The story by my colleague Molly Haines about WA resorting to six-dog fields for Free-For-All races should tell the industry what is under the rock when you pick it up. So, what do we find? And what are the likely implications?
Few would know that WA has a rule that ensures a race must have no fewer than seven starters. Quite a lot of races in the east have smaller fields than that to start with, and hundreds more when scratchings are included. As another example, this column has more than once proposed that all bend-start races should be limited to six runners to lessen the effect of unpredictable interference. The worst of those are in the 600m category where, ironically, WA is planning to build exactly that at its “new” multi-million dollar Cannington track.
England would be laughing as it has only six boxes anyway, and therefore offers low-interference running – the evidence is there for the taking.
But this is just what’s on the surface. You have to dig further.
Consider the industry climate. For over a decade now greyhound breeding numbers have been flat or in decline. The number of races has been on the increase as state authorities strive to fill (supposed) gaps in the TAB calendar, always with inferior dogs because that’s all that are left. Overcrowded programs have led to a fall in wagering turnover per race, even for major events and at the bigger city tracks. Those volumes are being split amongst more and more operators and the traditional TABs are losing market share. Gross turnover has been creeping up but only because of extra races or better tax deals with governments, not because of internally generated growth. Products are more attuned to mug gamblers who are rising as a proportion of the total.
That’s a pretty messy package.
WA’s conundrum is that it has been one of the main offenders. Between 2003 and 2013 it increased the number of races by 32.2% while the number of starters went up by 28.3%. Most of that change was due to programming more races per meeting. 12-race cards are normal while the odd 13- or 14-race meeting also pops up. In practice, it is demanding more dogs to fill its own races.
Of course, WA has always relied on the flow of decent dogs from the eastern states to replenish its ranks. These are usually well-performed dogs which may have outlived their competitiveness at home and where owners see the potential for better returns in the west. Since WA now finds that flow is fading it has recently decided to attract more newcomers by giving them an easier transition into the local grading system.
But that eastern supply is equally affected by the demand at home – a symptom that comes out in the wash when we find that 20% to 25% of all races are starting with short fields. Simultaneously, there has also been a significant rise in the proportion of short races, many down to the 300m category, which are invariably filled by dogs of dubious quality.
The upshot now is that WA is wondering how it can maintain turnover levels when it reduces the number of runners per race. The short answer is that it can’t, because punters are geared to chasing high-return exotic dividends and invariably steer away from short fields.
On the other hand, trying to squeeze more Win betting out of existing races is difficult for two reasons. First, overcrowded programs offer smaller pools and also leave no time for punters to re-set their objectives to the next race and, second, because the code has steadily built up an over-betting habit caused by sheep-like following of favourites and tipsters’ selections. Value is hard to find. TABs have accelerated those trends by promoting dumb bets such as Mysteries, boxed Trifectas, Big 6 and the like. In all those cases you will lose in the long run and very often in the short term due to the resultant distortion in odds and therefore in dividends. The TAB takeout is much higher in those areas, too. All of which reduces the ability of customers to keep turning over their money.
A solution for WA, or any other state, must lie in making better use of what they have – ie promoting greyhound punting to more and wealthier people. However, to do that requires not only better marketing but also creating more attractive products and better tracks.
So far, there is not the slightest indication that any authority wants to go down that road. Quite the reverse, in fact. WA is trying to patch up a 1960s Holden when parts are scarce and people are not even buying new ones. Queensland is in a similar bind but is not trying to do anything about it. NSW admits it has long term financial hassles but still has difficulty in grasping the nettle. Other states either don’t know the problem is there or are hoping it will go away.
Nevertheless, a problem is also an opportunity, not just for WA but for the whole country. It just needs a national racing authority and a national betting pool to exploit it.
PICTURES WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
In a revolutionary move, Channel Seven is mooted to shortly do a deal to bring TVN pictures inside its own camp and show live gallops races routinely on its free-to-air network. It already does so for some prime Saturday meetings.
Remember that TVN was created by the leading thoroughbred raceclubs in NSW and Victoria because they were dissatisfied with the depth of coverage provided by SKY. SKY’s two or three-channel operation is wedded to Tabcorp’s already overcrowded calendar (see above item) and therefore allows little time to chat about pre-race or post-race matters.
Probably the key point here is that the change is media-driven, not something that racing bosses thought up. Indeed, TVN has been something of a financial embarrassment. It is further evidence that the racing establishment is unable to come up with decent ideas about advancing the industry. There are plenty of moans, groans and waffle but little attention paid to modern business practices.
My personal evidence would be that as someone with only a passing interest in the gallops I am always an interested follower of the existing Seven coverage of horse racing. Being in my dotage (as are more and more of us), I no longer play football or cricket so Saturday afternoons are usually available for anything interesting. So I now watch the gallops. It even encourages me to make the odd bet.
Surely this is an area where greyhounds could better take the sport to the public. Costs are not small, but it could be worth a try.