Some pretty smart fields presented for the Shepparton Cup last Monday and most of the usual suspects succeeded. However, one thing stuck out.
From the eight Cup heats and four graded races on the program, 26% of starters had raced in the previous three or four days. This seems excessive, as veterinary opinion (and that of some published trainers) is that dogs should have at least a seven-day break between runs to allow their systems to fully recover.
The challenge for punters is to assess which, if any, of these dogs would be affected one way or another. Of course, there is no way of doing that sensibly, is there? It’s the trainer’s job to assess the dog, and then to inform the stewards if anything is amiss.
In the event, only one heat winner (Oh Watta Nite) was amongst the four-day backups.
On the same night, the Albion Park experience was much the same. 23% of runners in graded races had competed four days earlier. In eight graded races, three of those were winners. The argument is inconclusive there but the fields were pretty ordinary anyway.
In Queensland, high frequency racing is the order of the day, no doubt because the state has been short of dogs for years now and the problem has worsened recently. Five of eight graded races were short of a full field – a normal occurrence on Mondays. (Could someone please send them 100 dogs?)
You might suspect similar symptoms are emerging in Victoria, as evidenced by the regular habit of holding open nominations for some meetings, the number of short fields, and the extra four weekly meetings run over the last year. It’s doubtful if the extra dogs put to work – which necessarily would come from the bottom of the barrel – would be of much help. Most would tend to be graded out anyway but, inevitably, some would creep through to better class races.
Despite a regular in-flow of dogs from north of the border (perhaps balanced by an outflow to SA and WA) the outcome there is that much the same number of dogs are competing for spots in more races, hence the more common incidence of short fields and few or no reserves.
What’s critical now is the big picture.
How many racing animals does Australia actually have? Basically, no-one knows. No such statistic is kept.
The best we can do is to look at the data up to 2009, the last year for which they are published by Greyhounds Australasia (why no 2010 data?). Over the preceding six years we saw small rises in Meetings (+1.7%) and Races (+4.1%) yet the number of Starters dropped (-0.5%). That’s what has led to more short fields. The average field size fell from 7.7 to 7.4.
Tellingly, more dogs were named (+1.6%) yet litter numbers fell substantially (by -7.7%), indicating more dogs were being named out of each litter. In hope, perhaps?
These figures would look a little worse again if you removed New Zealand data from the total. It has been growing very fast despite recent problems with its tote.
None of those figures takes account of the extra TAB racing which started in Victoria and NSW in mid-2010, and this month in SA. That must thin out the demand significantly, a trend which is consistent with all the above.
Well, integrity perhaps, but it is certainly not maintaining the quality of racing. By any definition, average field quality has been falling steadily. In some cases, deliberately so as authorities schedule more TAB races for slow dogs, maidens or those with few wins. In other cases, ordinary or perhaps less fit dogs are getting a run purely to make up the numbers. In more cases again, there are not enough to fill the empty boxes. And, as we saw at Shepparton and Albion Park, dogs are racing more often.
The top level is not affected but anything below that is. Well, having said that, distance racing is certainly a mixed bag as fewer and fewer real stayers are emerging from the system. Coupled with that, the proportion of shorter races is rising. But that’s a subject for another day.
Meantime, the industry must address a key question. Does it want more four-legged poker machines or does it want to achieve better quality racing on a daily basis? It cannot have both.
It may be no coincidence that the last several years have seen a decline in the proportion of serious punters and their replacement with mug gamblers. In other words, the customer mix is aligning itself with the nature of the product it is asked to buy. Or is it vice versa?
The extra racing provides a small boost for connections of bad dogs but that gain is coming at a huge cost to an industry that used to pride itself on the excellence of the breed.