A Costly Squeeze Play

Figures just in for 2013 confirm the worrying habit of recent years of trying to squeeze blood out of the stone.

The average number of dogs actually racing in Australia edged upwards again to an average of 13,905. Dogs are a little busier in the colder months and a little less so in summer. The data comes from our own quarterly surveys which catch individual names as they complete a race (but each dog is counted only once).

Overall, this represents a rise of 5% over the last four years, but where did they come from?

The sad thing is that we have little breeding data to compare it with. Greyhounds Australasia figures have not been updated since 2011, which means managements and punters are forced to work in the dark when trying to fathom the success or otherwise of their decisions. And data from individual states cannot be relied on due to different reporting practices and the fact that racing dogs and breeding stock move so readily between states.

During the last decade we can refer only to changes between 2003 and 2011. In that eight year period there were small reductions in the number of races, in the number of starters, in the number of dogs named, while litters registered dropped by an alarming 11%.

Even taking a wild guess, it’s hard to imagine that breeding would have jumped in the last two years by enough to return activity to 2003 levels, let alone equal the increase in the number of racing dogs.

On the contrary, indicators are that starters are getting harder to come by. Everywhere, gaps are appearing in fields, particularly for higher grade races and distance races, and lesser dogs are getting a start in more lucrative city races, some via Novice events, some just filling unwanted gaps. Just in the last week, for example, we sampled 225 races at twelve city and provincial tracks in three states and found that 26.7% of those started with empty boxes. Albion Park was by far the worst with half of all races at its two main meetings short of a full field. That’s not surprising considering the parlous state of the industry in Queensland.

Add up all these trends and you will find that …

(1) More dogs from each litter are entering the racing scene.

(2) More slow dogs are competing, partly via Tier 3 and Class C races, and partly from those same dogs filtering through to normal graded events.

(3) There is a clear tendency for dogs to race more frequently, which automatically puts some pressure on their fitness and their ability to compete.

(4) Betting turnover, even at busy times, is now being split amongst good and bad dogs, making both less attractive to punters.

The entire process is due to state managements, initially in NSW and Victoria, but now everywhere, taking specific steps to offer racing opportunities to low class dogs and those suited only to short races. “Country” standard, or non-TAB standard races, are now a distant memory so far as the public is concerned. The mix is now difficult to decipher, and it’s not just mug gamblers who find it hard.

Providing an outlet for slow dogs is a fine enough policy in principle, but not when it detracts from the premium product. Other options should have been sought out and exploited.

By looking after surplus dogs (and perhaps unlucky trainers) in this way, authorities are endangering the goose that laid the golden egg. By far the industry’s major income source is betting turnover, yet every one of these recent measures is reducing the quality of the product, and therefore the incentive to bet. Over time that must have an effect.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know if any of those authorities have tried to model the effects on income of the two key options: more races but of lower quality, or fewer races but of higher quality.

Of course, the outcome of those sums would also depend on efforts to attract more and bigger-spending customers through more lively marketing. In turn, such efforts would also depend on across the board improvements in track standards as nothing will deter a big punter more than unpredictable results caused by high levels of interference. What goes around comes around.

Incidentally, if you are reading the stats on the GAL website, remember to first remove all the New Zealand data. They have virtually nothing to do with racing in Australia as the local conditions are quite different there. Similarly, GAL does not publish figures for exported dogs, which may well have increased over time. Happily, we can still get hold of betting figures, but only by accessing the thoroughbred’s Australian Racing Board publications, and even then, with some limitations. GAL publishes stake money paid, which is interesting but that is only part of the action and does little to explain business outcomes. TABs themselves are commonly opaque, even for their shareholders, and some of their stuff is just plain wrong – eg First Four dividends.

ARE YOU LOOKING ON?

Continuing our recent report on the folly of backing odds-on favourites, the two big meetings last Saturday at Wentworth Park and The Meadows had ten such starters, of which only five won. And one of the winners was the unpredictable Lucy Wires, which miraculously managed to jump to the lead at box rise and stay there.

And before commentators get worked up about the easy win, please note that the opposition was ordinary and it was nothing she had not done before at both Meadows and Sandown, but not nearly as quick as the flying Wentworth Park run in November (42.09). Don’t forget to add back the handicap start she had, which Victorian formguides are also prone to forget. (Sectional times are best ignored but last Saturday’s were hand-timed anyway, which leads to the question – how the devil do you hand-time a sectional in a handicap race?)