Count Your Marbles, Lest You Lose Them

Do we really know what is going on? The greyhound numbers game is moving on in bits and pieces. Of the two main measures – dollars and dogs – only the former seems to rate well with racing authorities.

Of the six major states, only one has bothered to include breeding statistics in its most recent annual report – NSW. The other states – SA, WA, Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland – say absolutely nothing. This would be one of the reasons that Greyhounds Australasia has not produced any statistics since FY2011, meaning the national picture varies from blurry to non-existent.

At the time of writing, SA, NSW and Queensland have yet to publish an annual report for 2013/14. Other states’ information is current.

What we do know is that, Australia-wide, Litters and Names registered eased off between 2003 and 2011. Recent guidance from NSW, the largest greyhound state, suggests that the decline is still present. The stats do fluctuate a lot but between 2004 and 2013 NSW litter numbers dropped from 1,310 to 1,148 and dog names from 6,218 to 5,689.

These changes have occurred despite all states introducing or expanding breeding subsidy programs. Notably, Victoria has done that twice in recent times, with the Premier announcing more grants which he claims will lift both breeding numbers and employment.

The Premier might be desperate for votes but a rational observer would find it hard to see how a breeder would add more staff just because his stud activity rose by a point or two if, in fact, that were to happen. But, based on national trends, it won’t.

In any event, you can bet odds-on that such results will never be announced in years to come – they certainly never have been in the past – and, failing careful study, we can’t sure what prompted any movement anyway.

Let’s also compare falling breeding numbers with the dog population. Here are the results of our own surveys of the number of dogs actually racing in Australia – taken quarter by quarter from scans of racebooks and after deleting any duplications.

Numbers of Greyhounds Actually Racing

2010 13,236
2011 13,094 -1.10%
2012 13,564 +2.50%
2013 13,904 +1.40%
2014 14,098 +1.4% (Extrapolated from the first three quarters)

Ideally, we would compare those figures with the number of meetings and races held. Sadly, none of that information is to be found at GAL. However, individual state figures show both up and down movements – for example, Victoria is up, NSW is down.

A further guide is that there has been a small overall decline in the average number of starters per race. This is particularly noticeable in the proportion of empty boxes – around 20% or so of races in both NSW and Victoria – while WA has recently been trying to overcome a shortage of nominations for higher grade races.

So a squeeze is taking place. Fewer pups are being whelped but more of them are ending up in race programs. Even then they are still not sufficient to fill all the available spots. Nor are they specially competent if the increase in short races is any guide (ie 400m and below).

Simultaneously, most states have been creating new low-standard races to fill slots made available in the TAB calendar. Victoria limits “T3” races to slow dogs while NSW has simply rebadged country Non-TAB races as TAB races, which has much the same effect. SA has added a Grade 6. All these further complicate an already overloaded grading system. Major city meetings everywhere are being padded out with maiden and novice runners.

Practical situations means that the low-standard dogs are not confined to low-standard races which can be parked away out of sight. First, there are nearly always spots in normal graded races for them to occupy and so they filter through. Second, some of the poor races are scheduled at prime times – eg provincial meetings on Thursday and Saturday nights – which means the competition is too strong for them to pull in punters, and therefore the TAB pools are also too small to accommodate reasonable bets. Third, the presence of empty boxes is a deterrent to optimal betting interest, especially for exotic options.

In the short term, extra races have enabled some racing authorities to announce increases in incomes. But it comes at a cost because once you reduce the quality of the product you start losing serious punters and have to rely on mug gamblers. It’s a false dawn.

The future will present serious challenges to viability because there are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. There are no more TAB slots worth touching and there are no more dogs anyway. Tactics have helped a little in recent times but the strategy is highly suspect or, indeed, non-existent.

Here is another indirect piece of evidence from Queensland gallops, as recorded in a recent editorial on justracing.com.au: “So the circus that finished up being Race 2 at Doomben showed yet again how you can increase prize money if you so desire, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll get a better class of horses racing, as the winner of the event, Darci Be Good, hadn’t won for over 23 months before he scored at Doomben on 18/10/14 by a neck”.

You could add that half the program at Randwick last Saturday contained field sizes that could have fitted in to the Wentworth Park boxes, so to speak. In other words, all racing is facing similar challenges.

Anyway, the lesson is that to ignore statistical analysis to back up management decisions is fraught with danger. The lowering of standards is obvious but, apart from anything else, it makes it hard for the industry to cater for “unintended consequences”.

IT WAS TIME AFTER ALL

On 26 October following Xylia Allen’s dreadful last two runs we wrote; “None of these runs attracted steward’s attention or comments. Is motherhood indicated?”

Apparently, yes. It would be presumptuous to claim that owner Paul Wheeler reads these columns, but he has just sent her for a rest prior to entering the breeding barn. Seems like a good idea. If any pups ever come on to the market they might be talking in Black Caviar figures. Probably won’t happen, though.