To see how greyhound racing might fare in the New Year it's useful to look at where we have come from and how we are competing. To do that, several sectors of the industry are worth looking at – dogs, trainers, betting, tracks, customers and racing. (For comments on racing management see our article “Are You Being Served”, 2 Dec 2013).
Dogs And Their Trainers
Other than indicated below under Breeding, there is little that needs to be said about the dog population. There are plenty of good, average and ordinary dogs around, just as there always has been. The bigger question is how we put them together to race.
Skilful and experienced trainers are clearly a major asset to the industry. Technological resources available to them are much improved on “the good old days”, not least of which are improved transport options.
Greyhound racing lost its second spot in the pecking order to Sports betting in 2013, according to the latest national figures from the Australian Racing Board. (Some totals are affected by rounding).
|Change v 2011
|Change v 2011
We have used 2011 as a comparison because 2012 data in the Harness and Greyhound codes was incomplete. Note also that the above figures do not include Betfair, which refuses to provide annual turnover data to the ARB.
Back in 2003, Thoroughbreds held over 70% of the market and Greyhounds 13%. Sports betting was then in its adolescence. Since then total betting has gone up by 59%, largely due to the growth of Sports betting, while the CPI has risen by only 30%. However, the last two years barely matched inflation.
The other major features of the all-code market have been a fall in the relative importance of Win betting since 2003 – from 47% or more of the total to 44.1% today, and in Trifecta betting – down from 20.1% to 17.2%. In their place, First Four and Quadrella have risen significantly.
So where does this cash come from? Here is the all-code breakdown by state. The first column shows the basic figures, the second is after re-distribution of the NT figures (where online bookies are headquartered) in proportion to each state's importance.
Note the massive difference in the WA figures, where the general absence of poker machines presumably encourages residents to bet more on racing. The TattsBet states of Queensland, SA and Tasmania are massively underperforming.
For Greyhounds, 78.6% of betting is done through TABs, 21.4% through bookmakers, the vast majority of which is done online. Oncourse bookmakers' turnover is negligible in both Greyhound and Harness codes.
In these next two areas, Greyhound statistics are badly out of date. The latest figures from Greyhounds Australasia are for 2011. Note also that all our figures exclude NZ operations as they have little bearing on Australian racing and also started from a much lower base.
From our base year of 2003 to 2011 the number of greyhounds named fell by 1.7% – from 12,008 to 11,800 – and the number of litters registered by 11.0% – from 3,209 to 2,887. No figures are published for exports.
From our own resources, we know that the number of dogs actually racing at any one time has risen marginally over the last few years, and sits just below the 14,000 mark. But they are tending to race more often.
That arithmetic means that more dogs are racing from each litter with the clear implication that there is less culling and more low standard dogs are reaching the racetrack.
In quality terms, racing over the last few years reveals that there is a shortage of dogs which can run out a distance race (700m-plus). Only a few good ones can logically be fitted into an A grade category, many are just plodders, incapable of good or consistent times, and a great many fade badly.
Clubs/authorities have embarked on a significant trend to build and/or sponsor a higher proportion of short races, both in the 400m and sub-350m categories, apparently in response to demand from trainers of dogs which cannot manage a longer trip. This is a worrying change as it suggests a lowering of the breed's capabilities and also promotes use of trips which involve messy bend starts and less predictable results.
GA figures tell us that between 2003 and 2011 about the same number of races were held but at 2.2% fewer meetings. The number of starters also fell by 1.7%. This means more 12-race meetings were scheduled and there was a fall in the average number of starters per race, something which has been even more obvious in the last two years.
However, disguised in the national figures were falls in NSW and more particularly Queensland, and rises in Victoria and WA.
All these figures are likely to have grown by 2013. Mid-2010 saw the commencement of new policies to schedule TAB races for low standard dogs in NSW and Victoria (Class C and Tier 3), with SA following later. Of course, once such dogs have entered the system, they can be expected to filter through to normal graded races, thereby making them less predictable.
