The Star Sports and ARC Greyhound Derby 2020 has been an event like no other, following the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year. At times, it wasn’t clear whether there would be a Derby at all. But, with a few months’ delay and a shortening of the usual six rounds to five, the competition has once again showcased some outstanding racing. 

On the eve of the 2020 final, we caught up with Nottingham Greyhound Stadium’s management about what it has been like getting to this stage. For General Manager David Evans, this year’s events have presented a whole range of additional challenges to keep the stadium ‘Covid-Secure’ in line with the government guidance. 

Explaining the set-up for the final, David said:

“Last year we had around 3,000 spectators in attendance for the final; this year there will be just 100 people in the restaurant, which is more equivalent to a Monday night at any other time of the year! But it’s essential we have everything we need to in place to make it a safe, secure environment for everyone and that has taken significant planning in its own right. It’s great to know that so many of the sport and its fans have been watching on TV and online throughout as well.

As you can imagine, we have been in constant conversation with the council throughout the competition to ensure they are confident in our Covid-Secure preparations. Like any good business, we have had to be on the ball for each change in the local government restrictions and adapt appropriately. We have worked hard to put on a fantastic Derby but likewise the health and safety of our staff, visitors and local community is paramount. 

One of the most dramatic changes we made was to completely zone off the racetrack from our hospitality areas to support with social distancing measures. It has meant that we have had to think about it almost like we are running two separate businesses. Nathan has been outside in our ‘green’ track zone managing the situation trackside, while I’ve been inside in our ‘yellow’ hospitality area. Those few nights when we did have rain, I don’t think he was best pleased to be out in it!

As we are now a Tier 3 area, measures at the stadium are even stricter. Spectators will only be allowed in our restaurant area and tables will only be for single households or support bubbles. We have been stringently following all the regulations for our restaurant, which has included pre-bookings only, temperature checks and making sure all our guests use the NHS Test and Trace app. We have installed perspex screens between our tables but luckily that hasn’t put our visitors off enjoying their racing!

Although it will be a different experience this year, we are so pleased that the owners can be there to experience their greyhound’s Derby final and we are doing all we can to make the evening special for them. The feedback from guests throughout has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s great for our team to know how much the extra effort has been appreciated – people have commented on how safe everything feels here. And, whilst it may be a Derby without a crowd, the restrictions haven’t detracted from the happiness on people’s faces when their dog crosses the line first – enjoying a moment like that really takes your mind off all the worries and it has been a joy to oversee.

Our team and sponsors have really pulled out all the stops to make the final evening as special as we can. It may not be the Derby final they imagined but we are thrilled we have got here. Ben Keith and Star Sports really have stuck with us throughout our Derby 2.0 (as we like to think of it) and have helped us with all sorts of logistical considerations. Likewise, ARC have been incredibly supportive and have put significant investment into all the additional safety measures and equipment we’ve needed this year to keep everyone safe. I cannot thank our sponsors enough for what they have done.

Most importantly, I want to thank the owners and trainers who have been a part of the competition from the first round. Without them, their hard work and their contribution to our sport we would not have a Derby at all. We’ll be missing the roar of the crowd this year but I hope everyone enjoys the excitement – wherever they’re watching this year.”

And leading the racing side of things, Nottingham’s Racing Operations Manager, Nathan Corden added:

“I think it’s fair to say we’ve got a fantastic line up of finalists. All I want for tomorrow is that we get a cleanly-run race and that the rain gods are on our side. Everyone just wants to see top quality racing and, all being well, that’s exactly what we can expect with the greyhounds in this year’s final.

Organising a Derby is a lot harder than most people would probably imagine. You’re dealing with a huge number of trials beforehand and all the extra administration in terms of entry forms and fees. And it’s been doubly difficult managing this year with the Irish entries, purely because of the changing nature of the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

We’ve gone through every emotion with that situation – one minute they can come, the next thing they can’t. We were concerned that, once it was certain that trainers wouldn’t be able to go home between rounds, we wouldn’t get any Irish greyhounds but, as the final draw proves, we’ve had some amazing contenders. In a normal year, I genuinely think we’d have had a record Irish entry of 50 or 60 but, as it was, we are delighted with the quality of those entries we have had.

Ultimately, an English Derby without the Irish coming just isn’t quite the same. We all like the challenge and they’ve proved yet again that they’ve got some very good greyhounds over there. Nottingham as a track is reasonably similar to Shelbourne Park, home of the Irish Derby, so the trainers and owners know that their dogs should be fine here. It’s still been a challenge though and I’ve been on and off the phone offering whatever support we can to Irish owners and trainers – whether that’s explaining the latest Covid-19 guidance, getting the forms they need or sorting kennel spaces.

In terms of our English greyhounds, Southwood Jet is obviously the only unbeaten dog left in the final which is an impressive stat. He had plenty of doubters at the start, but he’s proven that he has what it takes to win and is there on merit. Smurfs Machine will probably be the outsider, but he came out of nowhere and has improved every time. Like Seamus Cahill knows from winning the Derby with Astute Missile at odds of 28/1 back in 2017, anything can happen on final night. Smurfs Machine has a chance to beat the odds again for Seamus now.

All the trainers left know anything can happen at this stage and they’ll all be preparing their greyhounds to do their very best on the night. None of the dogs are lucky to get there – they have all well and truly earned their place in the final.

Whilst I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the racing so far, what I’m missing most this year has been interacting with people during the competition. For me, the Derby has always been a sociable event and it’s a chance to meet new faces and old friends and talk about the night’s events on the track. I always find it’s as much about speaking to all the owners and punters about what they’re enjoying about the Derby as seeing it take place myself. I truly have missed that.

It’s great that people have been engaging throughout on social media and Star Sports have done an excellent job as sponsors on that front. But it is strange, for us all I’m sure, not to be able to stand side-by-side with friends, family and strangers to watch the biggest event in our racing calendar. Everyone has played their part – whether it’s staff here, sponsors, trainers, owners and of course racing fans following on TV, online or in the restaurant. Greyhound racing has continued to prove what a great community it is and how we all help each other in times like these. 

My hope for Saturday night is just that everyone walks away, or turns off their TV, and thinks: that’s been a cracking night’s racing. For me, it will be a particularly poignant moment, but I’m really excited for what’s left to come and I just want to enjoy the night. Like any greyhound fan, I love the Derby and I love open racing and I want to make it the best night possible for everyone.

And while it’s the ‘big one’ it won’t quite be my last competition before I leave Nottingham. We’ve got another Category 1 competition starting on 9th November with the BGBF British Breeders Stakes and the final of that will be my last. Another good night of racing, I’m sure, after the Derby is done.”

You can watch the Derby final streamed live at bookmakers’ shops nationwide and on RPGTV (Sky Channel 175).