By TERRY WILSON
VETERAN trainer Kevin Ellis comes from an era when making any sort of a decent living out of racing greyhounds was fairly tough.
Now 67 (he turns 68 in January), Ellis is widely regarded as one of the master craftsmen when it comes to applying the polish to racing greyhounds.
Certainly Ellis has had some good successes over the years, but nothing compared to some of the bigger set-ups of the industry.
It was difficult for smaller operators such as Ellis to make big money back in the early days.
He recalls the days when, in his time as kennel foreman for Dave Palmer, the main source of income was not so much the prizemoney, but taking the hounds to provincial tracks, both interstate and in Queensland, to take on the bookmakers to earn a decent dollar.
Now heading into retirement and a life on the road travelling Australia with his wife Vicki, Ellis recently landed the Group 3 Capalaba Cup with Impact, a greyhound owned by Steve Williams.
Williams is one of the premier breeder/owners of greyhound racing in the nation and has formed, over the years, a strong partnership with Ellis at the latter’s Burpengary (south-east Qld) headquarters.
Right now, as Ellis scales down his operation, he has just two Williams-owned runners and he is adamant that the big-spending owner will not twist his arm trying to convince him to stay in the training caper.
There is a theory that Ellis is very much underrated as a trainer, but Williams will not have a bar of that.
“I haven’t heard that, but Kevin is one of the best there is,” says Williams.
“He is a very good man with a dog and he leaves no stone unturned. Everyone seems to have a high opinion of him.
“I have had a lot of successes with him and will miss him when he retires.”
So as Ellis heads into the next chapter of his life, Chase caught up with him for an insight into his times with the dogs.
Chase: Tell us about how you became tied up with greyhounds. Where did it begin?
KE: I used to be a lazy public servant when I left school. I worked at the army depot at Pinkenbah and there used to be a few blokes there who trained dogs. I used to hang around them and one of them had a bitch which had a litter of pups and the next thing I was going home with an eight-week-old pup in the car.
They were just backyard breeders but I was pretty keen and one thing led to another.
Chase: What happened with that pup? Was it any good?
KE: It was called Wathumba, named after a creek on Fraser Island. It won two of its first four races.
Chase: You were born at the old Nundah hospital and lived with your parents at Brighton and then it was on to your first property at Caboolture in 1974. What was next for you?
KE: I became sort of kennel foreman for Dave Palmer and was with him for a quarter of a century. But I had a brain snap and pulled the pin and gave the dogs away for about 15 years. I went back to commercial air-conditioning.
Chase: Why did you do that? Was it for the money?
KE: It was enormous money in the air-conditioning then. In those days the prizemoney wasn’t there in the dogs and you had to live off the punt.
But these days it’s a gravy train and you don’t have to punt any more. And you now don’t have to have good dogs, just handy dogs. With that $60 appearance money (for unplaced runners) you’re now making good wages just on that appearance money. If a young bloke now gets an opportunity to purchase a property here they can set it up and work their dogs on the property, then do it. They can make enormous money. It’s not struggle street now like it used to be when you had to have a punt to make a living. Now with the prizemoney and appearance money and all that, anybody who wants to get into it, can, and make a living out of it now.
Chase: Tell us about those good old days when it was a case of have greyhound will travel for you and Dave Palmer.
KE: All we did was go where the best bookies were, some of the strongest rings. Armidale was an enormous ring, Grafton was, they were everywhere. And Bundaberg, we pulled off some big plunges there. In the country areas the bookies were usually local property owners who had plenty of money and they loved the racing.
Chase: You are close with Steve Williams. He has been good for you, hasn’t he?
KE: He must have a heart bigger than Phar Lap the money he pours into the dogs. He puts his nuts in the vice every day of the week, so whatever luck he gets he deserves every big thing he gets out of it.
Chase: What do you say about people rating you so highly as a trainer? How does that sit with you?
KE: I don’t do anything special, I just potter along. Some people make it too complicated, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to train dogs. It’s just common sense, common sense and more common sense. Unfortunately I went to the funeral of common sense a year ago, so it’s dead and buried.
Chase: After winning the Capalaba Cup, do you have a start in qualifying heats of the National Straight Track Championship for Impact at the Queensland track?
KE: Unfortunately Queensland heats of The Phoenix are on at the same time so you have to have a go at the big bikkies in that. You try to get into The Phoenix through the Queensland Flame qualifier. You can still get into the Straight Track Championship heats, but you have to be dual nominated to do that.
Chase: What is the best greyhound you have prepared?
KE: I won a National Distance Championship with Just A Charm in, 1991 but Dynamic Driver could have been the best. He won a Toowoomba Derby and I remember Tony Zammit once telling me that if he heard me saying that I had a good dog his ears would prick up. I said to Tony that he was the dog. He would have been a Group dog but his career was cut short by a track accident at Albion Park. I’m not going to elaborate on what happened but let’s say it was just a track incident. That was in the same era as Flying Amy and the dog was going ahead in leaps and bounds. I rated Flying Amy and Boronia Belle (both trained by Ron Ball) as the best greyhounds I’ve seen. I once told Ron Ball that we were coming after him. Was Dynamic Driver as good as Flying Amy? Probably not but everything we did with him made us think he was going to be enormous. He ticked every box, but never realised his potential because of the accident. He was shaping up to be the best dog I’ve had – he had the temperament, he had the ability, everything.
Chase: It won’t be long before you close the book of Kevin Ellis the greyhound trainer. You are set to join the ranks of the Grey Nomads and tour Australia with a caravan in tow?
KE: When I was working in air-conditioning we used to go camping all the time. We love it. As soon as the current dogs finish their careers we’ll be off. It could be a month, six months, whatever.
Chase: Do you have any particular places you will visit?
KE: All along the coastline in Western Australia is one. And I like the south coast of New South Wales, there are some enormous places down there. But I could travel for the rest of my life on the road travelling Australia and still would not see the whole place.
Chase: But what if Mr Williams calls you and says he has a couple of really good pups he’d like you to handle? Could he twist your arm and sway you into putting off the road trip?
KE: Steve has already rung up telling me he has some good prospects. It’s like a white mouse on a treadmill – you never get off it.