While doing well at Victoria's Healesville club, once-popular straight track racing is looking wobbly in both SA and Queensland and has almost disappeared in NSW. Other states have none.
The first comment might be – who knows? Published information about gamblers and punters is pretty sparse and what is available is limited to discussions about problem gamblers (in which racing apparently plays a very small part). Any research done by racing authorities remains a secret while TABs are reluctant even to tell their shareholders what is happening. So all we can do is look at the signs, none of which are positive.
- Maintenance of betting volumes and therefore prize money is underpinned by gamblers who bet into often tiny pools or buy Mystery bets – neither of which is of interest to serious punters.
- Increased patronage of low-investment, high-return bets such as First Fours, Quadrellas and Big 6s, and fading interest in Win betting, suggest at least some portion of the market is blindly chasing lottery level rewards. (Notwithstanding that some of these bet types are also being targeted by serious punters).
- Patronage has long shifted away from the racetrack and from late-night betting while twilight meetings are increasing their influence, no doubt from workers having a drink on their way home.
- Commercial formguide sales are apparently dropping, free guides produced by NSW for four states are barely readable and Queensland's is sub-standard, TAB wall sheets – marginally useful in the first place – are being replaced by touch-screen devices with even less information, and TAB counters are closing in favour of more touch-screen betting machines (many of which will not pay out until the following day).
- Race to race dividends indicate constant over-betting on favourites and poor returns for Quinella and Trifecta, mainly due to the distorting influence of Mystery bets. Sometimes, prominent tipsters influence prices, not always to the benefit of punters.
- Today's high frequency racing not only dilutes pool sizes but further confuses investors. It also caters for the “Next-Up” Mystery bettors who have not the faintest idea what they are doing.
- Side-by-side displays of artificial Trackside machines and normal tote screens encourage a further dumbing down of the market.
- Rising popularity of Fixed Odds bets – involving much higher takeouts than normal tote prices (commonly books of 130% compared to 114.5%) – reflects a growing lack of interest in getting good value.
Greyhound Race Tracks
This column has voted long and hard for authorities to commission independent studies of the art of track design. That is prompted by the widespread failure of existing tracks to offer opportunities for cleanly run races, which in turn creates a disincentive for both owners and punters to invest more. Meantime, amateur hour continues, old faults are repeated and millions of dollars are wasted. This is by far the biggest single physical problem facing greyhound racing, and the least acknowledged.
In the final analysis, we have a tiger by the tail as control of racing has devolved to quickfire betting outlets which target only better returns for their shareholders. By following that lead, racing authorities are hanging on to the same tail, hoping that the game will continue forever. This is unlikely.
The best you could say today is that we are getting by, largely due to funding from enough Australians who are prepared to gamble on the mixed bag of races on offer. At worst, three states – Queensland, NSW and Tasmania – face severe financial stresses.
Perhaps we should look elsewhere for trends. For example, America, the home of mechanical hare racing, has seen half of its tracks shut down in the last decade and the remainder kept afloat only by profits from associated casinos. NSW actually has more live racetracks than the entire USA. Betting in America features takeouts of upwards of 20% for state taxes and operator expenses, well in excess of that for the poker machines indoors (but similar to some TAB bet types here). It also battles heavy opposition from many states, as well as from anti-racing lobbies, as is occurring here now. The punter who can overcome takeouts of 20% to 30% has not yet been born.
As the New York Times last year reported from the track at Bluffs Run, Iowa, “Aside from a few dozen aging diehards cheering the dogs from the shabby grandstand, the gambling-inclined prefer to take their chances amid the bright lights and constant action of the casino downstairs.”
Fore-warned is fore-armed. What's missing in America, and is needed here now, is more passionate support of greyhounds from both racing fans and the general public. That can come only when we talk to them and they see a product of excellence and good value.