What Board Members Might Be Asking About

Perhaps numbers don’t always tell you everything, but they are a good start. In our May 21 article we showed what has been happening to betting around the country – money fair but pools small and customers down. Other data is not quite so obvious.

Greyhounds Australasia has now produced 2011 figures but to use them it’s first necessary to delete all the New Zealand stuff – “-asia” has become “-ia” for our purposes. It is pointless to include the Kiwis because the state of the art there is quite different to that in Australia. Although there is quite a bit of interchange between the two countries now, New Zealand has no bookmakers, different lures, a different economy and a faster growth rate from a low base over the last eight years of the current GAL statistics.

Back home, trends are interesting. The number of dogs named and litters registered has eased a little over that period to below 12,000 and 3,000 respectively for the year. The recent peak was in 2006 when 13,300 names and 3,486 litters were counted. Possibly more dogs are being exported but GAL does not publish those figures. Even so, they would have little effect on breeding (the majority being slow dogs).

At the same time, total meetings, races and starters have been reasonably steady. There is a small increase in the number of races per meeting to 10.5 (no doubt due to the 11th or 12th race being added here and there) and the average number of runners per race has edged down to 7.6. Nothing spectacular, though.

However, that’s the Australian total. If you look closer, Victorian and WA race and starter numbers have increased (by about 12% and 25% resp) while those in NSW and Queensland have gone down (by about 6%-9% and 21% resp).

The 2010 introduction of the cheaper “C” class meetings in NSW hardly registered because they were simply re-badged country meetings. On the other hand, Victoria’s extra meetings, all with TAB coverage, emerged mainly from the policy initiative to bring in low class (Tier 3 etc) racing for dogs that were battling to get a run elsewhere. WA has mostly been adding more races to existing meetings to cater for demand. WA is an attractive destination, with good prize money, for dogs that have run out of their 5th grade eligibility in the eastern states.

Queensland has been progressively losing tracks, notably the one-turn Gold Coast operation, as well as better quality dogs. Its 4,567 races in 2011 represent a drop of 21% from the 5,819 run in 2003. It badly needs an injection from outside, not just to build numbers but also to return its prime Thursday spot at Albion Park to its former standard. That meeting is now padded out by Novice races for dogs with only a maiden win. Whatever happens at the new Logan site will have no effect on the position for a couple of years so other innovative steps are urgently needed.

Tasmania and SA are just about holding their own, although SA has recently been shifting around some race dates amongst clubs.

Happily, while all this is going on, stake money has been rising at about 8% per year, or well above inflation levels. Some of that growth can be put down to the arrival of NT bookies, which now account for about $1 in every $5 bet. TAB betting is very flat and highly dependent on mug gamblers even to do that.

However, Tasmania and SA are beneficiaries of better deals with Governments/TABs and Victoria is soon due to get help there as well. NSW and Queensland remain behind the eight-ball because of obsolete but fixed intercode distribution percentages. Both still cross-subsidise the other codes.

Data on licensed persons are best ignored as different states have different ways of counting and classifying them. That’s a pity as this is important management information. One difficulty is that Owner-Trainers and Trainers are often counted separately. But surely only a very small percentage of trainers would not be owners as well? Far better to count pure owners separately and call the rest trainers. As in many other aspects of racing, a firm national standard is required.

The number of clubs declined from 96 to 81 due mainly to shutdowns or amalgamations in Queensland and NSW.

What the GAL figures don’t tell you (but a skilful colleague has added them up) is that there are about 13,400 dogs actually racing in Australia. The number varies through the year – more in the October-December quarter than in the hotter months of January-March – but it has broadly maintained a level over the last four years. The average dog races 25 times a year.

What all this boils down to is a flat operational output but one that is heavily influenced by a reduction in quality of much of the public offering – ie in the way the product is presented to the betting public. There is no rise in demand from good dogs, but those at the bottom end are getting increased service.

Critically, the proportion of short races (400m and below) has been climbing everywhere but Tasmania, mostly at the expense of 450m to 520m races. It did not just happen; it is the result of a deliberate policy by state authorities and some clubs to introduce more short trip options. Sadly, they are less predictable than longer races so it does not help punters much.

Financially, the industry has gained for reasons that are largely outside its control – new betting regimes and better shares of the same old pie. Still, the money is in the bank, or in owners’ and trainers’ pockets.

While that is nice for the moment, it leaves us with the giant question of how patronage will trend in the future. Currently, income is hugely dependent on mug gamblers as no serious punter could possibly invest on some of the rubbish now placed on the calendar – eg maidens with no form, dogs that cannot run fast, dogs with one win in 20 or so starts. In turn, all the evidence tells us that the number of serious punters is in decline and showing no signs of returning – save, perhaps, for isolated events like the highly successful Sandown Cup (Miata) meeting the other day (who were those guys?).

But why we are not breeding more good dogs, or even more dogs. And why is it that trainers are more and more patronising short races? They would be very well aware that better money is available over longer trips so the answer has to be that their dogs are just not up to it. As with the thoroughbreds, we must be breeding more for speed than stamina.

The industry is also spending in odd ways. For example, all states have breeding incentives for local activity, but what dividends does that produce? None that are obvious. Breeding appears to be a profitable activity, with or without subsidies. Then NSW, Victoria and SA have brought in incentives for distance racing but has it done any good? Not if field quality and the push towards more short trips are any guide.

The current gloss over Miata’s successes and $350,000 first prizes are all very fine. But there is nothing wrong with the top ranks anyway – never has been. It’s the middle and lower level, week-to-week stuff that has suffered; the area where we need regular customers patronising the sport. But they don’t do that any more. Indeed, I suspect much of the money going around (mug money aside) is the same old stuff going backwards and forwards, just as it is for those buying and selling dogs.

Fresh money, and real growth, can come only from fresh or re-invigorated customers – perhaps like the ones that turned up at Sandown for the Cup meeting and generated astonishingly high turnover, including $104,000 bet in Victoria alone on the First Four, which must surely be an Australian record. That’s a “well done” for the club and GRV. But we need to multiply that by a hundred or more and to keep on doing it.

Essentially, the industry is now standing still, which is never a real option. You either go forwards or backwards. What will our leaders decide?

* * * * *

I was not sure about Irma Bale in last week’s article. A top win, nevertheless. I still think she is best in the 600m-650m range. But why did He’s My Future falter in the home straight? Stewards commented on Vintage Blend (injured) but not the other dog. Curious.

Incidentally, that Sandown meeting saw 26 progeny of Bombastic Shiraz competing. That’s right up there with numbers from the Wheeler production line.

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