One Race Tells All

Glen Gallon lost his National Championship heat at Albion Park on the home turn when the winner got underneath it and Rose of Galo and knocked them both out. But the more important story of the race was on the first turn.

From box 7 Rose of Galo had edged to the front, hotly pursued by Glen Gallon (8) and, on the rails, the red runner Aza Time. The rest of the field were hard behind them. It’s worth going to the RQL website and checking the video to see what happened. http://www.greyhoundsqueensland.com.au/archived/racevid/BNE1-20130808-08.wmv

An image of the field at the entry to the turn should be imprinted on your mind. Not because there was anything unusual, rather the opposite. It shows what goes on time after time. The entire field had formed itself into an arrowhead shape, pushing towards the rail. Consequently, interference was bound to occur, and did.

In those circumstances, outcomes will always be difficult to predict. Certainly Rose of Galo led into the back, although not by enough to ensure it would stay there. She is not the best finisher. Glen Gallon is but the above home turn episode eventually stopped him. The outsider, Innisplain Jet, was able to get a run through on the rail and run a respectable 30.15. With a clear run, Glen Gallon would have done much better than that.

Of course, some will say this is the luck of the game, and to some extent it is. But there is a better way to do it. Like many other Australian tracks, Albion Park’s layout has never been ideal yet the 520m trip has usually escaped criticism.

The 520m first turn is notable in that it normally causes the field to form into that arrowhead shape, except for those which spear off or fall, which is also not uncommon. As with any other turn, this is caused by some combination of turn radius, track camber, lure type, box position and so on. Dog characteristics are relevant but the shape of the field is basically man-made. Too many dogs are occupying too small a space. The resulting disruptions are comparable in effect to that at most other circle tracks in the country. In other words, the science of track design has not caught up with the need to offer clean races.

This is why cutaway turns at Wentworth Park, Launceston, Cannington, Maitland and Bulli create their own interference or bias, while Sandown and The Meadows have different but equally messy problems. Angle Park is a little better but it is a tight track which is not kind to wide runners at the best of times. Then, every one of the newly re-built one-turn tracks in Victoria generates some sort of interference going into or on the first turn, and sometimes coming out of it. Cranbourne, Richmond, Dapto and Ipswich runners are forced to get around a flat or poorly designed turn, which naturally many can’t do and cannon into each other as they try to maintain a course. And so it goes on.

Why do we make life harder for our dogs – and our punters? It does not have to be so. For example, it does not happen at Hobart or Northam, and not much at Devonport or Mandurah either. Then go to New Zealand where the majority of trips offer a good clean run, even for short 300m races.

A quick answer is that our tracks are designed and built by amateurs. They may well involve firms with lots of engineering degrees behind them, which helps with drains but not much with the finer points of a greyhound race. They have little or no experience with greyhounds anyway, and have certainly not bothered to study the subject properly. No-one has. Consequently everything is done on a wing and a prayer.

I can’t answer all these questions either, but there are odd clues available. The obvious one is not to place starting boxes on a bend. Everybody knows that but they still do it (witness all the new 650m starts in Victoria or the awful 450m start at Bathurst).

However, there is one other clue, which was copied from lengthy successful experience in New Zealand. Albion Park was the subject of the first trial of the finish-on lure in this country. It went well and the first year’s results showed a decline in injuries and fail-to-chase penalties. Yet, under pressure from a handful of local trainers, notably Reg Kay, authorities caved in and reverted to the old system – the one which still causes those arrowhead shapes to emerge.

NSW also briefly experimented with the finish-on lure at two tracks but the subject then disappeared from sight, never to be visited again. Results and decisions were never announced; the subject was just ignored. That’s not a good look.

Anecdotal reports from Victoria suggest there were a lot of “over my dead body” comments and it was never trialled there. So much for progress.

South Australia had a good go at it and found exactly the same outcome as in Queensland – injuries and chasing figures both improved. Yet again a sizeable number of SA trainers objected. But this time the authorities stayed firm and made the finish-on lure permanent. Good on them.

But why did those improvements occur? My own guess is that it was due to the physical nature of the lure. The finish-on arm is higher and wider than standard types and is therefore more visible to more runners. It seems to encourage dogs to stay separate and a little further away from the rail. So its value is not so much in the squabbling over the lure when dogs eventually get to it but in the cleaner running it creates around the circuit. Whatever it is, it works.

That it has not spread more widely is a matter of a lack of objectivity and the habit of state authorities in pandering to personal opinions and to the trainer group. Yet there is no evidence that trainers, as such, have any particular competence in designing racetracks. For a start, my experience is that trainers know a lot about looking after their dogs but they seldom do their numbers. They know which ones are good gallopers but do not have the background to assess all the factors involved in assessing the chances in a race. I spend seven days a week doing numbers and I am flat out keeping up with it. So how could a trainer do that when he has 20, 50 or 100 dogs to look after and spends a huge amount of time travelling?

Albion Park provided the classic example when Reg Kay took his bat and ball and decamped from Brisbane to NSW in protest against the finish-on lure. Statistics did not matter, emotion and opinion did. (At the time Reg had a kennel of fast beginners which stayed out of trouble, except for Knocka Norris which was a bit risky).

More generally, it is the nature of the greyhound industry to forget to analyse why things happen. Are breeding subsidies doing any good, for example? Are distance race subsidies producing anything positive? Why is average field quality on the decline? Where have our good customers gone? And why have we not installed finish-on lures everywhere?

As for Queensland, its collapse of will in the face of a few objections is symptomatic of the continuing decline of the industry in that state. It badly needs radical reform yet the Minister has installed managers chosen from a field of insiders, all nominated by their mates. That virtually ensures more of the same.

The order should be dogs first, customers next and let everyone else take care of themselves.

The track design subject is even more important today as the industry faces investments of between $20 and $40 million in replacement tracks for Albion Park and Cannington, another big lump for an SA one-turn track, and probably more for others such as the latest dual code project at Ipswich, or upgrades for ancient tracks like Lismore and Casino. In the face of those events, putting, say, $1 million into a serious independent study of tracks is peanuts. And, for a change, the industry could finally be achieving a real return on its investment.