Assest Rich, Income Ordinary

Last week’s discussion about professional punters – or one of them anyway – led into an assessment of how the business of racing is turning out. In the main, that has meant addressing trends in betting turnover (not great) and how changes might help down the track.

However, it would be remiss not to talk about the production side of the industry, if only to present some balance to the discussion. So, what goes into the effort that ends up placing eight dogs in their boxes, ready to race?

In the first place, there is the dog itself. The public barely know it but the greyhound breed is unique in the purity of its ancestry and its versatility – a nobleman’s hunting companion, a job as a kangaroo chaser to help SA farmers keep the interlopers out of their crops, coursing with live and now mechanical lures, gymkhanas and shows, and then its major current role in chasing that lure around a racetrack. And, of course, the modest but very worthwhile retired greyhound programs.

Still, some changes have taken place over time. Experienced observers have commented on a shift from a more robust animal to one which is bred almost wholly for speed, perhaps to the detriment of longer distance racing. Top stayers seldom rank highly in breeders’ popularity stakes (Token Prince being a major exception to that rule).

Even so, this column lacks the expertise to comment in any detail on that subject. Other are better equipped to do that job so we can only hope that they pay attention to that need, and do so publicly. There are several large state-of-the-art breeding establishments in this country that are in a position to start the ball rolling there. The same applies to veterinarians and a few dedicated types who have spent decades tracking the successes of various breeding lines and patterns. In the national interest, it’s time they made a noise.

The question that needs answering is whether today’s policies and practices are optimising the future of the breed. Where are we now, how did we get here, and where are we going? What has prompted the sudden surge in 300m squibs’ races (the gallops would call them jump-outs)? And so on.

But, cutting to the chase, it’s trainers who bear the responsibility of turning pups into athletes, sometimes with great success, sometimes with great disappointment, especially when injuries take a toll. Pretty much like footballers, really. It’s a tough gig.

It’s hard to tell exactly how many trainers we have as published data over the years has been hopelessly confusing because of differing licensing requirements in different states. Suffice to say there are around 9,000 trainers or owner/trainers in Australia (fewer than a decade ago) and three quarters of those are in NSW and Victoria.

It is likely that we have been seeing a trend towards more large kennels and fewer backyard operators, no doubt partly helped by increasingly onerous local council regulations, themselves a function of suburban outgrowth. Work habits, household economics and stricter regulations would also have played a part. Either way, there remains a high degree of dedication and professionalism in the sport. Without both of those qualities, racing would not be what it is today and records would not continue to be broken.

Equally obvious are the consistent improvements in supporting services – veterinary, medical aids, feeds, muscle men, studmasters, transport options, air conditioning, and, on the other side of the fence, drug testing. They have played a big part in making greyhound racing a better and cleaner sport.

The opposite is true of the tracks the dogs race on. Professionalism – ie in research, analysis, design – is simply not there. Never has been. Nobody has bothered to do the necessary study, although some positive attempts have been mounted in Victoria (and a little in WA) to improve things. Otherwise, “she’ll be right” dominates and errors are repeated. The reverse is true in the other two racing codes.

Finally, the clubs that have put the racing programs together have often survived because of the voluntary contributions of local enthusiasts, who deserve great credit. However, while productive in past decades, it is doubtful if these structures will be sufficient to deliver prosperity in the long term. Not in a tough competitive world.

That aside, the industry has a wonderful base to work with. The fundamentals are good. The product is dynamic, and it’s easily and relatively cheaply presented.

Historically, greyhound racing fared very well but that takes us back to the days when trackside was the only place to be if you wanted to have a bet – legally. Crowds of 10,000 to 15,000 were commonplace. The advent of TABs and then SKY changed all that. Even though the overall quality of the product kept improving (at least until recently), punters gradually deserted racetracks in favour of well-appointed neighbourhood outlets. Yet clubs and authorities kept doing what they had always done, newcomers would find it hard to learn the business, and the marketing effort remained meagre. Focus has always been on direct participants rather than on customers.

(Actually, that’s not entirely true. If you check a copy of a 1927 Newcastle Herald you would find pictures of greyhounds parading down the main street with monkeys on their backs. Advertisements for meetings at the four local tracks were bigger than those for department stores. Of course, those were entrepreneurial deals, not raceclub-operated meetings as we know them today. Currently, the newspaper is kind to greyhounds but there are no ads, only two local tracks and one of those is struggling).

The upshot is that the industry is getting a worse return on the effort and assets involved. This is explained specifically by the inability of the racing industry – not just greyhounds – to achieve growth in real terms. Both betting turnover and breeding numbers are flat or declining, while the harness code is trying to go out backwards. Of course, the lack of growth tells us that other recreational opportunities have become relatively more attractive to consumers. Sports betting is one such example. Racing is therefore being squeezed in a socio-economic sandwich and showing no signs of breaking out.

The prospect of simply increasing activity – ie more races – is no longer feasible as the program is already full to overflowing. Besides, we have long since run out of suitable dogs. Medium and long term growth can come only from higher patronage of existing races, which demands extensive research followed by a radical change to the way those races are offered to the public.

Consider the perspective. If greyhound racing had achieved extra growth of just 3% a year in real terms over the last 20 years, roughly the lifespan of SKY, it would now be pulling in double the turnover – ie $7 billion a year rather than $3.4 billion – with all that means to facilities and prize money.

A fresh coat of paint will not help achieve that sort of turnaround. Only major reform on the national front can hope to do the job. Go back to scratch and re-build. The basic materials are all there, the industry just needs an architect with courage and imagination.

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