Almost 20 years ago, when the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund was established, supporting the sports was a political no-brainer.
The creation of the fund was masterminded by then minister for finance Charlie McCreevy and minister for agriculture Joe Walsh, both of whom were fans. The former is a sometime owner of greyhounds, and the latter became chairman of Horse Sport Ireland. More importantly, the politics added up.
“They understood the value of greyhound racing to the country at large and the farmer,” recalls one industry veteran with knowledge of the negotiations underpinning the deal.
Politicians, he said, "all would have known their friends, their voters were all running around with dogs…it put money into the countryside, as opposed to Google and whatever else in Dublin 4".
The vista now facing greyhound industry is very different. Attendances at racetracks have nosedived, sponsorship money has dropped, and the Irish Greyhound Board (IGB) has endured testing times from a governance perspective.
The controversy over the mistreatment of dogs revealed by an RTÉ Investigates programme is the latest blow to a sport and an industry that has dwindled in popularity among both punters and political patrons in recent years.
The board is in damage-control mode after the loss of prominent sponsors this week, including Barry’s Tea and FBD Insurance.
Speaking to The Irish Times on mid-morning Friday, Irish Greyhound Board chief executive Gerard Dollard acknowledged that he had been having "difficult" conversations with sponsors.
“We are working with all sponsors, and we will continue in that process. As of now I’m not aware of any others contemplating exiting their support for the greyhound industry.”
Two hours later animal feed manufacturer Connolly’s Red Mills pulled its support, saying it was “horrified by the completely unacceptable acts” featured in the RTÉ documentary.
In its statement Connolly’s said “the failure of the regulatory bodies in the sector to address these unacceptable activities has led Connolly’s Red Mills to make this decision”.
Greyhound sponsorship is extremely cheap. The Barry’s Tea deal is thought to have been worth around €10,000, including prize money – FBD even less. Contributions to prize money funds by sponsors and owners amounted to only €1.75 million in 2017, compared to the €16 million it received in funding from the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund.
Even Boylesports, thought to be the biggest contributor to sponsorship, is said by industry sources to be a comparatively low sum – less than €100,000 a year. The company has expressed concern over the programme, but has not indicated that its sponsorship is under review. Given the bookmakers' obvious interest in there being a sport for punters to place bets on, perhaps that is not surprising.
The financial impact of losing sponsors is, in truth, not of fundamental importance to the Irish Greyhound Board or to the sport itself. It matters because it is a visible signal that the running repairs the sport is trying to conduct on its reputation are not working.
The Irish Greyhound Board announced a package of reforms following the broadcast of the programme focused on retirement and rehoming. It announced a second package following the withdrawal of Barry’s Tea and FBD’s sponsorship, again with an emphasis on increasing financial support to rehoming retired greyhounds. It has not been enough to keep sponsors on board.
Companies supporting the sport already faced significant opposition from a committed cohort of animal rights activists, some of whom picket organisations until they pull their sponsorship. It is clear that sponsors feel the ill will toward greyhound racing is now a danger to their brand – and politicians are also intensely concerned about such things.
Pat Deering TD, who chairs the Agriculture Committee which the Irish Greyhound Board and the Irish Coursing Club will appear before next week, agrees the issue has jumped into the public consciousness.
“There are middle-of-the-road people who are horrified and rightly so. They’re asking questions about the future of the industry, funding for the industry, and what is being done about the industry.”
He said the Irish Greyhound Board was “in a difficult space at the minute, and there’s not a huge window of opportunity to regain confidence in the industry”.
Deering is not in favour of an immediate cut to funding as it would “create a bigger problem from a welfare point of view”.
“If the money was cut straight away there would be dogs dumped on every road in the country.”
Critics say that the State funding is driving an outsized industry, subsidising the production of excess litters of pups, many of whom are destroyed.
The industry must convince the politicians who effectively hold the purse strings for greyhound racing that it is a credible custodian of animal welfare.
Dollard is insistent that animal welfare is a core priority for the board. “It is not seen as an add on,” he said, pointing out that the Irish Greyhound Board carried out 491 welfare inspections last year.
However, the Irish Greyhound Board said it does not have information on how many facilities are potentially eligible for inspection, making it hard to say how invasive that regime is.
There are 7,500 greyhound owners in the country, and around 1,500 trainers. Last year there were just two fixed payment notices served for offences under the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011, of €250 each. In 2017, three fines totalling €1,250 were issued for offences. So far this year there have been four fines.
The Irish Greyhound Board said that some alleged offences could not be prosecuted as more than 12 months had elapsed from the date they were committed. However, it seems the financial penalties for welfare offences are not viewed as significant.
Tracking of animals
Dollard accepts that “clearly improvements need to be made”, particularly around the tracking of animals. “Our systems need to be brought to the level where we can say ‘we have 5,000 dogs, this one is racing, this one is on an owner’s farm’, and so on.”
He said he was also open to an idea, first suggested by Minister of State Andrew Doyle, of ringfencing some of the €16.8 million in State funding the industry receives for welfare matters, which he argues is in the region of €2 million a year when anti-doping and other regulatory programmes are taken into account.
“A ringfencing of an element of the horse and greyhound fund would be effective, and the IGB wouldn’t have any difficulty with that.”
Dollard argued that footage of knackeries featured in the RTÉ documentary was taken at unregulated facilities. He said there was “absolutely not” knowledge at board level about such matters, but admitted that “you would hear rumours… it was like a lot of things”.
Asked if these “rumours” were ever investigated, he said the Irish Greyhound Board’s welfare team would investigate reports if they were brought to it, but said he was “not aware of any instances of illegal culling of dogs” being identified to it.
Dollard also disputed suggestions that all the 6,000 pups whose absence from official figures could not be explained were culled.
He described the figure as “a guesstimate”, and argued that the Preferred Results consultancy report commissioned by the Irish Greyhound Board, a core part of the RTÉ broadcast, “makes a number of assumptions, and I think it’s wrong to assume the 6,000 figure is culled”.
He said the board had failed to implement many of the report’s recommendations because it needed legislative reform to be introduced.
The Irish Greyhound Board is no stranger to financial controversy. Its €21 million spend on a new track in Limerick more than doubled its debts, and was later criticised by the Comptroller & Auditor General.
Its finances have been helped by the €23 million sale of the Harold’s Cross track in Dublin, but that has also been tinged with controversy after it emerged that a valuation of the site came in at between €10 million and €12 million just two months before the Department of Education paid €23 million for the site, based on an assessment by the State’s Valuation Office.
The Irish Greyhound Board directly owns or controls nine Irish tracks. However, Dollard signalled that there may be further disposals coming. The board has commissioned consultancy firm Indecon to analyse its “footprint”, and while that report will not be published until September, he indicated that track closures were likely to be examined.
“I’m not going to pre-empt the report, but there are 16 tracks for a country the size of Ireland, and given the improvements in road infrastructure that is something that has to be looked at.”
Industry figures believe that the sport will survive only by pushing through massive welfare reforms. However, the decline in support for greyhound racing will continue, according to veterans.
“It’s an old people’s game,” one suggests. “It’s going to gradually lose its appeal.”