Many years ago, during a downturn, I read that the boss of the NSW Greyhound Racing Control Board – I think it was Norm Smith – exhorted all his clubs to get out there and promote the sport. That was a tall order as they lacked the resources to do much, whether or not they had the will and the experience. Besides, in those pre-TAB days clubs concentrated on welcoming locals who were eager to have a bet, any sort of bet, and little else. In the end, nothing much happened.
Moving into the 1990s, I attended a Greyhound Racing Authority meeting to present a marketing plan to push the industry forward. Amongst other things I suggested the aim should be to make the sport attractive to “the average suburban housewife”. (Today, I would have to add “the average housebusband” to that).
That went in one ear and out the other as the members were more interested in throwing rocks at each other than developing the industry professionally. The only exception was the vet – a standard inclusion on the board in those days – who smiled and nodded, knowing, as he did what was going on in his everyday practice.
Again, nothing much happened.
I was reminded of all this when reading an article by Simon Barnes in The Times of London (run in The Australian, Dec 08), primarily about the horrors occurring in England’s marathon Grand National over the fences. An average of over 20% of all runners had fallen in the previous 10 years in that race or any of the others over the same trip.
Barnes finds a widespread feeling that the race is “inappropriate to the 21st century”, yet this is something resented by racing people, who claim “that this is a racing matter and nothing to do with non-racing people”.
It’s not a far cry from there to the goings on in Melbourne, Warrnambool or even Adelaide where much the same sort of thing happens and race authorities are fighting a rearguard action against community attitudes to horse injuries and deaths. The dreaded curtain around the fallen is run up far too often.
Yet, as Barnes points out, similar trends have already prompted action in other sports. Not only do jockeys now wear skull caps and protective vests, but so do cricketers. Rules are flooding in to stop footballers attacking the head or making shoulder charges. Soccer referees are much tougher now on physical challenges. Formula One forces car manufacturers to spend millions on cocoons which enable drivers to escape after crashes.
In other words, “it is a clear demonstration of the preference of 21st century sporting audiences … for less dangerous sport”. This is consistent with “an increasingly compassionate society”.
In Australia, horse racing has taken considerable steps to make racing more acceptable. Aside from the jumps, whether you think is it sufficient or not, jockeys now wield padded whips and are limited in how often they can use them. Track faults are highlighted and fixed. Stewards frequently order independent veterinary checks, even in the Melbourne Cup – maybe especially so.
Yet in greyhound racing, not a lot has changed. Attention to drugs and hot weather protection has improved. Kennel inspections are regular. Marathons seem to have disappeared (did anyone order that?). Yet race falls continue with monotonous regularity. Australia wide, an average of 5.3% of all races incurs a fall, rising to over 10% for more troublesome trips. One third of all races see dogs finishing 20 lengths or more behind the winner, indicating they have met significant interference. (Due to reporting problems, these figures may be understated).
Some of those hassles may be due to erratic habits of an individual dog but the nature and consistency of the interference can usually be sheeted home to the nature of the track itself. Poor contours, bad turns and wrongly located starts are the primary offenders. Yet these receive little if any attention from race authorities. Indeed, no-one really knows what makes a good track. Nor could they know because the subject has not been studied or analysed. Millions of dollars go into building or re-building tracks yet it is still all guesswork.
In your local TAB, a cartwheeling dog may attract a few chortles from hardened gamblers but what is the effect on the man in the street, or on opponents of racing (of whom there are plenty), or even my suburban housewife?
Certainly, that sort of incident is less likely to occur in major events. There, the numbers are made up of experienced dogs which know their way around. That’s why they got there in the first place. But the other 90% of the dog population is not so skilled and desperately need everything in its favour. There are no “dangerous curve ahead” signs to warn them.
But if the industry wants growth, wants a greater penetration of the population, wants better PR, it is long overdue to remedy the faults. Cut’em off at the pass!
The bonus, of course, is a longer racing career, fewer injuries and greater confidence amongst a dog population that, can we remind you, is battling to fill all the available slots in today’s TAB racing.