Reform Overdue, But Who Will Do It?

It’s interesting – in the light of issues raised in these columns recently – to look back at comments made in the past by racing participants who saw things differently to the powerbrokers in racing, or to the powerbrokers themselves.

The Bookmaker

In 1994 leading Randwick rails bookmaker, Mark Read, called on the AJC to improve bookmakers conditions or else “he would be forced to go elsewhere” (or words to that effect). That occurred in a speech he gave at a seminar promoted by the AJC, then the state authority for thoroughbred code. In the event the AJC changed nothing and Read decamped to Darwin to conduct his business online as IASBet. Together with an Alice Springs firm, that led to the influential position now occupied by a dozen or so Northern Territory bookmakers all, in effect, “branches” of their bases in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Since then, oncourse bookies have gained small advances such as auditoriums on non-race days and phone access to clients but are still under the thumb of the raceclub, the state racing authority (now Racing NSW) and the state governments. Bookmakers were unable, or did not try hard enough, to influence lawmakers to allow them to expand and compete properly. Ever since, the thoroughbred code has been steadily losing market share, although it was partly saved by business generated by the NT group.

The Customer

In 2002, following a statutory review of thoroughbred racing by the state government, consumer advocate Peter Mair had his position on the industry participant body (RIPAC) terminated after serving his initial two year term. His well-publicised views were never popular with traditional administrators or the government. For example, he claimed that “the Australian racing industry is on the wrong track – everyone agrees there is far too much racing”, leading to more low class competitors. He noted that the TRB (the forerunner to Racing NSW) had failed to conduct the required twice yearly consultation with RIPAC or to take note of its submissions to the TRB. Similar comments were made 12 years later at the NSW parliamentary inquiry into greyhound racing.

“The racing industry is still administered much as it was in the 19th century”, Mair said, “There is no commercial discipline in the administration”.

Today, serious punters are in decline, mug gambler numbers are rising, and field quality is dropping every year.

The Administrator

Peter V’Landys, CEO of Racing NSW, was appointed to his position the day after the job was advertised in the Financial Review, which was a bit odd. He came from a mixed bag of tricks at Harold Park trots, where its venture into poker machine land failed badly when locals did not support it. Harness racing crowds fell, too. The Glebe community was incensed when, following the departure of greyhound racing, it failed to gain promised access to the centre of the racecourse to conduct hockey games. That episode was the subject of a critical one hour documentary by ABC TV. Harness people failed to rejuvenate its operations and so the land is now the site of high density housing. This was a remarkably similar process to the demise of Beaumont Park greyhounds in Newcastle, where the greyhound authority at the time and the code’s two leading clubs declined to take any interest and the owner (NJC) sold it off.

V’Landys gained kudos when he successfully led the High Court fight with NT bookmakers on the method of charging racefield fees. He has now followed that up (belatedly) with an attack on their practice of cancelling customer’s accounts if they win regularly, and of failing to accept bets that did not suit them. Since Tabcorp has almost identical practices it is surprising that he did not give them a mention as well. Time will tell there.

Meantime, the thoroughbred code is still losing traction, harness racing has done its dash (in part self-inflicted), while greyhound racing has kept its head above water only by adding more cheap races to an already overcrowded calendar.

The Outcome

While we are talking mostly about NSW here, the position is not a lot different elsewhere. Some better, some worse. Every move the industry makes is governed either by what Tabcorp/SKY wants or how the leading clubs and authorities persevere with outdated traditions or how little notice they take of rapidly changing customer priorities.

Respectively, these organisations respond only to their shareholders or to the ideas and the ideology of a few people around the committee table. So-called industry representatives barely get a look-in, customers even less.

No better illustration is available than the trenchant opposition of these two groups to the arrival of Betfair and online bookmakers in the first place. Almost to a man, the powerbrokers (including greyhound chiefs) fought bitterly and abusively against their “legalisation”, only to find that they were defending a house of cards. Holes had been left in the system that they could drive a truck through, customers were deserting the traditional betting operators in droves, all in an era when the industry was not doing too well anyway.

Eventually, changes were forced on the industry, so it is ironic that racing people are now grabbing the rewards without a blush or an apology. Yet without that stimulus (which has now run its course) racing would be in dire straits indeed.

But that’s history. Today, not a soul is raising a question about the worth or the appropriateness of racing’s basic governance systems, or state governments’ roles in persevering with a broken concept. Never are they brought to account. Yet what else can be responsible for the industry’s failure to adjust to the real world’s demands and opportunities? Or to create new systems which can compete with other forms of gambling and other recreational outlets?

Read and Mair identified some of the problems 10 and 20 years ago yet they still have not been addressed, let alone fixed. When will the penny drop?

AN ERA PASSES

The retirement of one of the industry’s greatest assets, broadcaster Paul Ambrosoli, leaves shoes that will be hard to fill. Since radio and television were joined in covering races, no job has been more influential in promoting the sport and PA was always at the top of the tree. Clear, comprehensive and classy. Thanks, Paul.