Reading Chasing Dreams, A History of Greyhound Racing in Victoria, by Tim Haslett, reminds you of the sport’s tradition amongst landed gentry, of bickering between clubs, about abuses of live quarry, the popularity of live hare coursing, the former dominance of privately owned racecourses, and continual political infighting, amongst many other features.
The book offers a contrast with modern day practices and yet it also serves to remind us that some of the same old problems persist.
For example, while many applauded the decision to terminate commercial ownership of racetracks it should be noted that much of their history coincided with a mixed bag of overarching state authorities – themselves influenced by members with loyalties to special interest groups – as well as varying attitudes from individual politicians and the public.
Put another way, would life have been better if the entrepreneurs had been overseen by an independent and highly skilled authority? Fast-buck merchants become so only when conditions in the community allow them to prosper. To coin a phrase, they were dangling possums in front of dogs only because they could get away with it.
Much the same messy situation prevailed in NSW before a Royal Commission in 1931 effectively ejected American “Judge” Swindell from his otherwise popular Glebe (Harold Park) operations. The decision to replace him with a club (GBOTA) came about because of Swindell’s dubious management practices, not because proprietary racing was a bad thing as such. In that era, racing was licensed by a government department.
More aptly, 80 years later, NSW not only persists with the 1931 solution but has cemented the influence of clubs by enshrining their positions on the state authority’s board. Still, bickering and power struggles have been observed on and off over the years while conflicts of interest are routine and abrupt resignations not uncommon (notably Mike Ahern, then president of the NCA, and breeder Paul Wheeler).
In either event, there is a good argument that abuses once attributed to commercial racing are just as much due to the rules, regulations and supervision of the controlling authority – which may be why later versions became known as “Control Boards”.
In a similar vein, live hare coursing, the father of modern day racing, was once regarded as a proper and normal practice, particularly by the rural community and many politicians, including Victorian Premier Bolte. What failed subsequently was the speed, or lack of it, with which the industry caught up with changing community standards.
That evolution may be likened to the massive changes in betting structures; first the bookmakers and touts, then the emergence of off-course totalisators, and latterly the expansion of betting products and the improved means of making use of them. Concurrently, the power behind the scenes gravitated over the decades from clubs to state authorities to the all-powerful TAB companies, all of it more recently impacted by the arrival of entrepreneurial NT bookies and Betfair.
Simultaneously, the customer profile developed from keen and fairly knowledgeable racetrack attendees to the growth of semi- or full-time professional punters with sophisticated analysis programs and then to the current growth in “mug gamblers”, and the fading influence of good formguides, countered by the increasing use of tipsters. Having attended to many welfare and integrity issues, greyhound authorities’ main role now is to maximise the number of daily and weekly races, regardless of quality.
All of which leaves us with one seemingly modest but highly influential impact which has destroyed much of today’s price integrity – the TAB Mystery bet. Do not underestimate the way it distorts the betting market.
Whether willingly or not, today’s racing authorities have little or no influence on those betting structures. TAB shareholders and “renegade” betting operators rule the roost.
Since the ability to have a bet was the prime reason for racing’s success over the course of the last century it is curious that industry finances are stagnating. Wagering turnover, on a like for like basis, has been relatively flat for over a decade now while newly available casinos and poker machine palaces have soared in popularity.
Racing authorities might therefore put the task of policing trainers and the like to one side and concentrate more on where the future dollar is going to come from. What worked automatically in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s is no more.
It’s a funny thing. In the old days industry players controlled its commercial destiny but regulatory oversight was a bit light on. Today, the position is reversed, with strong regulation but commercial outcomes in the hands of others, including friendly governments where available.
Chasing Dreams will cost you a tiny $20 at GRV. It’s worth buying.