The Signs Are Everywhere

There’s probably nothing new about these two events but it’s worth mentioning them anyway.

On Wednesday, in an ordinary maiden at Bendigo, Bramwell Brown was backed in to $1.20 on the Victorian TAB, came out like a dromedary, ran around the field and ended up swamping the leader near the post in a moderate 24.59. Fair enough, but why would anyone back a dog like that into such a prohibitive price? Especially an inexperienced maiden.

A little earlier in the day, Darren McDonald sent the talented Eliza Blanche over 600m at The Meadows in what are now called city “Provincial” meetings (thereby avoiding better fields but also missing out on three or four times the prize money at a Saturday meeting). She started at $1.04 in Victoria, and a bit better at $1.10 in NSW, and romped in.

The question is – what is the point of it all? The first-mentioned dog is clearly not worth that sort of price, never mind how well it might have trialled. Nor is the second case, despite her known good form. At virtually “money back” the whole episode was a waste of space from the betting angle. Doubly so when coming out of a smash and grab bend start. Why would you bother?

While trainers may have had their own motives, these cases make it obvious that greyhound betting has got to farcical proportions. Perhaps punters were doing no more than following the leader and were hoodwinked by higher prices being displayed in early betting? Yet some of them must have kept on when more up to date information was available.

The implication is that far too many gamblers lack knowledge, experience and common sense. That’s not a good sign. The code’s future demands that we do something about it – like educate them, for example. More than just sticking up a wall sheet in the local pub.

The other issue this highlights is the odd nature of our grading systems. Here we have Eliza Blanche winning her ninth race (plus two placings) from thirteen starts at five different tracks, all in good times. All but the last two wins were over the 500s and those seven were all in 5th grade.

Her last two wins over middle distances of 545m at Ballarat and 600m at The Meadows represent the only change to that pattern, the former in a mixed 4th/5th grade and the latter in these peculiar midweek 5th grades in town (formerly Non Penalty) – both of which return winners around $1,500 or so.

Yet this time, a major reason for the crazy prices bet about Eliza Blanche was not so much her own ability, which cannot be denied, but the ordinariness of her opposition. All that has been made possible by the trainer’s judicious use of the grading system – a complex computerised system that I won’t even try to understand as it makes my head hurt. Suffice to say that a major outcome is that it allows dogs to keep on winning in what is the lowest available grade (outside the T3 events for slow dogs).

In other words, that system is bottom-heavy and is therefore the major reason for the relative shortage of higher grade competitors and races – a trend which, for example, has just caused WA to make significant alterations to its own grading policy in an effort to get full fields for its FFA events.

That trend is not limited to WA by any means. Some time ago I instanced the case of a Queensland dog which entered a 5th grade 600m race after having already won five of them previously. All very legal but possible only because of oddities in the way the system worked.

Taken as a whole, the effect of all these rules and regulations is to downgrade the product in a variety of little ways here, there and everywhere, sometimes hardly noticed. But they all add up to an industry which is now dominated by a “be kind to owners and trainers” policy.

The alternative of seeking excellence to better attract customers to regular week to week racing runs a distant second. There is no upside in $1.04 favourites.

The other major issue with Victoria’s grading system is that it has profoundly influenced industry economics. The ability of a dog to do the rounds of the state winning 5th grades as it goes is one of the major factors causing the migration of better dogs from other states – mainly NSW and Queensland. In turn, that tends to promote more betting interest in Victorian racing, thereby allowing prize money to rise, and so the cycle continues.

Even then, it causes complications. The prospect (and the actuality) of top liners with already big bank accounts taking out lowly 5th grades around the bush led to the addition of yet another rule. Qualification for those 5th grade races now includes a proviso that prize money winners over a certain amount are ineligible. That is, a rule on top of a rule.

It is not just good enough to say that Victoria is doing fine (which may be debatable for other reasons) and challenge other states to catch up. Not when its very success also causes those states to weaken their product to a dangerous degree. We have already mentioned higher grade problems in WA but field quality in Queensland have slipped consistently over the past decade to the stage where sub-standard races are needed to fill top city meetings (including Maidens, Novices and short course events). Much the same is true of NSW while SA would be in dire straits without the support of the second ranking Wheeler dogs.

And in all cases, these policies come on top of an industry which has over-reached itself in creating more races than the dog population and punter’s wallets can sustain. Hence all the empty boxes, including in Victoria, and the provision of small and unusable betting pools.

In short, there is nothing natural about this process; it is all a function of artificial situations created by state bureaucracies to satisfy a perceived short term need. None have considered the long term implications which are now popping up as the pressure increases.

In a sense, medicine offers a quirky comparison: the operation was a success but the patient died.

I also noted another illustration in a letter to the editor recently (The Australian, 2 Oct), when a writer was commenting on the hassles caused by clashing government attitudes, no doubt influenced by empire building: “It is time to stop duplicated responsibilities over all portfolios, between State and Federal Governments, including environmental, hospitals, education, etc. When there is split accountability there is no responsibility. Bureaucracy and ineffectiveness thrive”.

In racing, togetherness is not often evident. State rivalries are legion, taxation varies wildly, national consistency is rare, process is more important than outcomes, innovation is absent, control has devolved to other parties, tracks remain poorly designed, customers are relegated to the background, formguides are second rate and industry efficiency is terrible. And so on and so forth.

How about a single national controlling body with real teeth and complete independence? Too hard? No, it’s not; you just have to want to do it.

It’s may be a long way from a lowly Bendigo maiden to a National Racing Commission but it’s always the parts that make up the whole.

Past Discussion

  1. Bruce, the problem with the grading systems are the same as with Julia Gillards Mining Tax, they were designed with the help of those with self interest as their main concern.

     GRV grading policies have done great damage to wagering, by hollowing out depth in many races, and done even greater damage to breeding by removing ‘class’ as a factor in the career of many stud dogs and brood bitches. Throw in the problems with integrity as shown by the Sal Perna report, and the signs of ‘cartel’ behavior forming, and you can see plenty of evidence as why grading has to return to promoting competition at every level, as only true competition produces ideal results in regards to integrity, wagering and breeding, instead of this obsession with good dogs and trainers earning the best possible return with their fast dogs.

  2. Bruce, the problem with the grading systems are the same as with Julia Gillards Mining Tax, they were designed with the help of those with self interest as their main concern.

     GRV grading policies have done great damage to wagering, by hollowing out depth in many races, and done even greater damage to breeding by removing ‘class’ as a factor in the career of many stud dogs and brood bitches. Throw in the problems with integrity as shown by the Sal Perna report, and the signs of ‘cartel’ behavior forming, and you can see plenty of evidence as why grading has to return to promoting competition at every level, as only true competition produces ideal results in regards to integrity, wagering and breeding, instead of this obsession with good dogs and trainers earning the best possible return with their fast dogs.