Short Measure Risks Future Income

Victoria’s jump into 400m racing accelerated over the last few years, so much so that it now accounts for more than a third of all provincial programs. It did that by adding new trips to old tracks (Ballarat), by lengthening existing shorter trips (Horsham, Shepparton, Warrnambool) and by building new tracks with optional distances (Geelong, Warragul). Sale and Bendigo were also re-built but their shorter trips were largely left as they were – 440m and 425m respectively.

It seems that trainers welcomed the change. Punters should be more wary. Breeders will have had to take note.

All told, it is a dubious trend. Unfortunately, it has been copied elsewhere. WA, SA, NSW and Queensland have taken steps in that direction, too.

I say unfortunately because it has meant increased attention to speedy but less robust dogs. The long term impact on the breed must be profound – fewer dogs suitable for 700m racing, for example. Still, that is far from the only issue worth debating.

If you look into the detail of 400m racing some interesting evidence emerges. The table below shows three columns: the number of winners from box 1, the number from box 8 and the relationship of one to the other. The figures come from the latest published lists and involve generally 400 or more samples (which makes them fairly reliable).

Winning Boxes
Track Distance Box 1 Box 8 8:1 %
Bendigo 425m 31 26 84%
Geelong 400m 74 103 139%
orsham 410m 45 39 87%
Sale 440m 65 74 114%
Shepparton 390m 86 82 95%
Warragul 400m 76 78 103%
Warrnambool 390m 54 45 83%

Normally, you would expect to see box 8 produce about two thirds as many winners as box 1 – ie a ratio of 60% to 70%. That reflects the longer distance the 8 dog has to cover and the traffic from the other seven dogs that it has to negotiate. It can overcome that by jumping clear at the start or by motoring up on the way to the turn (if it is good enough). The former happens occasionally but the latter is very difficult in these shortish races because of the closeness of the start to the turn.

Yet it is happening. Box 8 is winning more than its fair share of races and, in the case of Geelong, it has gone to an almost crazy level.

There can be only one reason for this bias: the middle five or six dogs are getting squeezed out of the race. As the field goes quickly into the nearby turn, the bookends – 1 and 8 – are tending to get a free run around while the rest are suffering the consequences. That sort of interference leads to unpredictable race results. It is verified by the fact that average win dividends (excluding maiden races) are higher for these short races than they are for longer trips at the same track – ie at Geelong 460m, Horsham 480m, Shepparton 450m, Warragul 460m and Warrnambool 450m.

For example, over the last couple of years the average dividend for Warrnambool 390m winners was $6.52 while for the 450m trip they averaged only $5.76 (NSW tote). One is harder to pick than the other.

Additionally, more falls occur in 400m races than in the 450m bracket, further emphasising the interference level.

In the longer races, the dogs have more time to sort themselves out. They are not all bearing hard left as soon as they come out of the boxes. Therefore interference is lower and the 8 dog does not get a free ride. It has to win on its merits. And it wins relatively fewer races than over the short trip.

All this adds up to three things.

First, we have not learnt how to build tracks well enough. Track peculiarities are outweighing the ability of dogs to negotiate them. Not enough study has gone into the fine points of track design.

Second, disruptive races are a turn-off for punters. When the difficulty factor is too high, it outranks the ability of investors to work out form. Since this is where the industry’s income is derived, that’s a serious issue. In any case, my observation is that people prefer longer races – they want to get a good run for their money.

Third, the over-emphasis on shorter races is favouring dogs without stamina. It may well be influencing the selection of sires, which is something those more skilled in the art should be looking at. It is certainly not helping the development of stayers.

And, to the points in this article we should add the increased scheduling of races nearer the 300m mark – as, for example, at Albion Park, Grafton, Dapto, Richmond, Mandurah, Cranbourne and Traralgon. In the latter two cases they often make up half the program. They are not genuine races but merely jumping contests.

Some clubs have commented that “this is what trainers are asking for”. Perhaps so, but clubs and authorities might note that trainers do not provide the industry’s income, customers do.

A solution? Well, as an interim measure, but not a short term one, cut prize money for races of 400m or less by one third to one half and shift the cash saved to races of 600m or more. It might take a few years but I betcha that will be a big help.