Entering Uncharted Waters

Is greyhound racing losing its compass?

Figures for the first half of 2013 show some significant trends, worrying even.

We looked at three key indicators at the main meetings at the four big tracks (betting-wise), covering 300 to 500 races at each.

The first table shows the average Win dividend in NSW, the proportion of fields with fewer than eight runners and the proportion of First Four dividends above $1,000. The First Four is a useful guide for two reasons. It is the only bet type not affected by mug gamblers as such.

Investors have to do some work to select runners and complete a more complicated betting ticket. No mystery bets are available. Second, it is a good proxy for the integrity of the track.

Success, or a lower dividend, mean that the race was run fairly truly with low levels of interference, thereby allowing better dogs to figure in the top four placings.

Those dividends would then be under $500, some well under. On the other hand, high dividends mean lots of crashes, usually on the turns, and plenty of long shots in the finish.

Results – January-June 2013

Track Average Win Short Fields First Four Dividend $1,000+
Wentworth Park $6.14 21% 32%
Albion Park $6.13 30% 28%
Sandown Park $6.19 8% 38%
The Meadows $6.05 24% 31%
Totals 22% 32%

What does this tell us?

Well, the Win dividends are a little lower than the long term trends, particularly at the two Victorian tracks which are usually out near the $6.50 mark. However, taken with the high First Four figures, it suggests more short-priced favourites have been winning recently and that they are over-bet. It also means a lot of long-priced ones are there, too. The spread of winners is exaggerated more than normal.

The high proportions of short fields have been evident, and increasing, for a couple of years now. That indicates a structural change. They follow the rise in race numbers in some areas, against a background of zero or negative growth in dog numbers. That squeeze is also leading to a general trend to reduce the standard of the average race as slower or less predictable dogs make their presence felt.

The situation is acute in Queensland, where it is accompanied by a rise in the number of maiden and novice races at premium meetings.

(Note: the low figure for Sandown is not indicative of Sandown’s Non Penalty meetings or of Victorian provincial meetings – they have many more empty boxes).

First Four betting has been climbing rapidly as a proportion of total betting and sometimes the pools now exceed those for Trifectas. However, they are not easy to get and a 10% success rate would be exceptional. That depends on how much a punter invests, of course, and there is some evidence that a few serious punters are having a crack. For example, it is not unusual now for a pool in an individual race to jump to double the normal figure and even to exceed that for the Trifecta.

Having said that, with one third of all such bets returning over $1,000 we can see that both luck and the quality of the track play a big part. The big returns always involve one or more bolters getting into the places, or even winning. Still, about 30% of the high (so-called) dividends jackpotted, so nobody got them. Our surveys use corrected possible “dividends” for those, while the TABs have a habit of posting imaginary high figures, often double the amount in the pool, presumably in order to attract lottery-seeking gamblers – a deceptive practice which should be banned. (See one example in the article on the Brunker case, June 17).

The hard questions are what racing authorities might do about these trends, or even if they are aware of them. They represent fundamental shifts in the nature of the racing and betting beast, and therefore in the nature of the customers who make them happen. So far, it seems that state authorities are prepared to do no more than count the money coming in to the till, and then try for more of the same – hence all the added low-class races.

This amounts to trashing the product and poses huge risks for the future. It’s like Myer and Target sharing the same floor, or selling Hyundai out of a Rolls Royce showroom. Sooner or later, not one but both will suffer. Greyhound racing already is.

The current trends are inescapable: the runts of each litter are filling spots in available races, and betting pools are decreasing at the same time. Neither is any help in improving the product, widening the punter profile or improving our public image.

To round out the picture, here are some movements over the last nine years from the latest Australian statistics published by Greyhounds Australasia Ltd (sadly, 2011 is the latest available).

Change 2003 / 2011

Dogs Named -1.7%
Litters Registered -10.0%
Races Held -0.4%

Breaking down those figures a little more reveals where dominant trends occur.

Change In Races Held

Queensland -21.5%
NSW -6.6%
Victoria +13.4%
Western Australia -26.4%

Meeting numbers in Victoria were up by 9.5% and by 5.7% Australia-wide. When 2012 and 2013 figures eventually emerge it is likely they will show more extreme changes following subsequent increases in race numbers in NSW, Victoria and SA. More recent private surveys show that, despite the flat population, there is a small but steady rise in the total number of dogs actually racing (to just under 14,000). This has coincided with the addition of low quality TAB meetings in those three states and tells us where the new racers are coming from.

New Zealand has seen large increases over the same period but it started from a very low base. Much of its stock is imported from Australia and local litter numbers are actually quite small. This would place more pressure on the availability of Australian pups left to compete in local races. NZ data is excluded from the above lists. Exports to other countries are unknown but would generally involve low quality dogs.