THERE is possibly no subject more contentious amongst greyhound trainers than the grading system. Over many years, including just recently in NSW, hundreds of hopes and wishes have been put forward in an effort to get the local authority to make changes. Even more have been dreamed up by the authorities themselves. Rarely are any of these ideas the same.
This is why, at last count, more than 120 different grades have appeared cross the country. The solution has always been to add another option to keep someone happy. We started with six but they have gone forth and multiplied – to no good end.
Not only that, but the terms and conditions which apply to those grades keep changing. And then some clubs make up their own minds about how to get into a given race – typically those termed “Restricted Wins”. Even those then vary in the number of wins allowed – from one to two, three, four, five or six – or are further qualified by the number of total runs the dog has had – ie no more than 10 or 15 or 20, depending on the club.
Then there is the oddest one of all: the Non Penalty race. When you have 120 other ways of setting up a race, why pick that one? What is its purpose? Why give someone a free kick for no reason?
Two consistent threads run through all these extra options: they all cater for lower quality dogs and they are all trainer-inspired.
And there is one consistent outcome: they have produced fields of lower and lower average standards. This is evidenced partly by the fact that it is less common to see a race for higher than 5th Grade dogs, or perhaps a mixed 4th/5th Grade. Yes, there are Best 8s but they are sometimes not a lot different and simply reflect that enough higher grade dogs were not there in the first place. It not their abilities but their historical grades that have counted.
One of Victoria’s biggest attractions has been that owners and trainers, including those from interstate as well as Paul Wheeler, see the ability to win a 5th Grade at every track in the state as a huge bonus yet it is also a device to stop good dogs from progressing through the system. Tasmania has somewhat similar rules for youngsters. Now, WA has even started relaxing qualifying rules for imported Eastern dogs because it can’t get enough starters for better races.
The other major factor affecting standards is that a greater proportion of each litter is getting a run. That’s because breeding numbers are flat or declining but the number of races has increased. Some will argue that is a useful outcome in some ways but it has come at a high cost. One is that empty boxes mean less incentive for punters to bet due to the smaller prices and dividends. (Queensland is an exception to the general rule but there every number in the book has declined sharply from that of a decade ago).
It is interesting to see that over the past two decades the multi-grade approach has been accompanied by another major shift; the rise and rise of mug gamblers as a proportion of the total wagering scene. With that we got Mystery bets from Tabcorp and tipsters with a habit of suggesting boxed bets, both of which significantly distort market prices and dividends, as well as guaranteeing losses to the investors. (A boxed bet implies that all dogs have the same chance, which is rarely true in practice).
Concurrently, serious or knowledgeable punters have been shouldered out of the way, or perhaps have been diverted to other options (like sports betting or the stock market), or simply retired or died, never to be replaced.
Anyway, whatever the fine detail, the coincidental impact of all these elements cannot be ignored. It is almost like a death wish on the part of those in charge. Trends like these would cause huge disruptions in a normal commercial industry and seriously harm shareholders’ interests yet greyhound racing still ploughs on regardless.
To those who claim the figures are still good, I blow a raspberry. Turnover has either dropped or maintained a level only when some governments changed the commission sharing rules. Like for like, there have been no increases, including in the much-touted Victorian scene. Further, per-race and per-meeting takings have dropped, thereby making the day-to-day betting prospects even dicier. Inflation also disguises the real decline.
Here is the message. If you design the product to suit trainers, you will lose. Quite logically, they ask for whatever best suits their particular situation. They are not there to advance the industry.
To illustrate the racing authority mindset, whether coincidentally or not, that is also what happened in the case of the follow-on-lure where two major states elected to bow to the wishes of a minority of trainers and ignore their responsibility to create the best and safest industry structure for everyone’s benefit.
Another example lies in WA where the authority asked trainers what distances should be designed into the new Cannington track. Necessarily, the answers came back along lines which best suited the dogs or breeding strains most prominent in their kennels. The question of what best suited the long term needs of the industry did not get a look in, which amounts to the chiefs relieving themselves of a fundamental responsibility. (An unrelated but vital issue is that the design included a disruptive bend start for its 600m trip, which indicated the chiefs ignored masses of poor experience around the rest of the country).
The alternative is to structure the product to better suit the customer, in which case you will get more of them. Then more customers will mean higher rewards for trainers. It is the only logical progression.
Of course, that means bosses will need to ask customers what they think. That will be a turnaround because I don’t think that has ever been done.
In the end, we still come back to grading. Currently, that is being done from the bottom up. Yet, one way or another, it should be done from the top down. Excellence should dominate. People will bet on Test matches but not on backyard cricket.