The Star Sports English Greyhound Derby at Towcester on Saturday will, despite its name, be a thoroughly Irish affair with Droopy's Verve the 6/4 favourite taking on five other Irish dogs in greyhound racing's premier annual fixture. Eighty-five per cent of the dogs running on British greyhound tracks every year are Irish, with British trainers typically sending bitches to Ireland for breeding.
The free movement of dogs between the two islands has flourished since at least the late 1860s, when Master McGrath won the Waterloo Cup three times to become the most celebrated dog in the world. Master McGrath was commemorated with a statue in Lurgan and a monument in his home town of Dungarvan, and inspired a ballad that framed his race against an English competitor in terms of British-Irish rivalry:
As Rose and the Master they both ran along, ‘Now I wonder,’ says Rose, ‘what took you from your home; You should have stayed there in your Irish domain, And not come to gain laurels on Albion’s plain.’ ‘Well, I know,’ says McGrath, ‘we have wild heather bogs But you’ll find in old Ireland there’s good men and dogs. Lead on, bold Britannia, give none of your jaw, Stuff that up your nostrils,’ says Master McGrath.
Greyhound racing in Britain has been in decline since the 1950s, with the number of tracks falling from more than 100 to fewer than 30. Unlike horse racing, which benefits from a levy on betting, greyhound racing receives no subsidy from the bookmakers.
Live hare coursing, the sport in which Master McGrath won his laurels, is banned in Britain, but accusations of cruelty continue to pursue dog racing, which has also been damaged by scandals around doping after dogs were given cocaine to run faster. At the English Greyhound Derby lunch in London this week, its chairman, Alexander Hesketh, identified animal welfare as the greatest challenge facing the sport.
Hesketh, a hereditary peer whose seat in the House of Lords was abolished in 1999, owns Towcester race course and is on a mission to modernise greyhound racing in Britain and around the world. The owners of every dog that runs at his course must pay a fee of £200, which is matched by Towcester to create what he calls a “canine pension fund” to rehome greyhounds when their racing days are over.
Greyhound races now publish injury statistics, which show that injuries and deaths are lower than in horse racing, and Hesketh will soon launch a “Towcester standard” guaranteeing high welfare standards for animals.
Hesketh was chief whip in the Lords under John Major, but left the Conservatives in 2011 to join Ukip and has been an enthusiastic advocate for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. One of his passions is now in conflict with another, however, as Brexit threatens to complicate the free movement of dogs between Ireland and Britain.
Liam Dowling, who breeds greyhounds at Ballymac Kennels in Ballymacelligott, Co Kerry, has already seen his business suffer from the 14 per cent depreciation in sterling since the Brexit vote two years ago.
"Our kennels are only 10 minutes from Farranfore, Kerry Airport. In that sense we are 90 minutes from London. We're closer to London than Dublin for many interested buyers. But since the depreciation in Sterling, a lot less buyers are flying in to consider buying a greyhound. After the recession in 2008, our family business thought we were past all of that but the prospect of Brexit means more uncertainty," he said.
Currently, dogs travelling to Britain require a pet passport, a rabies vaccination and a health check by a vet 48 hours prior to travel with a registered transporter. That process could become more complicated and time-consuming if Britain leaves the EU without a deal or if the greyhound industry is not protected in a future trade agreement.
Gerard Dollard, chief executive of Bord na gCon, is anxious about the impact of Brexit on an industry that involves 12,000 people and generates €300 million in economic activity.
“Brexit is a game-changer for the greyhound sector,” he said. “There are thousands of jobs across rural Ireland dependent on a vibrant industry. There are no alternative export markets. As the semi-State body responsible for the commercial development of the sector, engagement has been ongoing between Bord na gCon and the Department of Agriculture. Their officials recognise the economic and social risk that potentially arises from Brexit. Like other sectors we need in as far as possible a frictionless border.”