Ernie Trumps Tattsbet

The biggest surprise in last Thursday’s Adelaide Cup was not that local star Ernie Bung Arrow won but that he paid more on the local tote than in NSW and Victoria – $4.20 versus $3.20 and $3.70. Patrons of “best tote” bookies wouldn’t mind but where were those SA punters?

And the First Four paid twice as much on Tatts as on the other two totes, maybe partly due to a huge jackpot added to the pool. It ended up at an astonishing $52,400.

Considering the status of the event, the local Tatts Win pool amounted to a relatively modest $23,700, compared to $26,400 in NSW and $40,400 in Victoria. The influence of five Victorian dogs in the field would have helped here.

This bias is not accounted for by the differences in populations. Tattsbet is not only the home tote but its multi-state coverage puts at  its disposal almost as many people as Tabcorp NSW (6.6 million v 6.9 million) and more than Tabcorp Victoria until you add in the WA component in SuperTab (5.4 million or 7.6 million). It’s a question of either the willingness of Tatts folk to bet or the less satisfactory nature of what Tatts is offering – eg generally smaller pools.

All of which is a terrific advertisement for the need for a national betting pool to smooth things out.

In the race, Ernie was the only dog to more or less match its heat sectional time – 4.35 compared to 4.38 – or its overall time (29.70 v 29.60). But the shape of the run was different. Ernie did not come out of the box as fast as it usually does yet still went like lightning to lead at the first turn. It was in no trouble after that. Some dog!

The unfortunate Farmor Las Vegas was in a great spot at the turn but failed to dodge Tomac Bale as it wandered off the rail and so suffered the consequences. Iona Seven just jumped badly this time, all of which gave Ronan Izmir a clear run into second spot. However, it is not the strongest at the end of the 500s and Tomac Bale hauled it in near the line to take second place.

No doubt the next question for Ernie’s connections will be how to attack the bigger events in neighbouring Victoria. The dog is not two years old yet so may well gain more strength with maturity. At the moment, there is a sneaking suspicion that it may well find the tougher trips at Sandown and The Meadows a bit challenging, especially the Top Gun. Perhaps the Victorian Cups circuit would be the go for a start.

An interesting sideline on Ernie’s performance is the way wide runners plot their course. Typically, we consider them to be left-side dominant, meaning they naturally push to the outside, rather than right-side dominant when they head for the rail. However, watching dogs like Ernie suggests that it is not so much the body make-up that causes this as it is that they want to be where they are most comfortable sighting the lure. It’s a kind of mind over matter. Note that Ernie generally rails reasonably on the turns and it is only in the straights that he runs wide. This is even more evident when boxed inside, as he will then spring out immediately to the centre of the track.

Going back, multi-record holder Whisky Assassin had similar habits (but was no good at Angle Park), and so, too, that fine Queenslander, Questions, which won many of its races around Albion Park, a layout which is not kind to wide runners. Both these handled the turns pretty well. By comparison, you will hear little about dogs that stay wide everywhere because they cover so much extra ground that they are just not competitive.

The Bigger Picture

More generally, the fortunes of Tattsbet are not looking great. Its annual report for 2012/13 shows a drop of 4% on all racing turnover, including a loss of just on 10% for Queensland greyhound races. This is hardly a surprise, given the rise and rise of online bookies, the larger pools readily available in NSW and Victoria, and the absence of any impetus from the new guard at Racing Queensland.

Frankly, the Tatts Group will have to rely more and more on its other gambling ventures to support racing. But more critical is what will happen if the decline continues and some aspects of its racing coverage become so inefficient as to cause a reduction in service levels.

Racing authorities in Queensland, SA and Tasmania are hugely dependent on Tatts for their income so their boards should be doing some serious thinking about their future prospects.

Of course, other states will be facing comparable issues sooner or later. Tabcorp. like Tattsbet, is seeing a decline in traditional tote betting as punters migrate to the growing Fixed Odds category, particularly at the gallops, and to online bookies, which appear to be taking over about a quarter of the total market.

All this is changing the old boundaries and introducing a degree of instability. The trends seem likely to continue, which may pose no immediate problem for the gallops and their big pools. It’s a different story at the dogs where many pools have become too small for good punting, and are further confused by late betting habits. Even so, the TABs still provide the primary guidance for Fixed Odds pricing and for other betting operators.

But the market remains unbalanced. Online bookies are laughing all the way to the bank due to their lower cost levels and the huge margin between those costs and their payouts as governed by TAB dividends. That’s not likely to stop any time soon. The time will come – or maybe it is already here – when TABs have to think about cutting their own costs, including the part allocated to funding raceclubs, simply to remain competitive.

TABs warrant a premium in order to maintain the thousands of shopfronts across the nation, many of which are becoming more automated with touch screen terminals and simplified Mystery bet tickets. But even there they are paying minimal commissions while pub and club agencies rely on patrons buying more beer to make a profit. Efficiency is a mixed bag.

There is a parallel in the way big department stores once got away with big mark-ups on whitegoods and TVs, until the rapid growth of discount stores forced them to change tack. Nowadays, it doesn’t take much to start up a discount store or an online bookmaking company – and that’s what’s happening.

Whatever, restructuring is on the march.

Other Signs of the Times

1.      I note that Racing Radio in NSW totally ignored the Traralgon TAB meeting last Saturday week – no race broadcasts, no prices, no dividends. An overcrowded program? Do we need Radio 1 and Radio 2, just like SKY?

2.      A social club with a huge membership and many thousands spent on TAB facilities over the years has shut down its night-time ticket counter from Sunday to Thursday, telling punters to use the touch-screen terminals instead. Other outlets are trending that way, too. This is a joint TAB/racing industry challenge.

3.      At NSW Central Coast TAB outlets you could fire a shotgun after 9 pm and not hit anybody. They are either closed or the patrons have gone home. Some exceptions for Saturday nights.

4.      Clashing football matches can quickly take the edge off racing turnover.