Greyhound Racing’s Blind Spot

The tenth anniversary of a significant occasion is upon us. It was in August 2001 that those in power fiddled with the Wentworth Park track by re-shaping the rail on the first turns for both 520m and 720m trips.

Apparently, it was an attempt to respond to claims that the turns were disruptive, which was hardly news to anyone who had been watching races there for the previous 50 years. Arguably, the 2001 work made the turns worse. More dogs ran off, more clashes occurred as dogs tried to fathom which way to go. It was a tough ask for a dog going at maximum speed.

What often happens is that the average dog in an outside box is disadvantaged more than normal because inside railers are able to nick away even further as they round the turn (eg in the 2009 Easter Egg and Lochinvar Marlow in the 2010 Paws of Thunder).

In the other main option, the inside division bump and shove, thereby slowing down and allowing outside dogs to get the fly through the middle of the track (eg in the 2011 Easter Egg).

The puzzle is that you can’t be sure which option the field will choose. They don’t know either, hence the high interference. Even as I write, falls have just occurred in two races on Friday night and in two more on Saturday night

Judging by quotes over the last several years, almost everyone who matters has expressed concern at this outcome. Leading the push would be Australia’s biggest breeder/owner, Paul Wheeler. For a long while, he completely banned his dogs going there.

Despite all that, nothing has been done to remedy the problem, nor is there any evidence that a fix is even being considered.

You have to ask, why is that so?

As it happens, Wenty is not alone. There are plenty of other examples of high-risk or biased trips, primarily due to first turn hassles. Here are the worst of them, roughly in order of seriousness:

1. Ipswich 431m.
2. 520m.
3. Canberra 440m.
4. Bathurst 450m.
5. Bulli 400m and 472m (including the flat turn into the straight).
6. Richmond 400m
7. Sale 520m.
8. Casino 411m.
9. Lismore 420m.
10. 400m.
11. 530m (heavy bias – affects 715m, too).
12. 520m (heavy bias and flat turn).
13. in general (despite the improved 400m start)
14. Virtually every middle distance (550m-650m) bend-start trip in the country.

The extraordinary thing is that in recent years most of the above tracks have either been newly built or have been subject to expensive re-builds yet the errors were repeated and the problems persisted. They were either ignored or not recognised. It’s hard to think which is worse.

Analysis of the evidence we do have – race times, winning , TAB dividends, falls, and simple observation – confirms that these tracks have design shortcomings which dogs cannot overcome. Just as one example, 66% of winners (an Australian high) over Ipswich 431m are dogs which jump in front. Simultaneously, other good chances are prone to get smashed in the first 50m trying to get around the sharp left turn.

Dogs are not robots, of course, but the natural variability in their racing habits is being far outweighed by the peculiarities of the tracks they run on. Track dominates dog, rather than the other way around, which is a major factor in discouraging good punters and relying instead on mug gamblers who have no idea what they are doing.

So far, racing authorities have declined the first step towards improving this situation – ie investing in an in-depth, independent scientific study of the relationship between the greyhound’s actions and the nature of track features. Instead, the industry relies on guesswork. Consequently, millions of dollars are going to waste every year building tracks that don’t work well.

Such an approach is at odds with the professionalism displayed in some other aspects of the industry. It’s the industry’s blind spot.

So, do we have any acceptable tracks – meaning relatively interference-free? Two are worth mentioning immediately – and . However, I suspect the former may have been a happy accident while the latter improved only after significant adjustments to the original main turn (but good on them for doing that). Next best would be Grafton’s 407m trip, although better banking on its home turn would be nice, and Horsham 480m. Since there are some 400 race distances in Australia, that means there is a long way to go – and, as we speak, there are several multi-million dollar building jobs waiting in the wings. What will be their fate?

Be warned, though. This is not just a matter of giving punters a helping hand. Interference has a lot to do with injuries, both physical and psychological. There are groups in the community which don’t like greyhounds much and are starting to make their presence felt about injuries and abuses, whether imagined or real.

They have already caused the shutdown of tracks in America and Spain and are very noisy in England. And just the other day an anti-greyhound group demonstrated loudly, with considerable TV and press coverage, against the local council’s approval of a Queensland property/finance company’s plans for a new greyhound track at Murwillumbah in the NSW Northern Rivers, presumably to replace Border Park. Google “murwillumbah greyhound track” to view the ruckus.

We need to be on our toes.

Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act, we become party to injustice. Those who are repeatedly passive in the face of injustice soon find their character corroded into servility.

From Wikileaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry, quoted by Bruce Elder in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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