I suppose Victoria has to be seen as our leading greyhound state – not the biggest (that's NSW), but the best. It has more of the best dogs, plenty of top trainers, lots of cash and it regularly tries to improve its tracks – not always successfully, but it does try.
However, as I said to a previous boss there, you can't keep pulling rabbits out of the hat. But so far, it has.
There are three main reasons for its prominent position. One is Paul Wheeler, who sends all his best dogs there. Another is the latest deal it struck when the government, the TAB and the industry gave it an even bigger slice of commission income. In turn, that had followed an era when racing codes got a share of state poker machine taxes – all unearned, of course. A third, but unsung, factor is the ready availability of one-turn tracks. In relative terms, only Tasmania can equal that feature.
Today, a revamped board and new CEO, Adam Wallish, are busy bedding down a newish computer system, together with a new IT manager. It's a bit of a struggle at the moment but no doubt they will get through it.
More important is where they are leading the industry. This is the real worry.
Last week, for example, Victoria ran 20 meetings with 237 races at its 12 tracks. Of those races, 25% started with a short field, including some with only 4, 5 or 6 runners. Breaking it down, 94 races, or 40% of the total, were for slow dogs in maiden (52) and T3 (42) events and were therefore a turnoff for punters. Aside from those, it routinely offers a stack of Non Penalty and Restricted Win races, all of which makes a mockery of the grading system. But why is this so? The answer to that has probably got lost in history.
Going back to those 20 meetings, all but two consisted of 12 races, a significant move upwards from the traditional 10 and therein lies the pointer to modern-day racing. The more the merrier is what TABs like. State authorities claim they are reaping the alleged benefits in ever-higher commissions. Even if that were true, you have to ask – compared to what?
What, for instance, would be the result if all the energy put into extra races had been devoted to seeking out new punters via a smaller but higher quality offering? Or, indeed, keeping some of the old punters because the trends make it clear that mug gamblers now dominate betting turnover. You can't bet sensibly into pools of $5,000 to $8,000 as NSW customers were asked to do last Monday night at Shepparton. Compare that with the $25,000 or so Shepparton averaged a couple of weeks ago on a night when two important meetings had been scrubbed due to weather problems. Fewer races meant much bigger pools, which then guaranteed more reliable odds. The message is that there is only so much cash to go around. Split it too many times and something has to give.
But even peak time pools are degrading as more and more races are jammed into the program.
Part of the reason for the drop on a per-race basis is the overcrowded calendar. But equally vital is the decline in average field quality. Many of the races mentioned above amount to a lucky dip and so would not interest serious punters. Even then, better quality races are being infiltrated by poor dogs because once they get into the system it's hard to stop them moving around at will, doubly so when the difficulty of generating full fields makes it easy for them to find a home. GRV is forever calling for extra nominations. It is even conducting an investigation into shortages at mid-week city meetings.
A further point is that more and more dogs appear to be backing up after two, three or four days – at whose urging we don't know. There is not a vet in the world that would recommend that as a good practice. (Diverting for a moment, readers might have noted that, for the second time, Miata failed in Melbourne last week after a transcontinental trip from Perth and all the stress that entails. Even footballers are more careful these days to address those sorts of hassles – it is why teams seldom do as well in away matches and why soccer even allocates more points for an away win).
We are not talking just about Victoria. Over the last month 20% of Wentworth Park races have had short fields while Brisbane's Albion Park recorded a shocking 39%, even though its main two meetings are padded out with Maidens and Novice races, which should attract plenty of nominations.
All these short fields will probably not affect Win totes as much but they are a deterrent to exotic betting. Dividends and pools drop significantly then – by how much is hard to say exactly.
The end result is that, outside feature events, the quality of the Australian product is in decline, all due to action by the industry's managers. Too many races and too few dogs combine to make betting less attractive. It is not rocket science.
GRNSW is prone to ignore this trend by showing that the income from the extra races (“C” Class) attracts more in commission than they cost to put on. No doubt, but it makes no attempt to list the parallel drop in turnover in competing races – for instance, at Wentworth Park and The Meadows on Saturday nights. As I pointed out a while ago, a modest provincial twilight meeting on Friday outbid the prime Wenty Saturday meeting the next day.
There was a time when trainers would crawl over broken glass to get a draw in town. No more. Almost any average dog can get a run today. And the explanation is a matter of simple arithmetic. So is the solution.
But do authorities even want a solution? Do they see a problem? Currently, the proliferation of races means that the bottom half of the dog population is getting a run more often, regardless of ability. The justification for that is that it avoids disposing of slow dogs. But is it doing that? No figures have ever been advanced to prove the point. In any event it is unlikely that the adopted measures are significant in the overall scheme of things. Some 20,000 dogs are whelped every year in Australia yet much the same number actually end up racing – around 13,500 at any one time, according to our surveys, and that figure has not changed for years.
For little or no benefit the industry is therefore paying a high price – a downgrading of perhaps 90% of the sports' activity. The trend becomes even more acute when you add in the absence of any substantial efforts to attract new customers, the gap in the public's image of the breed, and the rise and rise of mug gamblers – people who have no allegiance to the sport as such. That's four long term issues that demand attention.