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A working life: the greyhound trainer
I am going to put £20 on Razldazl Jayfkay to win the English Greyhound Derby because I know what he gets for breakfast. Jayfkay, a three-year-old brindle dog, eats so healthily he would put many Guardian readers to shame: he gets a potent mix of natural yogurt, Weetabix, milk, manuka honey and sardines.
His dinner – which I am honoured to carry to him in his kennel – is equally impressive: his owner Dolores Ruth has brought fine cuts of marbled sirloin beef from Ireland, ground it into mince and has mixed about 1lb of this with a soup made from liver and salmon, and biscuits. Although Ruth is staying in Essex with friends who have kennels with about 20 of their own greyhounds, she has brought an astounding range of vitamins and conditioners, taking up most of one shelf in the dogs’ food room.
“I feed them the best of everything,” Ruth says. I can believe it: the dog looks fantastically healthy. His fur is soft and shiny, his eyes bright, his teeth – which get brushed every day – are whiter than the average X Factor contestant. His muscles are defined and there isn’t a scrap of fat on him.
He is also clearly in love with Ruth. She sits on the low bed, lined with golden straw with him and he nestles up to her, licking her face and proffering his paw.
A lot of controversy surrounds greyhound racing. The media have carried numerous reports of abuse of and cruelty to greyhounds over the years, but the Retired Greyhound Trust, which rehomed more that 4,000 dogs last year, says the treatment of greyhounds has improved a lot in the last few years. The RSPCA is less sanguine: “Every year at least 10,000 greyhounds are retired from racing. The fate of many is unknown and many simply ‘disappear’. Welfare issues can occur at any life stage, so we believe that all aspects of the industry, from breeding to kennelling, racing, transportation, management and retirement need to be regulated. We want to see greyhounds protected from cradle to grave.”
Cruelty undoubtedly happens in some kennels, but, as Ruth’s track record proves, trainers have far greater success by treating their animals well. She won the English Greyhound Derby – also known as the Williamhill.com Greyhound Derby – in 1996 with Shanless Slippy, and the Irish Derby twice, with Razldazl Billy in 2006 and with Razldazl George in 2011.
This is no mean feat. These races are the top greyhound competitions in their respective countries: the winner of this year’s English Derby will gallop away with a cool £125,000. Dogs she trains also won several other prestigious races last year, including the Easter Cup, the Hegarty 600 and the Irish Laurels, and these wins, together with revenue raised from breeding puppies and training fees, clocked up an annual income of about £250,000.
Ruth is part of a greyhound racing dynasty. Her dad was a trainer, her brother James, who has five dogs in training, is over with her for the English Derby, and her brother-in-law is dual Derby-winning Irish trainer Matt O’Donnell. “When I was young that was all I wanted to do, to be involved with the dogs,” she says.
She persuaded her father to let her leave school at 16 to start training, “to take up the passion”, as she puts it. She set up her own kennels at the age of 22 in County Kildare and just five years later won her first Derby.
Some 20 years on, she trains just 11 dogs – her own and those belonging to family and friends. “I’ve always believed in quality, not quantity – that’s the key to a champion. I’ve been successful for a reason.”
Her techniques are clearly respected by those who understand greyhound racing. When the Irish Greyhound Board decided to buy the RTE sports broadcaster and all-round national hero Micheal O’Muircheartaigh a greyhound to celebrate his retirement, he chose Ruth to be his trainer.
Her day starts at 8am, which she admits is quite late for most trainers. The dogs are “paddocked” – taken for a pee and poo – and the kennels cleaned out. After breakfast, the dogs are walked (they don’t need to go for four-mile hikes says Ruth, “but they do love to go out into a field to do doggy things”), groomed, have their feet washed, teeth brushed and are checked for injuries.
Some dogs may get special attention at this point – ultrasound, laser treatments or massages if they have a sore back, cuts or bone injuries. Some of the dogs go on a treadmill (no doubt listening to Who Let the Dogs Out? or You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog). Ruth used to have a swimming pool for training, but says she has found other techniques get better results.
After this, any dogs that are not racing that week are galloped – run along a special track to build up their strength and fitness. Young dogs – known as saplings – start by running 250m after a lure with a “hand slip” start: Ruth holds and releases the dogs, rather than putting them into a trap.
The distance is gradually built up to the standard 480m run at the racetracks. Getting the dogs to chase the lure is not an issue: “They chase anything that moves,” says Ruth.
Afternoons are taken up with trips to the vet, dealing with emails, filling in entries for races and at least once a week going to the races. Dinner, the main meal of the day, is served at 4pm, although a light meal is given at 3pm to dogs that are racing that evening.
