“REPORTS of my death have been greatly exaggerated” – Mark Twain.
(Actually a small misquotation, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which claims that the New York Journal of 2 June 1897 wrote “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. But you get the idea).
It sounds like a glass half empty. Victorian vet Dr Des Fegan, a long time contributor of wisdom to the National Tabform, wrote in with great fears about the likely decline of greyhound racing due to forecast lower prize money and increased corruption.
To be sure, costs will rise to cater for improved oversight of the industry. And, yes, trainers are more dependent now on prize money than plundering the betting ring. No such ring exists any more and its modern day replacement – the Fixed Odds category – is far greedier than the conventional TAB markets. Only unique inside information will triumph and that will be harder to utilise where form is well disclosed, integrity oversight much stronger and tracks still needing remedial work.
Indeed, that progress gives the lie to Fegan’s main claim that “corruption will increase not decrease”. You can’t have it both ways. If more investment is going into integrity matters, it follows that corruption would be more easily identified and therefore less common. If that is not the case, then there is something wrong with the people doing the supervising.
Further, the claimed erosion in prize money does not have legs. Victoria has generated massive rises in prize money over the last decade, mostly as an outcome of better commission splits inspired by state government. That impetus will remain. Fegan’s point that Tier 3 racing (which offers lower prize money than normal) has further cut prize money (ie on average) omits the consideration that the beneficiaries tend more to be dogs that were not competitive under the previous regime. Many would not have paid for their keep.
The diversion of GOBIS bonuses to integrity areas is a different question. Now the bonuses have gone – and a good thing, too – it removes a major source of discrimination which should never have occurred in the first place and which contravenes the principle of fair and open competition essential to any efficient industry. (Having said that, Victoria still perseveres with a number of races limited to “VicBred” runners – also not a good thing).
Victoria and other states could also switch funds to more productive areas by cancelling the non-performing bonuses for distance racing, none of which have shown the slightest signs of achieving whatever they were supposed to achieve. Concern for the average trainer’s income would also benefit from a sharp reduction in the prize money levels for a handful of feature races and the difference distributed more widely. The current $250k to $500k allocated to the big events is a gross mismanagement of resources. Lower prize money would have no effect on their attractiveness to owners, trainers or punters. All would still compete.
Indeed, there is a case that all prize money allocations should be controlled by head office and not by influential clubs, which seem more bent on chest thumping than on good economic management.
(The same principle might well apply to gallops events like the Golden Slipper and the Magic Millions which offers almost obscene cash to youngsters barely out of their nappies. The Melbourne Cup is perhaps a little different in that it is targetted at a world-wide horse population).
Anyway, Fegan is off the beam when he claims that “history tells us that corruption will increase”. It does no such thing. Despite its faults, racing oversight and drug-testing is light years ahead of the old days, especially when looking at the pre-1980 days (i.e. before Fegan’s time) when your first act was to do the rounds of the ring – not to see what was popular but to check which ones were dead. A fiver to the club grader will no longer bear fruit. Long swims on the morning of the race will be plain to see. And no more rubbing tobacco in the dog’s eye on the way to the boxes.
Certainly there will be some pressure on profitability and therefore on trainers’ incomes. Yet all this discussion is centred on one side of the ledger. Fegan, together with most or all of the state authorities, has not looked at ways of elevating income.
For example, in his home state of Victoria, neither of the premium clubs at Sandown or The Meadows has shown much or any increase in TAB turnover in recent years. Only commission from corporate bookies has helped them out. The inference there is that the run-of-the-mill gambler in pubs and clubs is not contributing as well as he might. A significant reason for that is that we have not gone out and tried to sell the industry well enough. We have made virtually no attempt to educate the newcomer, or to champion the breed in the public’s eye, rather administrators and the betting operators have done no more than put devices in their hands to make quickie bets. That’s all very well, but customers gained that way are not too likely to return tomorrow or next week. To them it’s just a bit of passing fun.
Put another way, the industry is being administered, not managed. It is trainer-centric, not customer-centric. It is operator dominated, not community oriented. No doubt Dr Fegan would be aware of similar options in his vet practice. So, yes, improvement is definitely possible although it will require work.
What’s the difference – middle vs. long distance?
Regular readers would know that I have often rabbitted on about the practice of over-racing stayers – so far with no obvious change to trainers’ habits or to rules set by authorities. But here is a slightly different example. Star Recall, a WA product now racing out of Victoria, is a quality bitch but is now rising 4 years old. Although she failed in the Sale Cup series over 650m (perhaps the hot weather was a factor?) she has done well since with four successive wins over the similar distances. Good stuff, you might say, although there were no world beaters around. Here are the details:
30/01/16 Won Traralgon 34.29 (Record but note new track)
07/02/16 Won Sandown 34.15
12/02/16 Won Shepparton 37.21 (Record 37.20)
17/02/16 Won Ballarat 37.82
Each run followed five to seven days after the previous run. The Sandown time was quite good but not spectacular while the Shepparton run almost broke Nellie Noodles’ longstanding track record, even though Star Recall had to come from behind (box 8). The pattern then changed somewhat. At Ballarat she was untroubled to lead all the way from box 1 but the time was four lengths outside the record. Why so slow (relatively)? The question is whether four 595m/660m runs in 17 days took the edge off the bitch? In the event, everyone, including the punters, took home the cash at Ballarat so what is the worry?
In my view, this is over-racing. We already know quite emphatically that it is a rare dog that can handle a second 700m run in 7 days, and even rarer when the first one is an all-the-way gut buster. History is littered with dogs that cannot do that, with only the odd exception like Sweet It Is to prove the rule. But how much different is 650m/660m? Some, but not much. Be wary.
PS: Star Recall was regally bred but had no staying background at all (High Earner x No Recall). In fact, High Earner could not run an inch further than 520m but still won half his races (as has Star Recall) and $610k in prize money.