The English Greyhound Derby is as much a part of the Rees family history as it is a part of greyhound racing’s history. With two generations of Rees trainers having won the Derby, in 1976 and 1985 respectively, this year’s competition sees a third member of the family vie for the title in the form of Richard Rees with SOUTHWOOD JET.
As we approached last weekend’s semi-finals, Richard’s son and twenty-year-old kennelhand Charlie Rees tells us what it’s like to care for a Derby dog and what it would mean for his family to be crowned Derby winners for a third time.
“With my family’s background in greyhound racing, I’ve been around the dogs for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until recently that I properly got involved as a kennelhand. About a year ago, I went to a race at Hove with one of my friends and instantly I realised what I was missing out on – I definitely caught the bug. So, the next day, I asked my mum if I could take a job at our kennels and haven’t looked back since.
Caring for a Derby dog is no different than caring for an A10 dog. They all need to be fed well, go on regular walks and be given all the love and attention they could want. Some people have the misconception that racing dogs are locked in the kennels all day but that couldn’t be further from the truth – they’re always out and about seeing things and getting regular exercise. We really take the time to make sure they’re kept interested and entertained.
Jet is the first dog that I’ve really worked closely with. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling on my own with him from our kennels in Surrey to Nottingham so I’ve definitely got an attachment to him from doing that. To be honest, I don’t feel too much pressure with this year’s Derby, although I know it is the top prize! Ever since I started working as a kennelhand, I’ve wanted nothing more than to have a dog good enough to reach the Derby final, but I have mainly just wanted to enjoy the experience. Rather than getting too nervous, we’ve just been trying to take each week as it comes.
Jet is a very laid-back dog and quite honestly a dream to work with. On race days, most dogs know they’re going racing as soon as they’re weighed in the morning and start getting excited, but Jet’s so relaxed that he goes back to sleep! For our drives up to Nottingham, we’ve been getting all his duvets ready and putting him in the car at about 2pm and he falls asleep within minutes. When we stop at the services so that he can stretch his legs and go to the toilet, he climbs back in the car and, again, goes straight to sleep!
But when we get to Nottingham and park up, it’s like he knows exactly where he is. He starts wagging his tail as soon as he leaves the car and pulls me towards the stadium gates. We knew that he could run pretty much any track and he took to Nottingham fairly quickly. Being the railer that he is, we were worried at first that he might struggle, but he was perfect – he gains probably four or five lengths just in the way he runs the track.
After working with Trap 5 in the quarter finals, Jet’s in Trap 1 for this weekend’s semi-final which is the box he wants. Some people have been saying that the dogs don’t break from Trap 1 as well but the thing with Jet is that he’s not a natural trapper anyway – he relies more on his pace up to the bend so hopefully he won’t have too much of an issue. If he starts like he has been in the first few rounds and turns in a nice position at the first bend, then we should be okay.
We see all the dogs in the semi-finals as competition for Jet. If you’ve got to a Derby semi-final, chances are you deserve to be going through to the final. With that being said, every dog has its own qualities that it brings to each race. Obviously, the ones to look out for are the fast starters like Pat Buckley’s two – DEERJET SYDNEY and KNOCKNABOUL SYD. We’ve got KNOCKNABOUL SYD in our semi so hopefully Jet won’t be too far off him at the bend. I’ll be the happiest man in Nottingham if he ends up crossing the line in third!
To people following the Derby who might be looking to get more involved in the sport or become a kennelhand, I would say be prepared for the long hours. You’ve really got to be committed to the sport – sometimes that means missing out on plans on a Friday or Saturday night because you’ve got work to do or you’re racing the next morning. But as long as you’re happy to do that and you’re dedicated to the dogs then you’ll love it.
I really do think that the sport has potential to keep getting better and, if all goes well, I hope to have a long future in it. I think to attract the next generation of supporters, we need more young people to promote the sport on social media and their involvement in it. A lot of trainers are already doing great work on Twitter – they’re helping to break down people’s assumptions about greyhound racing by showing how fantastic and welfare-driven it really is.
Winning the Derby with Jet would be a dream come true. For his owner, Jeremy, it would mean everything – he’s put so much into the sport and into our kennel and really deserves the win. For my dad, a Derby win would be making history. But, ultimately, we just want to be a part of the final – Jet deserves to be there with the way that he’s run so far and it would be a shame if he didn’t get the chance to show what he can do. We just need those last bits of luck to carry us through this weekend!”