“This Is The Way Of The Future”

What’s more, “It doesn’t make sense to have a number of little pools around the world, which don’t give punters the confidence to bet”, according to Hong Kong Jockey Club executive director, Bill Nader.

The occasion was the announcement that Tabcorp (and later TattsBet) will be hosted in the huge HKJC pari-mutuel wagering pool from early September, subject to some regulatory approvals.

These quotes came from Fairfax (7 and 8 July), which also commented that competition from online bookmakers and Betfair “makes Australia the best country in the world for punters”. Presumable they mean except for Hong Kong and possibly a few other places. Tabcorp and TattsBet have tote monopolies in their respective areas while the leading growth area of Fixed Odds is competitive only in a marketing sense as their prices are generally at rip-off levels, they are pretty much the same from one to the other, and you might not be able to get on anyway.

Tabcorp already hosts or co-mingles with pools in seven other countries – but, critically, not much with itself. It was not able to convince the NSW Racing Minister (at the time, McBride) to allow it to combine its own pools in NSW and Victoria. The fact that modest activity in WA and the ACT is already part of Victoria’s SuperTab is nice for the small states but hardly counts for much in the overall scheme of things.

The question now becomes whether all these ventures will improve TabCorp’s bottom line. Probably so, especially given the size of the Hong Kong pools and the urges of a few professional punters. International races which run out of normal hours would also be helpful. However, many of them are within our normal time zones and compete directly with local greyhound and harness races in the peak 7 pm to 11 pm slot.

Day to day evidence suggest that they all suffer as one picks off the other, while delayed trot races clog up the system as well. One of the primary determinants of pool sizes is the closeness of race scheduling. Just to take one example, on the NSW TAB last week the Sandown win pool on race 6 (at 8:52 pm) did not manage to get past $6,000 yet its first seven races averaged $14,000 and later declined to about an $9,000 average as the night wore on and fans went home. (Victorian pools would have been much higher, of course).

The related point is that the vast majority of these international races would be a venture into the unknown for 99% of punters – they would know virtually nothing about the tracks, the jockeys, the trainers or the runners – so they are effectively no more than different versions of the mechanical Trackside, designed for mug gamblers alone. The contrast with local races is therefore extreme.

Incidentally, just to put things into perspective, on the day those Sandown figures were recorded, Tabcorp covered 35 meetings in total in the three codes, of which 15 or 43% were in overseas countries. It is not easily possible to work out the end effect of crowding on various pools but obviously it must be significant. The trick is for someone to calculate just how much the extra meetings attracted, over and above what would have been achieved without them. That is not a straight exercise as many gamblers simply bet on what’s up next. However, to the extent that clashes occur, there would have been a cost to local races.

There is an even bigger cost to greyhounds as many clubs are relegated to SKY 2, which is not available at all in some outlets, and which frequently clashes with SKY 1 when both are on offer. That’s a death sentence, pushing many pools down below the $5,000 mark, and providing stark evidence that the number of races on offer is greater than the ability of punters to fund them.

The actual amounts are going to vary from day to day and state to state, of course. And it is not possible to keep everyone happy, yet clearly there is a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul going on. That’s why Hong Kong will be a mixed blessing. It may not interfere much with local gallops (in the afternoon) but it will certainly do no good to prime greyhound pools. It doesn’t do any good now, and neither do races in Singapore, South Africa, France and Sweden which are located in the evening slot.

At the least, greyhound authorities should be demanding a bigger slice of the international action to compensate for the inevitable losses they cause. If Tabcorp makes bigger profits, so should local greyhounds.

The key issue is that Tabcorp and TattsBet were formed to provide a service to the local racing industry. Even now, witness all the brave words accompanying the recent announcement of TattsBet’s renewed rights to Queensland wagering. Australian operations gave them the base from which to attack the international events. Having done that, they are now hell-bent on feathering their own nests via even more international expansion. That’s fair enough in one sense, but is it at the expense of local racing?

There is strong evidence that both tote companies have run out of puff in trying to generate growth in traditional areas – partly but not only due to the arrival of competing online bookmakers. Even so, the long term decline in betting on the gallops and the trots suggests they are losing the confidence of their customers. Greyhounds are in much the same boat, but have been saved momentarily by simply running more races. But is that the last rabbit that can be pulled out of the hat? There is no more room in the calendar and there are no more dollars in the pockets of existing customers.

This leaves the Australian racing industry with three options for growth (or even survival):

1. Build more attractive products.
2. Find new customers.
3. Insist on a piece of the international action.

Two ways to do that are to reform racing management and to demand that state governments create a national betting pool – just as Hong Kong is doing internationally. Paradoxically, despite China’s broad opposition to horse and dog racing, they know a fair bit about gambling. It’s in the genes. The massive exceptions to the rule – in Hong Kong and Macau – prove the point.