It’s Coming Out In The Wash

It’s a sobering fact that on Monday 4th July 2011 – 37% of all TAB races in Australia started with a short field.

They included Albion Park (5 races), Bulli (6), Bathurst (3), Cranbourne (2), Shepparton (5), Angle Park (5), and Northam (5). Only Launceston had a clean slate with 10 full fields.

Three meetings offered 11 or 12 races, which makes it a little harder to build up numbers.

17% of all fields had only five or six runners, with the other 20% having seven.

Several of the short fields were drawn that way – ie they were not a function of late scratchings. In any event it is hard to be sure how many scratchings relate to dogs that were only reluctantly nominated in the first place (for example, in the hope of getting extras, Victoria routinely holds open nominations for one or more meetings each week).

WA has long been running meetings with 12, 13 or 14 races.

None of this is unusual. It has become the norm.

It all comes at a time when the industry has been digesting eight extra weekly TAB meetings in NSW and Victoria, with yet another to come on Fridays in SA.

In all states we are seeing a rise in the number and proportion of shorter races. Specific recent moves in that direction have occurred at Albion Park, Grafton, Dapto, Ballarat, Gawler and Strathalbyn while many other clubs have maintained or increased their attention to the shorts – eg Richmond, Canberra, Cranbourne, Traralgon, Mandurah, Launceston and Hobart.

In total, 300m-400m racing now dominates the majority of non-city meetings. At those where that is not true, it is usually only because clubs do not have such facilities available.

At the other end of the scale, SA and NSW have increased prize money for distance racing, despite not having an identified demand, nor a pool of suitable dogs. Race times are often pedestrian and fields are poor, particularly in SA.

In this climate, NSW and Victoria are telling us that things are great, money is up and prize money is on the increase. No mention is made of the clear fall in average field quality, more maidens on the program, reduced turnover on Australia’s two major betting attractions – Saturday Wentworth Park and The Meadows – falls and wild fluctuations in many other betting pools, the number of short fields or the number of meetings or races restricted specifically to poorly performed dogs.

Problems with pool sizes are exacerbated by the TABs’ new best friend – Fixed Odds betting – which is the way of the future, according to Dick McIlwain of Unitab. These, of course, rob normal TAB pools (already too small) and tend to rip off punters, price-wise.

Most important, strategically, is that money increases are not a result of natural growth, or even of inflation, but of extra races being thrown in front of “mug gamblers”. As I have instanced many times, there is clear evidence that the proportion of betting attributable to “mug gamblers” has been rising, with all that entails for price integrity.

This adds up to:

  1. Too few dogs for too many races.
  2. An apparent trend to over-racing (requires analysis).
  3. Too many squibs’ races, mostly of dubious betting worth.
  4. Declining pool sizes.
  5. Declining field size and quality.
  6. Declining numbers of genuine punters.
  7. Handing over industry control to mug gamblers.
  8. Doubtful breeding trends which demand in-depth study.

On the other side of the coin we have:

  1. Continuing good quality sprint racers at top level.
  2. A highly skilled workforce.
  3. Excellence in many technical support areas – medical, training, veterinary, drugs, etc.
  4. A marketplace which is naturally attuned to betting, albeit it is not being exploited well at the moment.

By definition, none of those advantages are a scrap of good unless we first fix the negatives. On top of which, the entire package is being thrown into a collection of Australian racetracks which are sub-standard – ie capable of and needing improvement – with the possible exception of Hobart and perhaps Mandurah. That problem alone is a major deterrent to good punting.

In short, put the customer at the top of the pecking order or risk a continued deterioration of the product, with all that entails.

It is small consolation that, judging from a distance, it seems the other two racing codes are no better off and suffer from many of the same symptoms.

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