Strikes And Brick Walls

The current strike by some NSW trainers can have only one immediate effect; it will reduce their income. Some may say that it will highlight a terrible injustice done to the greyhound code. Perhaps so, but it will not bring about a reversal. In any case the greyhound code’s problem was self inflicted when the responsible authority agreed to a fixed percentage distribution of TAB commission back in 1997 – and for a 99 year period without any provision for review.

If there is a guilty party today, it is the thoroughbred people – now Racing NSW – who are refusing to agree to a change to a now outmoded share of the spoils and who will continue to enjoy the lucrative cross-subsidy from the greyhound side. But, seemingly, they have a legal agreement in their favour, although some might hope that a loophole can be found. Possible, but unlikely.

Still, there are lessons to be learnt.

It’s as well to remember that the people in charge of that agreement back in 1997 – the Greyhound Racing Authority – were obviously dominated by the two major clubs, GBOTA and NCA, and to a lesser extent by nominees from smaller clubs. The board lacked independence and, apparently, business nous (what commercial organisation could possibly sell their service at a fixed price for a century ahead?)

However, the 1990s were littered with odd judgements and erratic supervision.

Classic amongst those was the last known trainers strike at Beaumont Park in Newcastle, the forerunner to The Gardens. This time the Newcastle Jockey Club was in charge. After the then-NSW TAB Ltd decided to withdraw its coverage for Saturday afternoon dog meetings the NJC cut back prize money, thereby upsetting Hunter region trainers (and, to some extent, many from western Sydney who patronised the track).

The trainers’ only reaction was to boycott the meetings, demanding that the NJC produce a better outcome. This was never going to happen as the NJC was sticking firmly to the Saturday timing because it enabled the club to offer prime TAB and bookmaking services to its thoroughbred clients on a regular weekly basis. The dogs filled in the void when horse racing was not scheduled at the big track across the road.

The GRA took no interest in these events until right at the death it came up to count the votes in a decision as to whether or not to continue. No was the answer and consequently NJC greyhound operations folded. The NJC later put up the entire operation for sale for $3 million but none of the GBOTA, NCA or GRA was interested and the property was sold off for housing.

The effect on the code’s income, and that of trainers, was catastrophic as regional turnover fell by a quarter for some years afterwards. By then, the NJC had taken advantage of new state rules allowing the Minister (the now discredited Richard Face, also the local member) to authorise betting auditoriums – ie betting without any racing – on the NJC’s thoroughbred premises. They no longer needed the dogs.

In roughly the same period, a long saga over the continuation of both Cessnock and Maitland clubs came to a head when Cessnock was de-licensed. The club reacted strongly and took legal action to get the decision reversed. Once again, this was poorly thought out and ended up bankrupting the club. Its debt of several hundred thousands of dollars ended up being paid by the GRA.

Also at the time, a rampant SKY Channel, then headed by Warren Wilson, later chief of TAB Ltd, was rounding up clubs, one by one, to fill its empty slots. Use it or lose it was the message. Following the turmoil at Beaumont Park, Maitland and Singleton were slow off the mark to take advantage of the more profitable service, arguments followed and eventually GRA arrived on the scene (also right at the death) to sort out operating times and dates.

The common thread here is that a lack of vision and commercial acumen amongst clubs – and therefore amongst their mainly trainer members – led to them being dominated by outside forces. The governing authority was little better as it, too, was comprised primarily of club representatives.

Energy and initiative at club level is always desirable, of course, and sometimes it is present. Yet they have proved to be less than efficient at state level. Even now, as NSW has moved on to a more or less independent grouping, a hangover remains.

For instance, club rationalisation is seldom seen yet glaring cases exist where action in overdue (the adjacent Lismore and Casino clubs, for example). Possession of the slot seems to be nine points of the law. Serious business analysis is absent.

In the final analysis, strikes about pay rarely achieve anything much. Anything extra seldom matches the amount lost during strike periods. Much better to organise a march of a thousand down Macquarie St to pitch to the Racing Minister, George Souris. Even then, note that neither he or his party is well known for their reformative instincts.

But here’s a thought. Buy a small ad in the racing pages of a major daily and run a weekly summary of the amount paid over to the thoroughbred and harness codes in the previous week. People should know this.