When Do You Count Your Chickens?

It’s worth looking at the betting on The Meadows meeting last Saturday. That time and place hosts one of the two biggest betting venues in greyhound racing, Wentworth Park being the other. Between them, the two tracks are surrounded by half the population of Australia.

It’s just one example but it is typical and it is instructive. It tells you where racing is headed. Here are the TAB Win pools, race by race.

Race # Victoria NSW Tatts Total
1 23,717 16,550 11,473 51,740
2 20,884 13,155 9,518 43,557
3 13,778 8,937 5,619 28,334
4 22,737 16,053 9,010 47,800
5 18,013 14,024 9,313 41,350
6 17,099 12,046 6,733 35,878
7 24,305 17,735 9,405 51,445
8 14,701 8,765 4,441 27,907
9 12,297 7,649 4,331 24,277
10 23,768 17,924 9,871 51,563
11 14,454 9,430 4,312 28,196
Total 205,753 142,268 82,026 432,047
48% 33% 19% 100%

Obviously, they are up and down like the proverbial. There is no pattern – race 5 and 8 were the only higher grade events but the betting did not reflect that. On top was a fairly average mix of youngsters in the first race (at 7:15 pm). The longer trips – over 600m – were races 3, 4, 9 and 10. They were erratic, too.

These figures do not include TAB Fixed Odds betting (which is not published) but they are fairly small in greyhounds and would not change the pattern.

The spikes occurred in much the same way in all three totes. The first race polled well everywhere and they all dropped off after 9:30 pm (from race 8 onwards) except for a jump in race 10, no doubt following the finish of harness racing, which starts earlier and finishes earlier. Even so, that made no difference to race 11.

Everywhere, there was a 100% or more difference between top and bottom. There is no inherent reason for such a wide variation. The prime, but not the only, cause for this behaviour is an overcrowded program.

And there were clashes aplenty. Apart from battles amongst the five greyhound meetings, including The Gardens, Richmond and Traralgon, five harness meetings directly competed with the dogs (two others had finished earlier). Thoroughbred meetings were not involved as they ran well before or after the dogs.

That means a race occurred on average every two and a half minutes throughout the night. Couple that with the usual delays in getting harness races started, and the three minutes or so it takes to run them, and it leaves little time to digest the form and the prices for the dogs, or even to notice they are running.

These days, SKY does not need presenters, a mechanical harvester would do.

On top of that, Tabcorp has a habit of displaying its “next-up” price screens out of sequence by giving a harness race priority over an earlier dog race. As SKY runs them in the correct order, but on two screens, this further confuses punters. That discrimination also reduces the casual betting on the dog race. (Note: although harness racing is falling in popularity and in total betting, the individual races still attract more dollars than a given dog race).

The outcome is a mish-mash of racing organised by a Tabcorp (SKY’s owner) trying to maximise its turnover regardless of the junky nature of the product it is turning out. Most greyhound administrations have been sucked into this mess, tempted by the prospect of more dollars at the end of the year, and also regardless of the quality of the product they are offering to the public. They have glossed over the chop in turnover on the two better quality meetings, compared with two or three years ago. There are only so many dollars to go round and The Meadows and Wentworth Park have suffered collateral damage.

If you examine those individual pools, you can see that it is impossible to rely on any one race climbing much past $10,000. You just don’t know. This means that many TAB punters must make their bets on the basis of no more than $5,000 or so because that’s all that will be on the screens prior to their cut-off time. What happens after that is in the lap of the gods.

Some punters may be turning to NT bookies, who now handle some 20% of the action, and will probably handle even more in the future. Even so, that may not offer price certainty – depending on whether they used Fixed Odds or Best Tote options. In either case, bookies betting back into the smallish tote pool can affect the odds further. Only a national betting pool would help ease that burden, although it will not completely overcome it. Mug gambling will continue unchecked, or may even increase in importance.

The gross take at the end of the year may or may not be affected by what happens on Saturday nights. It is more likely that gains, if any, will come from extra meetings and races stuck into holes in the program at other times of the week – themselves meetings which drag out slow dogs just to make up the numbers (in Victoria, Tier 3 rules make slow dogs compulsory). Greyhound racing is the only code – in fact the only sport – which rewards poor competitors like that. The justification for that policy is simply that it is good to offer some opportunities for bad dogs and so avoid them meeting a worse fate.

Perhaps, but how it is being done must be weighed against the dumbing down of the entire racing week and the loss of a genuine punting group that obviously can’t be bothered any more. Consequently, the twin terrors of overcrowded programs and mug gamblers are re-shaping the industry.

(It is noteworthy that as far back as 2005 an overload of races prompted the leading gallops raceclubs to establish the dedicated thoroughbred channel, TVN. They were looking for a better discussion of their races than was possible on the rapid fire SKY system).

Here we see an example of modern corporate behaviour in lifting short term turnover at the expense of the long term impact on the quality of the product. Typically, executives earn bonuses based on what happens this year, not next year or the one after that (and Tabcorp bonuses, for example, can be very hefty, often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Whatever the justifications offered, we will still end up with a future that is founded on too much poor quality racing and too many poor quality customers. Here we have shown only a small sample but everything that has occurred over the past few years is consistent with these patterns.

Remember, it is not just greyhounds. The entire racing industry has been in decline for two decades now, relative to other forms of gambling and recreation (market share is down from 50% to about 10%). Thoroughbred racing has suffered most while sports betting has gained most. Of course, the bean counters have little influence over sports as they are under the control of others. Racing is a different story as TABs hold the whip hand everywhere.

Those same TABs once did a fine job of progressively improving racing’s lot by making a bet possible all over the country and increasing the range of bet types. But they have long since run out of puff. Indeed, Tabcorp’s previous boss indicated wagering was at a “mature” stage and therefore diversified the company into casinos and the like. The quality of racing became irrelevant, only the amount of dollars processed per minute was worth worrying about. If you like, it moved from free range flocks to force-fed chooks in cages. Maybe Jo would have been proud, but look what happened to him.

Do not be misled by occasional publicity from state authorities pumping out joyful messages about turnover growth. Whether true or not, any growth is a function of extra meetings, not extra patronage, and/or improved handouts from state governments. Overall betting quality has declined, and will continue to decline under the current regime. Fewer and fewer races are suitable for betting, and there are fewer genuine punters to make those bets – a vicious cycle which badly needs reversing.

The tactics may be holding their own but the strategy is flawed.

Only going back to scratch and completely reforming the industry offers any hope of real progress. The starting point is to create a meaningful national racing powerhouse and take control back from the TABs.

State of Origin stuff might have worked for Rugby League but it failed in AFL and in most other walks of life just as it is failing in racing. Racing is a national, or even international, industry which is based on quality performers and fair competition. It should be treated as such.