Grigorieva Bale’s fine but surprising win in the Golden Easter Egg, one of the most lucrative races on the Australian calendar, was a terrific effort – Paul Wheeler again! It has not been the most consistent dog in the country but it does take you back a year to the time when as a raw puppy it set the Bendigo track record of 23.42. Funnily enough, Slater, winner of the Egg in 2007, had a similar history.
Anyway, that party is over and the hard slog starts again.
There are differing opinions about how well greyhound racing is going. Now is a good time to have a look at the industry in two ways: what is happening week to week for the rest of the year, and what can we look forward to in the long term.
Already we have Tasmania and NSW struggling for money and Queensland struggling for everything. WA and SA are marking time, just as the country’s dog population has been doing for the last decade or more. Victoria is doing OK financially following big changes in the sharing of TAB commissions and grants from a kindly government (having a Racing Minister who is not only a vet but also in the Premier’s chair is unique). Radical changes are taking place in the customer profile as TABs manufacture more and more mug gamblers to replace the form students of yesteryear. So, too with race programs, which are now stuffed to overflowing with good, ordinary and just plain bad dogs in unpredictable ways.
In the end, the package does not do justice to the racing public, to a skilled set of trainers, to the breed, or to the big advances made in behind-the-scenes technology in recent times. We are not making the best of our raw materials. We can do better. We must look for fresh ideas.
Here is an example of a different way of looking at the big picture.
Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large at The Australian, wrote the other day about “Labor’s Tragedy: a lack of strategy to govern for all”. You might consider this drawing a long bow but there is a remarkable similarity between how the country has been governed and the progress, or lack of it, in the racing industry. Forget political preferences for the moment and consider the similarities.
PK: There is “a crisis over Labor’s policy and strategic direction”
Racing has never really had a strategic direction, never mind words included in pretty documents published every few years by state authorities. Largely, racing strives only to do a bit better than last year. At the club level the major, or maybe the only, objective is to survive. Neither gives you a thrill or an incentive to join in.
PK: There is “a belief that the Gillard government is derailed and has failed to build on the Hawke-Keating legacy”.
Racing in the 1980s delivered into the modern era a pattern of strong local involvement and big attendances at racecourses. The advent of SKY brought more cash but also pushed the above two factors into the background. Eventually, the new system failed to replace those committed crowds and started relying on impulse purchases by mug gamblers. Racing never really adjusted to new circumstances.
PK: “Rudd and his close supporter, Chris Bowen, believe that sweeping internal reforms are essential for Labor’s survival”.
Racing hasn’t smelt a whiff of any reforms; rather it prefers to hold on to traditional systems and processes, risking decline or even suicide to do so (witness the aggressive and emotional opposition to the arrival of NT bookies and Betfair).
PK: “Labor must change. It cannot see itself as a party defined by its institutional ties with the trade unions. Such a narrow definition dooms Labor’s future”.
For some time now racing has been tied to the apron strings of TABs, which effectively control race coverage and programs. Recent breakouts have been helpful at the margin yet still serve to emphasise the continuing dominance of the TABs with their monopoly licenses over most betting. Unfortunately, the TABs’ objectives are different to those of racing – quantity is beating out quality.
PK: “The sharpest point in (Laurie) Ferguson’s resignation speech was his lament that Gillard is not governing for all Australians”.
Racing authorities largely concentrate on administering the needs of participants at the expense of adjusting to developments in the outside world where customers live, work and play. That huge night last year involving Miata’s attempt at the Sandown Cup was an exception that proves the rule.
PK: “Gillard’s divide and rule tactic is casting Labor into an entrenched minority position”.
Differences, or even disputes, between states are perennial barriers to progress and timely action. The national body is ineffectual, refusing to address commercial or consumer matters, and operating in great secrecy.
PK: “Individual ministers, mostly, are smart and diligent, but the total is much less than the sum of the parts”.
All racing management – club, state and national – is legally in the control of committees, with varying but unknown levels of responsibility assigned to senior staff. Such a policy encourages mediocrity and discourages innovation and strong leadership.
PK: “Labor … has been all over the place with confused priorities, poor decision-making and sudden improvisations”.
Racing conditions vary extensively from state to state, as do their finances, field standards, track qualities and level of government support. Each state makes up its own local rules. Policies lack economic justification.
PK: “Labor, as ever, awaits a political messiah with the answers”.
Should racing find such a leader, it would make no difference. The current system would grind him down. We must first change the system.
From the public’s viewpoint, all the above will matter little after September when Labor will disappear into the wilderness, no doubt still arguing on the way out. But it matters a lot to racing which has already ceded genuine control of the industry to outsiders – mostly to TABs and other betting agencies but also to state governments who lack either the objectivity or the will, or both, to modernise racing structures.
Remember also that those TABs operate under detailed rules set up by Premiers, Treasurers and Racing Ministers. It is a classic case of governments meddling with businesses they know little about in a climate where wagering itself regularly comes under threat from moralising opponents and animal activists. To governments, racing is simply a cash cow which must be watched closely lest the mafia take over. It survives because most Australians don’t mind an occasional flutter and because the big end of town has influence (albeit that’s mostly to do with horses, not dogs).
Like Labor, racing must re-invent itself in order to achieve a different and more favourable attitude from the general public and to be able to adopt commercial practices which allow it to compete in a tough world.
A good starting point: repackage the image of the greyhound breed. That’s not a simple task but it is a necessary first step.