Real Life

Kiwi schoolgirl's a paw-fect champ

Auckland teenager Rhian is already a star in the competitive world of greyhound racing

By Dionne Christian
It's in the genes! Mum Shelley and gran Glennis are both involved in the sport.
She's only 13 years old, but Rhian Farrell already works with elite athletes – it's just that the ones she oversees are four-legged. The South Auckland high school student is one of Aotearoa's youngest certified greyhound handlers and is now being recognised for positive contributions to the sport.
Earlier this year, she became the youngest recipient of the New Zealand Greyhound Racing Association's Board Award for under-30s. An unsuspecting Rhian received her award in front of racegoers and Trackside TV cameras at a race meet on her Manukau home-ground.
"I had no words," remembers Rhian. "I was shocked! It took me a while to wrap my head around it."
It's deserved recognition for the teenager, the third generation in her family to race greyhounds after grandmother Glennis and mum Shelley. Rhian turns down invitations to friends' homes for Saturday-night sleepovers because she needs to be up bright and early on Sundays for races and, during school holidays, she'll travel with Glennis to out-of-town events.
Rhian is a staunch advocate for greyhound racing, saying it requires more care, attention and dedication than many realise, and she'd like the public to take a fresh look at the oft-criticised sport.
She explains, "There is a lot of misinformation about it, but I feel much of it comes from people who know very little about it or who have never been to the races."
She was once advised by a teacher, who feared it would be too controversial, not to give a speech about why greyhound racing is good. But Rhian went ahead, making the finals of her school's area speech contest and says her colleagues now support her endeavours.
"The dogs love racing – you can tell from how excited they get when we're getting them ready to go to the track," Rhian enthuses. "They're super-well cared for. Looking after them properly is a full-time job – it's not like training a domestic dog. I think some greyhounds are better cared for and looked after than some pets."
Best buddies: Rhian says her hound Slick is "better looked after than some pets".
Rhian recalls helping Glennis and granddad Geoff feed and exercise their dogs at age four – they now have 18 – and trying to put reins on a particularly patient hound called Zara. The youngster wanted to sit written and practical exams for her handler's certificate on the day she turned 13, but Auckland was in lockdown, so she had to wait a bit longer.
She and her younger sister Khloe, 10, say keeping their dogs happy and healthy has taught them about responsibility.
"The dogs are athletes and athletes need the best care," enthuses Glennis, adding that the family welcomes new rules and regulations governing the sport. "There are some big prizes, but it's never been about the money for us. It's just the buzz of being at the races, having a partnership with the dogs and being proud of what your dog might achieve."
Rhian, who wants to be a teacher or a vet, agrees, saying it is addictive: "You just feel so good when your dog does well."
In the late 1980s, Glennis was a young mum living in Hamilton, when husband Geoff telephoned to say he'd been at the greyhound races and was bringing home a surprise.
"I thought, 'That's a nice thing to do.'" But Glennis had no idea that "the surprise" would be life-changing for her family and, 33 years later, set her granddaughter on the path to success.
Sitting in the living room of her rural South Auckland home, Glennis, now 63, chuckles at the memory of Geoff, a former jockey, returning with a greyhound called Persistent.
"I said, 'What are we going to do with her?' because I knew nothing about greyhound racing, so we found a trainer and started learning all we could."
And they were soon hooked – not just she and Geoff but also their three daughters Shelley, Nikki and Kylie, then only babies and toddlers.
Rhian and Khloe's mum Shelley, 37 – also a certified handler and trainer – has fond memories of school holidays with her daughters, which inevitably involved travelling to races all over the country.
"It was a great, social time where we'd always catch up with friends and enjoy being around the dogs at the track.
I loved it."
Just as well, jokes Glennis, because the dogs are a full-time commitment. Nodding her head, Shelley laughs when she recalls Christmas mornings: "We could never open our presents until Mum and Dad had been to exercise and feed the dogs!"
  • undefined: Dionne Christian

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