Greyhound racing evolved from the ancient sport of coursing, where dogs (two at a time) chased hares across fields. Coursing developed in New Zealand when hares, imported for hunting in the 1860s, became pests. Coursing clubs soon sprang up, mainly in the south of the South Island and around Auckland.
Coursing continued until 1954, when it was banned on grounds of animal cruelty. However, before then, some clubs had begun using fenced tracks and artificial lures.
Even after modern greyhound racing became the norm, clubs were hampered by the refusal of authorities to allow totalisator betting on their races. Repeated petitions were turned down and there was vigorous opposition from the horse-racing codes to full licences being granted.
Clubs experimented with different types of artificial lures. The first public exhibition of ‘drag lure’ racing (using a rabbit skin attached to a line, operated by hand) was held in 1934 at Auckland’s Western Springs. More satisfactory was the ‘Hannan hare’, invented by coursing enthusiast Jack Hannan about a decade later. Known as a ‘tin hare’, it used a metal arm projecting from a rail around an oval course, and was powered by an electric engine. It was first used in Christchurch in 1948, and variations on the design were adopted by other clubs. More sophisticated versions on the same principle are still used today.
National organisations and personalities
The National Coursing Association, formed in 1908, became the New Zealand Greyhound Racing Association in 1954. Since 2009 it has been called Greyhound Racing New Zealand. Gordon Kingston was a leading administrator from the 1950s until the 2000s, after starting as a trainer. One of the first professional trainers was Ray Adcock – the only human in Greyhound Racing’s Hall of Fame.
A royal visit in 1970 boosted greyhound racing’s status – it had previously had a poor public image. The Duke of Edinburgh, a keen follower of the sport, accepted the offer of a dog to race in New Zealand in his name. In return, he presented a trophy known as the Silver Collar, to be contested annually. The inaugural race at Kumeū in 1971 was attended by the governor-general and other dignitaries. In 2012 its stake money of $75,000 was exceeded only by the New Zealand Cup, and it had Group 1 status.
The noble greyhound
Greyhounds are a much more ancient breed than thoroughbred or standardbred horses. They were revered by the Pharaohs and depicted in Grecian art. In medieval Britain, killing a greyhound incurred a penalty of death. Then as now, greyhounds were prized for their speed (up to 65 kilometres per hour), agility, intelligence and strong hunting instinct. Although they wear muzzles while racing, greyhounds are not naturally aggressive – in fact they are renowned for being docile, somewhat lazy pets once retired.
In 1971 permission was given for a limited form of official betting. However, new facilities were needed, and money was scarce, so it was not until 1978 that on-course totalisators were established. The breakthrough came in 1981, when finally greyhound clubs gained full access to off-course betting through the TAB, and the much bigger audience that provided.
Since 1981 numbers of racing dogs have increased along with race-day allocations and events. Because most dog races take less than 30 seconds to complete, they lend themselves to television coverage between horse races, which further increases their exposure.
In 2012, 11 clubs raced on seven tracks, of which two – Manukau and Wanganui – were purpose-built for dogs. The other tracks shared facilities with harness racing, and Ascot Park, Invercargill, hosted gallops as well. Greyhound tracks are smaller than horse tracks (440–600 metres), and have a sand-based ‘all-weather’ surface, developed to provide cushioning for dogs’ feet. Until 1997 greyhounds raced on grass, but that surface cannot stand up to the frequent racing of the 2000s.
A weighty matter
Every racing greyhound has a weight record, which must be produced and kept up to date before it can start. All dogs are weighed before each race. If a dog’s weight varies by more than 1.5 kilograms from its last race start, the trainer may be fined, or the dog disallowed from starting. The reason is that a racing dog’s weight is an indicator of its fitness and therefore its chance of winning. All dogs’ weights must be available to the betting public on the day.
The quality and speed of greyhounds has improved with judicious imports from Australia. About 200 of the 2,000 greyhounds racing in 2012 are from Australia, but many more have Australian heritage. Many owners train their own dogs, but there are also large, professionally run kennels. The most prominent is the Dunsandel establishment of John McInerney. He has won the premiership 14 times, the first two in partnership with Ray Adcock.
In 2011 two Australian-bred dogs, Little Mother and Swift Fantasy, had achieved high earnings. However, locally bred Misty Anna was generally regarded as the best greyhound to race in New Zealand.
Events and prizes
Greyhound racing is a minor sport compared with horse racing. Betting turnover is roughly half of that of harness racing, which in turn is about half of that of galloping. Costs of breeding and racing greyhounds are substantially lower than for horses, and prize money is correspondingly smaller. Of the 4,200-odd races held annually, only 11 carry the exclusive Group 1 status. The $100,000 New Zealand Cup, run at Addington, is the richest. The oldest is the Waterloo Cup, worth $20,000. Another 16 races carry five-figure prize money.