began in 1996, pitching
greyhound racing as "a night out with a difference". The board
also has recently begun transmitting Irish races to the United
States, where they are shown in casinos and other betting
venues, and hopes to expand to other countries.
is no denying the appeal of the sport, in which the oddly
graceful yet ungainly dogs, with their barrel chests and spindly
hindquarters, run at lightning speeds in pursuit of a mechanical
rabbit which tears around the perimeter of the track. Greyhounds
run the average distance of 480 metres in about 30 seconds,
a speed of 56 kph. Trainers and breeders, many of them small
operators who have only a handful of dogs which they raise
or train at home, say it makes a good hobby and an increasingly
lucrative one. "I started off walking the dogs when I was
12 and getting a few bob and of course it gets into your blood
and here I am at 60 years of age," said Michael Kearney, a
trainer from Navan, County Meath. His greyhound fixation earns
more than a few bob - a slang word for the old shillings -
for Kearney, one of whose dogs won the derby at Shelbourne
last year, netting him prize money of 150,000 euros, tax free.
He can charge 900 euros for a stud to service a bitch, while
bitches with the right pedigree can fetch up to 30,000 euros.
The top dogs in Ireland fetch 100,000 euros, experts say.
"Ireland is the home of breeding, the home of horsebreeding
too," Kearney said. But not everyone is enamoured of greyhound
racing, or of the breeding and training industry that has
grown up around it.
our point of view it is all bad because the main point is
if an animal is bred just for one purpose, once that purpose
ends it's disposable," said Bernie Wright, director of Dog
Rescue, a service that tries to find homes for ex-racing dogs.
With 22,000 greyhound pups registered in Ireland every year,
and probably thousands more than that whelped, it is impossible
to find homes for all once they have lived their average racing
life in Ireland of about three years, Wright said. "I can
only place 20 or 30 of them," she said. Some were exported
to Asia, where they might wind up as dog meat, while others
were shipped to Spain, where racing conditions were particularly
cruel, she said. The U.K.-based public interest group Greyhound
Action International estimates that globally "tens of thousands
of dogs are disposed of every year by the greyhound racing
industry, either because they fail to make the grade as racers
or because their racing days are over". "These dogs are bred
to die," Wright said. "Ireland has created a glut of greyhounds
and other countries are being left to mop up the problem."
"Ireland is a drastic place for animals," she added. Taggart
acknowledged that there was no way to find homes for all the
dogs but said the board were concerned about the issue. It
contributed two percent of prize money to an animal welfare
fund and encouraged owners to do likewise. He said he had
lobbied hard for owners to stop shipping retired animals to
Spain but added, "We can't ban it, obviously". Tony Gregory,
an independent member of the Irish parliament, said he had
raised the issue of banning exports of Irish dogs to Spain
in the legislature, to no avail. "Unfortunately in Ireland
animal rights doesn't seem to rank very highly and I think
governments and the establishment generally would be quite
happy if it was all swept under the carpet," he said.
they are in their prime, the industry says the dogs are so
valuable that they often are fed as well as or better than
humans. In the morning the dogs get tea with their feed and
in the evening they get at least half a kilo of meat. But
at the tracks, the interest is not in animal rights or how
much the animals are worth. It is all about betting. "They
could be watching kangaroos running around, maybe," Taggart
said, acknowledging that for most people at the tracks, betting
was the thing. "It's a betting thing is right, it sure is,"
said Shelbourne veteran Sean Kenny, 65, a retired milk delivery
man. "Last night I made 1,400 euros but I'm losing 800 tonight
so far. "I tell you one thing, if you put the wins on one
page and your losses on the other for a year you're going
to come out losing, there is no doubt about that. "That's
why the bookies are there the six nights a week but we punters
have to miss an odd night or two."