To an outside observer, we are stuck with a collection of sometimes illogical, complex, outdated and always variable set of practices and rules governing greyhound racing – nationally and in each state.
For example, greyhound racing has a straightforward set of six Grades – Maiden, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st. But that’s only the start. In practice, those basic Grades end up as 94 different types once you take into account different classes of meetings set up by each state authority. Then you have to add in the normal extras – Novice, T3, T3 Maiden, Juvenile, Juvenile-Maiden, Handicaps, Veterans (different ages, though), Open and Free for All (the last two are sometimes not the same thing). That’s at least another 15 types. And then there are all the Restricted Win events, the mixed grades – 4th/5th, 3rd/4th – and so on.
And none of that counts the non-grade category, which includes most major or specialty races as well as Victoria’s peculiar Non Penalty category, from which good dogs are banned and which were created out of nothing as a sort of make-work deal for the city clubs. Many of these have different qualifying standards to be met, also varying from state to state. Most are free of grading penalties. All the while, increasingly complex and costly computer programs are being devised to sort them all out. No wonder people regularly complain about the cost of running racing authorities. Where is the KISS principle when you need it?
In total, there are over 120 different styles of races that a trainer or a punter has to assess before making a decision. The six Grades we started with are just a distant memory. Even then, two of the originals are rarely used – Grades 1 and 2. They were once, but no longer.
There is an underlying reason for that last point. For some years now, administrators have been remorselessly using the grading system to offer more and more opportunities to slow dogs. The introduction of C Class in NSW and T3 in Victoria (and perhaps SA, too) are just the latest in a long line of changes to make it easier to win a low grade race, and win more of them. As trainers wind their way through this maze the average dog’s career is almost over before it has any need to move up. (Remember the average dog’s racing career lasts only about a year).
So, fewer dogs make it to Grades 4, 3, 2 and 1, which means there are fewer races for them and those that do appear are often short of a full field. We are left with low and high and not a lot in the middle. This leads to an unholy mix with races at prime city meetings often including not only some Novice grade dogs but also races for Novices only.
And there are variations within the variations. Some have different rules for interstate visitors and local entrants, including discriminatory prize money. The eastern states classify Angle Park in the second rank, while WA puts it in the top list. Distance break points for grading purposes vary from 560m to 565m or 569m, depending on the location. A juvenile in SA means 24 months or less, in Tasmania it is 27 months. Good heavens, features races are being won by dogs of that age! In WA you can win three Grade 5s while others usually say two wins. (But not in Victoria or Tasmania where you can go round the provincial circuits picking up 5th Grades as you go). Then some demand a qualifying run before competing in a Maiden, others don’t.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in respect not only to grading but to other subjects as well.
If the dogs in boxes one and five are scratched, where should a lone reserve go? Some states say it will be decided by ballot. Consequently, there is a 50% chance of achieving the worse result if the dog were to go into the five box. A better race outcome would be to leave the 5 vacant and put the dog in the one box. To do that a new rule is not really needed. All you do is refer to the existing rule for the placement of a field of seven runners. Unfortunately, it is not used.
We mentioned the violently different attitudes to the use of the Finish-On-Lure the other day. But all lure types are a matter of someone’s personal opinion, including their colour (some failing to note that greyhounds are basically colour blind to red), single or dual bunnies and the noise they make. The same goes for the detail of box constructions, especially the size of the viewing apertures. Their placement varies, too.
Steward decision-making and penalties for breaches are inconsistent from one state to another, and often within the same state. Successful appeals are not uncommon.
Widely varying support from state governments is also having a big influence on day to day operations, from prize money to the development of more attractive facilities, or even breeding subsidies.
One factor often overlooked in the industry is that the split of industry management into half a dozen jurisdictions, plus GAL, weakens the whole structure. It makes political and commercial influence less effective and stops the industry mounting serious national programs to enhance the image of the greyhound or to influence potential customers.
More widely, the patchwork operation of multiple betting operators has destroyed the integrity of punting by creating a mess of small pools which satisfy fewer people, particularly now that bookmaker rings have virtually disappeared. Put more than $10 on your Quinella choice and you will start buying back your own money and significantly reducing the dividend. Only a single national pool will fix that problem. A solution there rests with state governments, of course, but where are the noisy campaigns from greyhound people to encourage them? Indeed, our only national organisation – Greyhounds Australasia – does not award itself the privilege of dealing with “commercial” matters so there is a need to reform things in that sense, too.
Without power and punch, the industry cannot progress effectively. Today it is getting by because greyhounds are useful in financial terms only because they fill a lot of gaps in the TAB calendar, not because consumers want more. Indeed, past evidence suggests that a majority of the public do not like greyhounds and a noisy minority is opposed to greyhound racing altogether. Are we attacking that problem?
Lopsided progress from state to state is ringing alarm bells about the long term viability of racing in some areas. Notably, the four states and territories covered by Tatts are looking at smaller throughput and therefore a declining level of efficiency. This offers a less attractive product for local customers who are now unlimited in their access to alternative betting shops. South Australia is getting by, but Tasmania and Queensland badly need more dollars, yet in both the latter cases, efforts to improve their lot are virtually absent. The new guard in Queensland has failed miserably to show any sense of urgency in attacking the longstanding decline in patronage, field numbers and, consequently, finances. That state has been run by industry insiders for yonks, so innovation and forward thinking are apparently dirty words (for which their political masters are also partly to blame).
Essentially, it means greyhound racing has no leadership, no real spokesperson and no meaningful corporate objectives (ie plenty of waffle but no meaty action). What about fixing that by a total reform of Greyhounds Australasia and putting in charge someone who knows how to get the best out of the system? Two that come to mind are Boof Lehmann and Mal Meninga. Or maybe Andrew Demetriou is looking for something to do? Greyhound knowledge is not essential, it’s what’s in the heart that matters.
Actually, Demetriou might be a good choice as he knows how to squeeze $1 billion-plus out of TV channels. Mind you, he can do that because he controls the entire Australian football operation, not just one bit of it. In contrast, it is strange that not only does greyhound racing contribute to the profits of SKY and the TABs, but it has to pay for the coverage by installing equipment at its own expense. Only netball and tiddlywinks are in that position.
What the greyhound industry is missing are the three Ps – prestige, power and passion. They are achievable but only if we all get together.