One Way To Generate Bigger Prizes

The other Wednesday night, when the TV program was ordinary, I had an urge to nip down to the club to do the Warrnambool meeting. I don’t mind that track. But, whipping out the form, I found I was being asked to bet on five maidens and a very mixed bag of 5th grade races. It was hard to get enthusiastic.

Looking around for neighbouring meetings, the pickings were even more of a problem. Five meetings in four states offered a motley collection indeed: 15 races around the 300m mark, 13 maidens including Warrnambool’s, leaving less than half the races with any potential at all. Closer inspection revealed that potential was unlikely to be realised. The dogs simply were not up to it.

The difficulty on these nights is that any decent runner will almost certainly be an over-bet favourite and your multiples have a big chance of being torpedoed by a bolter fluking a place. The odds about a winning night are not good.

So back to the TV program.

The other day I instanced a comparable challenge with declining quality at Albion Park meetings. However, it’s not just Sunday, Monday and the above Wednesday. It’s now most of the time.

Of course, there are exceptions but they tend to be meetings with feature events and added prize money. Even then, both patronage and pool sizes are chancy, as we found out recently in the Horsham Cup. For the week to week punter, it is easy to get discouraged and leave the betting to mug gamblers – which is what all the evidence tells us is happening. Fewer people understand what makes a greyhound tick any more, let alone appreciate the niceties of a particular track. Formguides are just there to fill the space on the wall.

The other day I watched a club patron dialling up the detailed form shown on Tabcorp’s inquiry screen (based on a Windows 98 platform, which is fascinating itself). It’s actually quite a good presentation and far superior to the wall sheets. He went back and forth for several minutes checking what various runners had done. He then turned away, went over to another machine and bought ten Mystery tickets. What’s the point?

Why is this happening? And where will our growth come from?

An obvious clue is the July 2010 boost to the weekly program, mainly in NSW and Victoria, where authorities took advantage of Tabcorp’s offer of extra spots here and there. To fill them they dug around at the bottom of the barrel and found low class dogs that might appreciate a run. Usually, prize money was lower, too, but better than they might have got in the bush.

However, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Maidens, often with no form, now frequently make up between one third and 100% of many programs. Add in all the Tier 3 races in Victoria, legally limited to slow dogs. Then count up all the Restricted Win events popping up everywhere – more average dogs. Followed by all the Non-Penalty races. What is their purpose anyway? What is wrong with the grading system that it can’t cope? And then the increase in short trips has dragged even more out of the backyard, or encouraged others to race more often – too often, perhaps. SA gets only third rate Wheeler dogs while WA keeps getting discards from the east (often doing nicely, too). Finally, do we really need 11- and 12-race meetings? 10 is plenty to absorb, particularly when the last couple stretch into the late hours.

Short fields are becoming increasingly common, not least in Victoria where barely a week goes by without the authority having to hold open nominations at one or two meetings in order to build up fields. But what will you get when you do that? Half-fit dogs? Slow dogs? Dogs that raced three days ago? And no reserves. A trainer who is on top of things would have put his charge in at the normal time if it was ready. Surely he would need no extra encouragement.

The final irony is that the industry is always keen to plough extra cash (read: punters’ cash) into special maiden series – “time honoured” are the magic words – which makes trainers happy but leaves punters rolling their eyes. Sure, they get the odd good dog out of them, but they would emerge no matter how they started off. Meantime, races are either unpredictable or the good dogs win by ten lengths at short odds (not that we know in advance which are the good ones).

The sum of all these parts is too many races for too few dogs, even with the addition of bottom level candidates. The dog population has barely changed over the years but the opportunities have. It’s all a far cry from the days when trainers would crawl over broken glass just to get a draw in town (yes, it was as tough as that).

Those on the plus side of the ledger claim that (a) more money is being distributed to more trainers and (b) more dogs are doing something useful rather than being discarded. That’s barely true if you look at total turnover in real terms, but less encouraging is that it’s being spread over more meetings. In turn, that means pools are suffering and genuine punters will feel even less inclined to invest. And surely we can look at more imaginative ways of employing surplus dogs than destroying the product on the way. For a start, that’s what country racing is for, not TAB/SKY programs.

The role of the board of an authority is not just to look after dogs and trainers. Their brief is to develop and progress the industry. Declining standards do not meet that challenge. What needs attention is the business of racing – how it is all put together.

For another slant on this subject, go to Canberra and see what the politicians are doing. The similarities are remarkable.

Holden can’t make a go of it on its own so the government is subsidising it to keep it alive. In the short term, that keeps people in jobs yet their luck will have to run out sooner or later. The people who decide these things – car buyers – have long since said they prefer cheaper and better imports over the local product. But the government has dismissed that thought so now Australian taxpayers are footing the bill to balance Holden’s budget, including, no doubt, all the dividends going back to America.

The Australian (March 23) quoted the government’s own Treasury chief, Martin Parkinson, when he addressed this principle in a speech last year: “We need people who understand that if you replace quotas and tariffs with other interventions, no matter whether to create ‘national champions’ or to support so-called strategic industries, you are placing producer interests ahead of those of consumers, and it is still akin to protection.”

On the same subject, former Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, was even more to the point when he criticised how the government dealt with pork barrelling: “You want to make sure every child gets a prize.”
When you put bad dogs in bad races, all you are doing is making sure someone gets a prize. It’s racing’s version of pork barrelling.

A good business manager might consider another alternative: cut the number of races by one quarter, improve standards and work out ways to increase turnover per race by 50% or more. That’s precisely what banks, post offices and many others have done.

There would be fewer prizes, but they would be bigger.