This post originally appeared on VICE Australia
In February the ABC current affairs show, Four Corners, ran an investigation into greyhound trainers using live baits to "give their dogs a competitive edge." Secretly filmed at tracks in Queensland and Victoria in Australia, footage showed trainers using live piglets, possums, and rabbits to lure dogs around the track. In one particularly affecting scene, a possum was zipped around the track until it was only attached to the lure by its spinal cord. The trainers were laughing because it was still alive.
Repercussions were swift. The NSW government sacked the entire state racing board, while dozens of trainers were suspended and fined across the country. Right now, there's probably no sport in Australia with less social standing than greyhound racing.
To see how the dogs and fans were fairing amidst the scandal, I headed to Melbourne's Sandown Park. I didn't know it prior to my visit, but Sandown Park is one of the premier tracks in the world. Not that you could tell. When I arrived, the place was dead. The crowd of around 35 people, mostly retirement-age men, spent the evening in the restaurant-bar, placing bets and watching the races on giant TVs. The races took place every 20 minutes so there was plenty of time to chat.
I found Ian inside, biding his time until his dog ran in the final race. He explained that he'd been training dogs for more than 30 years. "I was already a fan of the sport before I got dogs," he said. "I used to come here on a Thursday night to gamble. I'd come and lose me wages every week. It's the winning and losing I find exciting."
Ian denied knowing that live baiting was taking place before the scandal broke. "But now it's put a bad image on it for everybody, it's tarred everybody with the same brush. And you've got to resent those trainers doing it because they've got an edge." He paused a moment and then doubled back to explain that live baiting doesn't necessarily create a competitive edge. "Some dogs just chase better than others," he said.
Peter sat in the grandstand watching the dogs taking turns to sniff around and piss on the shrubs. "See that dog there?" He asked me, pointing to a buff little white dog with a brown head. "That's Fernando Bale. That's currently the best dog in the world."
A trumpet sounded and the dogs were led into their boxes and the lights in the stands dimmed. Suddenly the lure came flying around the track and the race was on. Within seconds, Fernando Bale had stormed out in front. "Just watch the power of those dogs," bellowed peter. "See the power? It's unbelievable."
Before I had a chance to process what I was seeing, the race was over. Fernando Bale had stormed the competition to clinch the win. "You'd probably think that was the same as any other race," said Peter, calming himself down. "But he's just broken 29 seconds and that's only the second time a dog's ever broken 29 seconds. 28.98—that's 0.2 seconds off the track record." Despite Fernando Bale's near-record breaking win, nobody in the crowd was cheering or even seemed interested. Most just continued to stare glumly at the screens.
"This is only half the crowd that was here three or four months ago," said Peter. "The baiting scandal has rocked the sport, there's no debate about that. A lot of the top trainers and people involved in the sport have gone because they've been chucked out."
Alf said he'd been coming to the greyhounds nearly every week for the past two years. "The excitement is about the betting," he explained. "I like outsiders, ruffies. You get a buzz if you can pick a ruffy and they win." I mentioned that the last dog to win was Fernando Bale, the favorite, and Alf explained this was why he hadn't bet on him. "The return just wasn't good enough."
To some extent this might have explained why no one cared when Fernando nearly broke the record. Unlike horse racing, where even the favorite produces reasonable returns, the odds on dog racing are much shorter. To make money on dogs, you've basically got to pick an outsider.
"I heard about live baiting happening 40 years ago," said Alf. "I thought it'd all died out though. Using animals as live bait is absolutely disgusting. A dog has a tendency to chase a rag and it tries really hard. I don't think it's damaged the sport though, not for the hardened race fan."
Dennis told me he'd been coming to the races for a few years. He wasn't interested in betting he said, but was drawn to the sport for his love of greyhounds. "It's like the Olympic games," he said. "The excitement's great—watching a field of athletes at the top of their chosen sport compete and win. It's the same for us who love dogs."
Like all the guys I'd spoken to, Dennis reluctantly addressed live baiting, but admitted he knew it went on. "I'd heard rumors of live baiting," he said. "If you keep your ears open, you'll hear snippets of conversation that you're not supposed to hear. But I think it's naïve to think that nothing bad happens in sport when there's money involved."
As the general silence of the place settled on us again, he was keen to bring the subject back to athleticism. "One of the dogs nearly ran a record tonight," he said, beaming. "That's magnificent to see. Tonight was a good night to be at the races."
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