Racing’s Many Secrets

Goings on at the Singleton-Waterhouse inquiry today will be instructive but it’s just one of two current episodes of importance.

In case you missed it, Chris Waller, the top Sydney gallops trainer (no, it’s not Gai) dodged a multiple drugs charge because he demonstrated that the offending item came from a feed source over which he had no control. If memory serves me correctly, Graeme Bate was once thumped for exactly the same thing. Others, too.

The greyhound policy, at least in Victoria, is that a drug is a drug is a drug. Bad luck if you pick the wrong supplier. This is an understandable policy but only up to a point. Events are showing, more and more often, that it is very hard to control everything in an increasingly complex world. And the harder you try, the more science finds new ways of ferretting out what has happened.

Then there is the footballers’ defence; yes, we took it but it had no effect on performance. I daresay there will never be a complete answer to that one. In the More Joyous case, we know antibiotics would not have helped the horse’s performance, but would it have hindered her?

Certainly the onus is on the trainer to avoid specified drugs at least. However, the question of minute traces being found in a swab deserves more attention. Quantity should count. Even something as controversial as caffeine can be found all over the food and drink chain. The supermarket is full of it and it is not likely to go away. It seems a more modern management approach is needed, which is what Chris Waller found in Sydney.

However, if you would like a human comparison to the More Joyous medical story, consider this advice from Sydney gastroenterologist Professor Tom Borody, when he talked about antibiotic use when no infection is actually present: “Gut microbes perform so many essential roles in the body that they work like an organ in their own right. We are damaging this important organ by knocking out valuable bacteria with recurrent use of antibiotics.” (SMH 27 Oct 2012)

Looking more behind the scenes, what is emerging now is the question of the flow of information about racing animals. I wrote about one aspect of this last week and, coincidentally, marketing academic and consultant Dr Rohan Miller pointed out the same problem (SMH/The Age 2 May).

Miller’s main point was that 95% of racing fans would not have a clue about what was going on, whether on More Joyous or any other subject, thereby leaving the 5% with inside knowledge to take advantage of their misfortune. He called for improvements to the information process, which is largely what I covered in my own May 2 article on sectional times.

Failure to look after that majority will harm racing’s ability to “compete with myriad other sports for the punters’ dollar”, according to Miller.

That process has already started. All the evidence tells us that serious recreational punters are disappearing, to be replaced by mug gamblers who rarely are able to read formguides, let alone understand the finer points of a greyhound race. And those formguides come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For NSW fans, that mostly means wall sheets posted in over 2,000 TAB outlets. They are prepared by Daily Form Service, a TAB contractor and a long time expert in thoroughbred racing. DFS copied their horse system over to the dogs even though the two codes are subject to radically different factors. They then changed all the track codes, making it hard for punters to compare one with another, and displayed races with the most recent one on top, the reverse of standard practice.

The official GRNSW formguide is available only to people who register – another chore – and then have to remember their password. After that, it is hard to read because of the tiny print size chosen while, for the medium level guide, each race takes up two and a half A4 pages to print out. Newcomers are unlikely to go through that process but they do not have a lot of choice. SA and Tasmanian authorities have opted in to the same system, disregarding the difficulty factor. Other states, barring Victoria, likely to join them before long. The outcome is that well over half the country’s racing offers information which is hard find and use.

Race results for NSW, SA and Tasmania are equally painful to access, requiring 10 separate inquiries to see what happened in all 10 races. Attempts to print or copy the information to another program will find that every dog’s box number will be deleted en route. Fans who like to insert results into their own computer programs – and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them beavering away – have a laborious manual job ahead of them because no simple text file is made available. It will be there somewhere but the public cannot see it. However, they can do so for Victorian races, which is another incentive to patronise racing in that state.

Yet probably the biggest challenge to progress for greyhound racing anywhere is the fact that the breed does not have a positive image amongst the general public. Even so, authorities have failed to mount serious national campaigns to educate that public about its long and unique history. Efforts such as retired greyhound programs and displays at agricultural shows are worthwhile but they are nowhere near enough to make a sufficient impact. Consequently, what the public does not know or like will discourage them from seeking more information in the first place. It’s a Catch 22 situation.

At the core, the SKY-induced disappearance of fans from racetracks meant that new measures had to be devised to approach the marketplace and convert newcomers to the sport. It has never happened. This is a major reason why patrons are now made up of the 5% insiders Dr Miller mentioned, on the one hand, and refugees from the poker machines on the other. And, sadly, the poker machines pay better than the TAB.

Sports betting pays better too, and is growing faster, no doubt for three reasons: betting operators are much more competitive, media coverage is voluminous and detailed, and the public better understands what it is all about.

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