“I mostly race just once a week, every Saturday,” she says. “It’s sociable in that you talk to other trainers and have a bit of a crack.” On normal days she will finish by paddocking the dogs at about 9pm, but if she is racing, she will be lucky to be home by midnight.
Ruth lives near Shelbourne Park, “one of the greatest tracks in the world”, says Ruth. “It’s a very fair running track. Some are tighter but those don’t suit my dogs because they are pacey dogs rather than sprinters – they have longer strides.”
She usually sets off for the racetrack at 6pm. “The dogs love travelling because they know they are going racing,” says Ruth. They travel in a specially adapted van, with two large cages at the rear and one dog in the space in front of them, all lying on beds of straw. Underneath the cages are two large drawers filled with rugs, muzzles, leads – all the paraphernalia they might need at the races.
The dogs must be weighed in by 7pm and kennelled, then Ruth eats her own supper – usually chicken, brown bread, and a big slice of apple or rhubarb tart, washed down with a flask of tea. She takes her dinner with her, because “if you go over to the restaurant, it’s a rush”. Once the dogs have been kennelled trainers are not allowed near them until just before the race.
Ruth also breeds puppies, with good quality ones raising between £4,000 and £5,000. Her previous brood bitch, Pearl, won the Puppy Oaks – another greyhound classic. But she is eight now and has retired to a life indoors with Ruth and another retired greyhound called William.
The next time I see Ruth is at Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. She is running three dogs – Razldazl Bugatti, Razldazl Rioga and the hot contender Razldazl Jayfkay – in the first round heats of the Williamhill.com Greyhound Derby.
We go down to the kennel, the room where the greyhounds are being muzzled and rugged up ready for their races. The last time I saw Jayfkay he was eating his supper after a calm walk around a field. Now he is clearly excited, tugging the slight figure of Ruth around the room. Although she says her dogs are average size, at between 70lbs and 78lbs, they are built of solid muscle and very powerful.
Most greyhound trainers are men, and although there are more women training in England than in Ireland, she jokes in a slight American accent: “This is a man’s world. But there ain’t nothing a woman can’t do.”
Ruth chats with fellow competitors, and beams in our direction when she sees us standing in the doorway – the furthest we are allowed in. While the other dogs just have one rug over their racing jackets, Ruth’s have a cosy fleece underneath. They really are treated like canine superstars.
It’s time for the race. We stand behind the traps and watch the dogs being shut in: some are a bit reluctant and have to be lifted, but Jayfkay walks straight in. The trainers all move away from the side of the track – the last thing they want is for their dog to catch sight of them and decide they look more interesting than the lure. But we stay by the traps and watch as the dogs spring into action – a blur of fur and jackets chasing a dayglo hare.
Jayfkay immediately takes the lead by several lengths. Having watched the previous races, we have learned that unless something goes seriously wrong, like a collision, the dog that leads from the start is often leading at the finish.
Jayfkay is no exception – he streaks past the finishing post and then carries on round the track to where Ruth is waiting for him on the other side. As he pulls up, his tail is wagging furiously.
Dolores loves horses, and has a 16.1hh Belgian Warmblood called Razldazl Magic at livery with the former Olympic showjumper Jack Doyle. She says: “I ride about five times a week, jumping around 1m 20cm. I got into it late – it’s a great release.” Dolores takes retired dogs Pearl and William for regular trips to McDonald’s, where their favourite fix is a cheeseburger with no gherkin. No fries, “too much salt”. ‘Razldazl’ was inspired by the song Razzle Dazzle in the musical Chicago. Dolores loves travelling and reading travel writers like Paul Theroux.
Salary Training fees vary from £50 to £80 a week per dog. Ruth charges €100 a week, but her earnings are boosted by race winnings. Winning trainers get 10% of the owners’ prize. Some are also paid to race regularly at a particular stadium, for which they get payments.
Hours 8am-5.30pm most days, with paddocking at 9pm. Race days finish around midnight.
Work life balance Ruth is supported by her partner and family in looking after the dogs, and has an arrangement with another trainer to look after each other’s kennels when they go on holiday.
Best thing To breed a greyhound and see it go on to win the Derby.
Worst thing “When I lost my Derby winner Billy. He had retired and was running around when he just dropped dead of a heart attack. He was four and a half years old.”
Last night, we asked you to guess what the most popular video on our Youtube channel was this year. It wasn’t a video from this year, or last year, but a 2011 visit to Dolores Ruth Kennels! It was fresh from her Derby win with Razldazl George, if you’ve yet to see it it’s available onhttp://bit.ly/JhmWXL. From our 2013 uploads Heats 1-10 of the 1st Round of the ETS Irish Greyhound Derby was our most popular, and you can check that out onhttp://bit.ly/18F6oSp. Congrats to Viara and Conor, who were picked as our winners!