I HAVE to agree with many of the comments from reader “National Lass” (see The Worth of Greyhound Administrations, July 26), but particularly the uncontrolled and uncontrollable nature of the Australian betting market.
However, three corrections: first, my comments about disappearing punters were not related to professionals but to everyday serious punters of small to medium size – note that one lot gets discounts, the other does not. I was quite specific about that.
Second, Tabcorp’s and Ubet’s fixed odds markets for greyhounds are just as hungry as anyone else’s – always in the vicinity of 130%. When added to the Mystery bet or boxed Trifecta market, where punters lose before they start, and considering Tabcorp’s size and influence, it must take a large responsibility for today’s outcomes.
Third, much of the dilution of betting pools is a function of Tabcorp’s mad scramble to stuff as much racing as possible into every hour. It alone controls all that, although some racing authorities also contribute.
How it grew
Historical accuracy is also important. It was the rise and rise of corporate bookmakers which put some life back into what was a moribund racing market. At the time, oncourse bookmakers were plodding, partly because of the biased rule-making by state governments and major race clubs (the “Principal Clubs” as they were then) and partly due to their ineffective or non-existent lobbying.
Those problems, incidentally, were the prime motivators in several of them setting up operations in the Northern Territory in the first place (from the mid-1990s) and later making millions by on-selling them to overseas owners. The whole process was a reaction to faulty traditional management.
The operation of TABs, mainly Tabcorp, was characterised by monopolistic behaviour, including sitting back and raking in profits for its shareholders and staff. A totalisator can never lose as it simply rakes its cut off the top of whatever volume is bet. That cut is liberal and artificial and is defined by the government, not the customer.
Subsequently, Tabcorp did not lead any change, rather it followed the example of offline bookmakers by adding fixed odds to its portfolio (to arrest the leakage) and by establishing its own NT online company, Luxbet, (to compete directly with the newcomers). It was always reactive, not proactive, in contrast to its pre-1990 experience when it had regularly improved and widened its product range, thereby expanding wagering activity.
The current position is that all operators, Tabcorp included, are regulated lightly or not at all in respect to fixed odds or related betting. They can and do make up their own rules, often changing those rules to better suit their individual aims. A recent attempt by Racing NSW to keep them honest is merely tinkering at the edges.
Over the last 25 years, after adjusting for inflation, racing turnover has almost stood still but what might have been growth for Tabcorp (given some initiative, which was absent) instead fell into the arms of the online people. Concurrently, racing’s overall share of the gambling market has fallen from 50% or so to about 10% today. There is no greater illustration than that of the industry’s mediocre performance. That responsibility lies jointly with racing administrations and the two TABs.
Importantly today, Ubet’s sagging fortunes in an internet-friendly society will continue to worsen due to its smaller pools and because many punters no longer have any geographical allegiances. Both Ubet and Tabcorp have an advantage only as a function of the value of local shopfronts. However, since its major market in Queensland is in a state of upheaval, Ubet has a two-pronged challenge. That’s not a good corporate outlook and it will further unbalance the Australian market.
The obvious solution to these and other problems – especially the “liquidity” hassle mentioned by “National Lass” – is to create a properly supervised national betting pool. Not only would that bring some solidity to the market but it would also encourage lost greyhound punters to return to the game. The only thing standing in the way is petty jealousy amongst state governments. They cannot see the wood (more taxes) for the trees.
The unfortunate thing is that the resultant dumbing down of the market, particularly for greyhounds with its smaller pools, is not a static situation. Failing some attention, it must continue to worsen. Value is hard to find, doubly so in the fixed odds area where “National Lass” seems to like what Tabcorp does (unlike many other comments one hears, some of which have been quoted in these columns). However, over-betting on favourites is not helping either.
Lack of Knowledge
Let me offer some examples of today’s market in the three distance races at The Meadows last Saturday. I will not quote final fixed odds prices as they represent only where the book finished, not what happened en route.
(1) Race 1: Punters supported Sisco Rage into favouritism at $2.40 or $2.80 (depending on location) because the Watchdog put him on top and suggested he was worth a $2.10 price. Now this is a useful dog and it has won over the long trip but that was a long time ago and it made it then by jumping in front and holding on against lesser dogs. Its recent form included a good win at Ballarat and three failures, all over short trips. Predictably, on Saturday it compounded on the home turn and finished nowhere. Tribal Faith, which should have been favourite, had solid recent distance form, had won two of three starts over the trip and won easily at big “overs”, even though the time was poor. Its handicap penalty made little difference as it does not rely on leading anyway.
(2) Race 5: The next race saw everyone’s favourite Sweet It Is win really well. But, miraculously, it actually jumped in front at the start and quickly settled into 2nd spot, after which it was a lay down misère. It paid $2.10/$2.20 which was much more sensible than the Watchdog’s $1.50. I have previously suggested to readers never to back this bitch at odds-on, so I suppose that was alright. However, don’t expect it to lead again.
(3) Race 7: The third event saw punters hammer that marvellous dog Space Star into $1.70 (Watchdog $1.50) even though it was coming back from 10 weeks off due to injury and even though the trainer said it was not really fit. It led to the home turn and then folded. Surprise, surprise! Tens of thousands of dollars went down the drain. The winner could record only 43.36, a full second outside its best, but most of them were paddling by the home turn.
The point here is that in two of these cases the betting was irrational and probably spurred on by a tipster and a follow-the-leader syndrome. The other was an acceptable bet considering the opposition was modest and was mostly over-raced anyway. Lady Toy was the only possible test for Sweet It Is but it never got into the race and is not at its best over the last 50m, or from an outside box where life is always hard at this track.
I can’t see a lot of educated money in these pools but who knows what happened in the online area or in fixed odds. Possibly much the same. In total, all these goings-on are indications of a market full of poker machine refugees. The age-old concept of knowledgeable punters doing battle with knowledgeable bookmakers is but a distant memory. So is the potential for turning a profit when favourites are too short and the house takes 20% to 30% out of the action for the other half of the business.
Sad though it is for me to say it, what wagering needs is more regulation, more oversight, more transparency and more business-like behaviour. Simply, the ordinary gambler is getting ripped off, partly through a lack of knowledge, partly due to secretive or unpublished practices and partly due to a lackadaisical attitude from state governments.
The frustrating thing is that each racing administration, like its state government, is far too inclined to take short term decisions and ignore the national implications, which have become so vital in an internet age. That fragmentation means they lack oomph when dealing with TABs and governments and get picked off one at a time. What better illustration is there than that no-one can tell you at a given time how much Australians are betting in total, or on what. For a multi-billion dollar industry where customers have multiple access points, that is ridiculous.