What exactly is the purpose of Non Penalty races in Victoria?
Just to take a brief example, at last Thursday’s meeting at Sandown – a normal high standard one – winners averaged 29.57. Three days later at the usual Sunday Non Penalty meeting they averaged 29.64. Nothing much in that. There was no clear difference in the state of the track but the Thursday dogs would certainly have had greater experience. On the other hand, the Sunday meeting also included two maiden events.
A natural conclusion would be that there was plenty of ability around on Sunday, leading to the question of why the races were not conducted under normal 5th Grade conditions. The answer is shrouded in mystery.
One outcome is that Non Penalty winners are free to go around in yet another NP race, or to compete in 5th Grade races anywhere else in the state without carrying with them any upgrading penalty – ie they obviously can win more low grade races. Still, that is a prime objective of the unusual Victorian system, and no doubt an attraction for immigrants from other states.
But let’s go back to that mysterious past.
NP meetings emerged from nowhere over a decade ago, apparently with the aim of providing an outlet for dogs which either wanted experience in the city or which could not otherwise gain a spot in the regular weekly meetings at each of Sandown and The Meadows. No doubt the clubs were also pressing for more opportunities to use their expensive facilities.
At the outset, the two clubs were granted one NP meeting each fortnight and prize money was assessed at much lower than provincial levels. Obviously authorities did not want to upset the balance unduly. Nominations came almost equally from youngsters on a learning curve and oldies returning from injury or needing to regain form.
However, the next stage moved the NP frequency from one to two each week and then prize money was moved up to full provincial levels. Generally, that improved the standard of races but it came at a great cost. Field standards dropped at provincial clubs, something which continues to this day, as the pathway to wealth was always going to be via the city clubs.
More recently, the NP principle has been extended to all clubs, along with the introduction of T3 races, which are restricted to dogs which have shown they cannot run fast. The resultant package, which included extra races, meant that average field standards in the state continued falling. A double whammy, in effect.
From a cash viewpoint, there was no noticeable shortfall as the era paralleled the rise and rise of mug gamblers as a proportion of the betting public. Not only did the modestly performed dogs serve the newcomers’ purpose but they also bet equally as much on maiden races. All these factors have contributed to the general increase in races offered, albeit they were staffed by a higher percentage of inferior dogs.
So the NP concept led directly or indirectly to a number of things:
· Wider opportunities for dogs wanting access to city tracks.
· More opportunities for low standard dogs.
· More statewide income as authorities filled gaps in the TAB program with extra races.
· Greater utilisation of tracks due to higher meeting frequency.
· A decrease in field standards everywhere, including in the city.
· A decrease in the size of betting pools, whether in the city or the country.
Of all these factors, the most critical have been the dubious nature of field standards where, for example, Novice dogs now even fill holes in major city meetings, and where provincial clubs are left with less to promote to both local and SKY/TAB consumers. Amongst other reasons, these factors must have prompted the decline in serious punter numbers, and certainly weakened week-round patronage.
Whatever the reasons, and whatever your point of view, it is inescapable that there is no natural growth in industry income, no growth in dog numbers (good or bad), and little or no effort to build a product which might attract discerning customers. Yes, there have been some advances here and there in efficiency but they have been more than outweighed by the negatives.
As we have mentioned here previously, the 120-plus different grades offered in Australia have emerged primarily because one or other authority thought “it would be a good idea” at the time, always prompted by a perceived need to keep all the owners and trainers happy, not by any particular customer demand. That was underlined even further when NSW recently installed not one but another three Grades for “Masters” (meaning veterans) events after ignoring that potential for many years. That’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut, if ever I saw one.
For their part, customers have been left mostly with a package of four-legged poker machines. That’s been fine for those able to press a button, but not of much use for anyone with half a brain.
Aside from the sorry nature of our track layouts, the long term worry is twofold; authorities and clubs have failed to consider the long term impacts of their policies, and they have been unable to create more innovative approaches to the need to improve the racing product and related services.
Separately, the NSW parliamentary inquiry has touched only the tip of this iceberg but we may get more encouragement when its financial outlook appears at the end of the month.