The Early Bird Catches More Customers

Timing is everything, especially in sport. But, like many aspects of racing, starting times of races have got away from community likes and dislikes. Or vice versa, if you like.

From Sunday to Thursday, late night racing is getting less popular all the time. As working hours creep upwards and commuting takes longer, people are now more sensitive to how they spend their evening hours.

Take last Monday’s Albion Park meeting. The last race pulled in a miserly $4,120 on the NSW Win tote, a somewhat better $7,925 in Victoria, but a hopeless $2,640 on TattsBet in its home state – despite Queensland having the help of SA and Tasmanian punters. These sorts of figures make good betting impossible. The race started at 9:40 pm in local time or 10:40 pm in daylight saving time in NSW and Victoria. Not extreme but still late.

Even the takings at last night’s Ballarat Cup heats were both erratic and disappointing, particularly as most of the program was competing with the trots and a latish WA gallops meeting.

For a long time now, twilight turnover has been overhauling that at night meetings. One is more or less just after knock-off time, the other is in family time. Time to put the kids to bed. It’s even true on Fridays, when a twilight meeting in Victoria often outpaces the more traditional night meeting at Wentworth Park.

Harness racing has long been awake to the trend, often starting night meetings an hour before and finishing an hour earlier than greyhound meetings.

Maybe the inertia is due to age-old habits when night meetings were the flavour of the month, thousands had a night out at the races, and so you had to allow them time to spruce up after work and make their way to the track. And there were kudos (and cash) in getting promoted from day to night. In those days, special attention was paid to dogs with only daytime experience when they first tried the night time conditions. But no more. It’s hard to recall the last time anyone even mentioned that subject, nor does anyone seem to think it has an impact now. Besides, the lighting is almost certainly better today.

Even the TABs’ own business model must be telling them the same facts. Not only do punters taper off as the night passes, but ClubTabs are closing earlier, many by 8 pm, they are installing automatic devices like touch screen terminals to avoid paying staff, and combining the jobs of TAB and poker machine cashiers when few fans are around. Wall sheets with racing form are starting to disappear in favour of more touch screens (although of dubious quality – race times are shown only for wins and only three races are included).

Phone and internet access are all the rage now. Considering online bookies and Betfair, as well as TABs, they must be accounting for half of all betting these days, certainly in customer numbers if not in dollars. The rising versatility of handheld devices will intensify that trend and a good portion of it will be coming from uneducated gamblers. Yet they all have to go to bed sooner or later so you need to catch them while they are still on the move.

Of course, the TABs are frantic to achieve 24 hour coverage, hence their increasing moves into international racing, never mind that locals have no idea what is happening there. Greyhound racing, with the most frequent races, plays a vital role in maintaining continuity between the high stakes gallops during the day and racing at remote locations during the wee hours. Midnight racing won’t get big money in the eastern states but somebody, somewhere, is awake and ready to bet. It’s getting like the pokies in Las Vegas airport where they even entice you to try the pokies as you are walking to the departure gate for your flight home.

So be it, but none of that justifies greyhound racing obediently saluting the TAB flag. The product is the race. You can’t bet without a race, so it is time for racing to take charge again. It used to be in charge once, but then it submitted meekly as governments handed out monopoly licenses to tote companies, who bought off racing authorities with big capital payouts and then started exerting more and more control over racing’s business.

Another key ingredient in this trend is the widespread move from 10- to 12-race meetings over the years and the resultant widening of the space the meeting occupies. Chasing more cash, albeit often with lower quality dogs, has pushed races into less attractive times.

The danger lies in the fact that TABs and racing organisations have different objectives. Both like extra cash but one sees providing benefits to shareholders as its prime task while the other has the dual task of maintaining the breed while also offering a product that attracts interest and patronage throughout the community.

Wall-to-wall racing and declining field quality may help TABs – although perhaps only in the short term – but they do no good for actual or potential supporters of racing. Decreasing pool sizes lead to the loss of serious punters and serve to underscore the brittle base on which racing now depends.

Already, Queensland and Tasmania are showing signs of losing traction while NSW, the largest greyhound state, is forecasting massive track closures due mostly to the lopsided commission sharing agreement signed years ago by short-sighted administrators.

That’s why the industry cannot afford to let slip any opportunity to improve the way the product is presented, including the time of day.

Besides, dogs would not mind some extra sleep. Trainers who have to travel long distances and then get up at dawn – even more so. And punters are voting ever more insistently.

It’s time to go with the flow – earlier is better.