Country Racing – A Vital Part Of The System

Visiting five tracks and four meetings in four days, as I did last week around the western half of Victoria, offers a terrific perspective of how the industry is faring. In short, not bad but needs attention here and there.

The highlight was undoubtedly the tortellini (help yourself to salad) at Warrnambool. Very tasty and very healthy. A far cry from the roast with three veg and fatty gravy that once dominated.

Most impressive were the new public facilities at Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat and Warrnambool, all apparently attracting plenty of patronage from local groups, at least on better days of the week. Glassed fronts to the track are standard although a bit of extra height would have been worthwhile to allow diners an even better view.

Of all these, only Bendigo’s viewing lounge gives the fans an uninterrupted view of races. It always did, of course, but now it’s bigger and better

Horsham, which probably has the best old-time grandstand, has not seen the builders yet but the word is track reconstruction is not far way. It would make the big track even bigger – effectively up to Cessnock standards, for those familiar with the now de-licensed circuit, and absorb the now disused trotting circuit. I am not sure that will add anything to an already good run for 480m and 570m trips, as well illustrated by the amazing record run by Phenomenal while I was there. Its 32.08 time was three lengths under the old mark, which is a massive difference.

But back to the basics.

I am still not convinced that Victoria has got these one-turn layouts quite right. A number of matters bear questioning.

First, the short trips in the 400m category are far from ideal. The starts are too close to the turn to allow trouble free running. Dogs have little time to sort themselves out before bearing hard left. Our own fall and interference statistics confirm the problems as they are always significantly higher than for 450m-plus trips on the same track. So, too, with winning dividends, which tell us punters in general find them harder.

It’s hard to come up with any magic solutions for these trips. Pushing the boxes further off the track or increasing the distance by 20m or so might help so some experimentation might be the go. Either way, the increasing use of these short trips means they warrant more attention.

The 450m trips are fair enough, as these things go. However, I always question the practice of positioning the boxes close to the line of the running rail. A one metre gap is pretty standard in Victoria, which means that the field is somewhat more squeezed for space in the first 50m or so. Compare that with a 3m to 4m gap at Hobart where falls and interference are both close to zero.

The other big push of recent years has been the installation of 650m trips, replacing or added to races in the 550m bracket or, in the case of Bendigo, a 700m trip. These are a complete failure, sited as they are on top of the nearby bottom turn. Many runners, often favoured ones, are wiped out in that early scramble, while even fair beginners cannot get into the race from outside boxes and lesser dogs get away with a big lead. Quite simply, they produce unfair races and the time stats emerging from them are hopelessly unreliable if you want to compare them with other tracks and distances. They should be dumped.

Presumably, the 650m distance is intended to be helpful in encouraging dogs to move up towards the more lucrative distance races in town, and also to cater for provincial dogs that are not quite up to city standards. That theory is fine but it is not working, partly for the above reasons. The majority of runners are of ordinary quality and are difficult to predict. If we can’t put on good races then it is better not to have them.

I have previously suggested that such races should be restricted to six starters in order to reduce interference but there seems no reason why an extra 50m could not be added to them. After all, Bendigo’s former 700m trip was always popular and it had the advantage of giving dogs the full length of the straight to warm up after the jump. Warrnambool also ran a 680m race in past years.

Finally, for the life of me I cannot see the sense in creating a dual track complex at Geelong. It looks cluttered, and it is. Finishing posts are lined up one behind the other, which also confuses things. It begs the question of why a circle track was created at all, bearing in mind that (a) the one-turn track at Geelong had always attracted good support, and (b) lower grade options on the circle are readily available at The Meadows (or even Sandown) within a reasonable distance. Another point is that two tracks soak up double the amount of water for maintenance purposes, which is not a small matter when rainfall is sparse and city water must be purchased.

However, sometimes little points count. Signage on the highway for Geelong’s Beckley Park is very helpful for visitors from afar while it was good to see Horsham advertising in the local tourist publication.

Other matters obvious at these provincial meetings are that interest in parallel meetings at other tracks is minimal, nor is it promoted, and that attendances are heavily concentrated on what might be called battling trainers. The big guys may well have their dogs entered but it seems they more often tend to send them along with their offsiders, especially to the more distant tracks. Anyway, I make this point because it illustrates how heavily the industry is dependent on lesser lights both to keep the flag flying and to stimulate local interest in greyhound racing. Their worth should never be discounted.