Kel O’Rourke can see his fingerprints everywhere he looks from his commentary box at the Canberra Greyhound Racing Club.
As O’Rourke calls Murray Darling past the white pickets at the finish line in the AGH Demolition Maiden, he is reminded of the hours he spent building those pickets in his garage.
Off to the right is are the diosmas and nandinas O’Rourke planted. Further right, as the lure speeds away and the greyhounds have nothing to chase, their tails wag as they play excitedly.
O’Rourke swings around to his left to the “hundred-foot trees,” where he was responsible for taking down the dead ones.
Long regarded as the voice of greyhound racing in the nation’s capital, O’Rourke says the Canberra Greyhound Racing Club is “almost ingrained in [his] DNA.”
Chances are if you’ve tuned into a greyhound race in Canberra, Goulburn, Bulli, Nowra or Richmond over the past 35 years, it’s been O’Rourke on the other end of the call.
But the harsh reality for O’Rourke is, come July 2017, he many never get to do it again.
“It’s shattering actually, to be honest,” O’Rourke said.
“It’s something that I never envisaged, and I guess what really gets under my skin is the fact that I don’t race the dogs, I don’t own them, I don’t train them, I don’t breed them, I very rarely bet them.
“Why should I be punished? Why should I be held accountable for the actions of a small minority of people?
“It’s been a big part of my life, it’s been a big part for 35 years and I just don’t want to see it all vanish.”
It was the McHugh Report that started the rot.
The Report stated between 48,891 and 68,448 of the 97,783 greyhounds bred in the last 12 years had been killed for being “too slow” – a wastage rate of 50 to 70%.
Further, it suggested 10 to 20% of trainers were engaged in a live baiting process dating back as far as 2009.
NSW Premier Mike Baird released Justice Michael McHugh’s Report into the Special Commission of Inquiry into greyhound racing in NSW in July.
The announced Baird’s Government will ban greyhound racing effective from 1 July 2017 was swiftly followed by ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Racing Minister Mick Gentleman posting their intentions to follow suit on social media hours later.
“The Government is concerned by the findings of the Inquiry and is investigating the implications for the ACT industry, and the impact of the closure of the industry in NSW,” a government spokesperson said while “noting that most participants in the ACT actually reside in NSW.”
“Minister Gentleman has met with representatives from the Canberra Greyhound Racing Club, who have expressed their concerns. The issue is, clearly, of significant interest not only to the participants in the ACT racing industry, but also to the community in general. The ACT Government has received significant feedback in favour of ending greyhound racing in the ACT.”
A government spokesperson said considerations of the Special Inquiry Report and the NSW program of reform are underway “ahead of the review we will be undertaking into the Memorandum of Understanding the ACT Government has with the ACT racing industry.
“This review is due in any course as the MOU is due to expire at the end of June 2017. This work will guide implementation of our decision on the future of greyhound racing.”
O’Rourke believes the live baiting figure is exaggerated, leaving the majority to be penalised for the wrongdoings of a select few.
“Further than that, the facts that were alleged facts that came out in the McHugh Report… they’ve got more bullet holes in them than a Bonnie and Clyde getaway car,” O’Rourke said.
“I’m sure if they do eventually have their day in court, they’ll rip that to shreds.”
According to Canberra Greyhound Racing Club member Shayne Hannaford, the numbers simply don’t stack up.
“We always rehome every dog that comes through our kennels unless they’re sold interstate or transferred to other trainers,” Hannaford said.
“You can identify early that those dogs are going to make good pets, and we always just make sure when they’re coming through that they’re treated like pets.”
According to Club spokesperson Kel Watt, recent reforms mean that greyhounds will be monitored “from cradle to grave” – regardless of whether they race or not. That was not the case 16 to 17 months ago, where a lack of regulations meant a lack of records were kept.
It was that loophole that allowed such a large number of greyhounds to fall under the wastage figure.
“…We had 20 dogs that we didn’t have to record that they were rehomed – no one did – but they’re part of the wastage figure,” Hannaford said.
A greyhound under the Hannaford’s ownership died from a twisted bowel – it came under the wastage figure.
Further, Watt says the names proposed for greyhounds – not the dogs themselves, but the names – all came under the wastage figure.
“If Shayne owned a dog, he might own Lightning Bolt,” Watt said as the rain continued to bucket down at the Symonston course.
“Lightning Bolt races for a couple of years, [then] it just doesn’t race anymore. You’ve still got Lightning Bolt sitting on the couch hanging out as a pet – that’s part of wastage as well.
“So you’ve got this highly inflated figure through very dodgy data collection.”
Watt says regulations now state a greyhound may only have “three litters in a lifetime… and only one every eighteen months.”
“You can’t basically have dogs pumping out dog after dog after dog,” Watt said.
“No one ever really quite knew how many dogs were being born and how many litters. So now it’s monitored, it’s regulated, and they’ve got information for the first time.
“The other thing is where a dog could be put down, hypothetically because some owner decided he didn’t want it anymore, they can’t do that.
“The vet makes the decision. It has to be done humanely.
“All this mythology, that myth was allowed to build up because there wasn’t regulation in place. But for a couple of bad eggs out there, it just wasn’t standard practice. Since the reform process started, there has been no instance of live baiting, no recorded instance of animal cruelty.”
As Hannaford’s role of controlling the lure in the third race of the day comes to a close, he and Watt pick out one of the more controversial pieces of evidence in the Report.
“There was a trainer called ‘Ernie’,” Watt said.
“That’s what I was going to bring up,” Hannaford said, bearing a wry grin of disbelief at what the words about to spill from his mouth.
“He was drowning dogs that he could tell at young age they weren’t going to make the racetrack,” Hannaford said.
“A dog’s ability, for pretty much the first 12 months of a greyhound’s life – no idea. They’re reared in a paddock like the middle of our racetrack. They’re let run around there, [and at] 12 months, they’re brought in for four weeks training and that’s when you really find out how good they are.
“But he’s discussing that he can drown a puppy, because he know they’re no good at six weeks.”
But the disbelief isn’t at what could conceivably be realistic for a bad egg. It is at the sheer unreliability of the evidence.
“Ernie could be Canadian or could be American – they still can’t quite work it out,” Watt said.
“There’s no last name attributed to him. This Ernie character, if he exists, supposedly gave evidence 11 years ago about the greyhound industry in Canada and/or the US.
“That was put forward as evidence by somebody in the inquiry who was opposed to the industry. That’s ended up as evidence that has driven the government decision.
“So you start to look at all this, and it’s so dodgy, it’s so flawed, there’s just no credibility left in it.
“The 50-70% of dogs ending up as wastage is just not true.”
Kel O’Rourke is married to the same girl he was when he started calling 35 years ago. This is the live they have known forever.
It is much the same story for many people roaming around the track. The Peck family have been in the industry for generations. Kristie and her fiancé – full-time groundskeeper Andrew – could be forced to delay their wedding because they don’t know if he will have a job next year. Lance, an independent photographer, says he won’t be able to live off his pension alone. Sandra and Graham have been streaming Canberra races for 35 years and say they are too old to start anything new.
If the ban goes ahead, O’Rourke may not get to call Murray Darling past the post again. He will have to hang up the binoculars.
The government spokesperson only wished to provide the included statement at the time.