Greyhound Racing Victoria mishandles a PR j-curve

The GRV publicity machine has been working overtime in recent months in an effort to counter past and possible future criticism of industry performance – mostly related to reducing euthanasia and injury rates.

Fair enough, they are good objectives. However, to achieve them, the whole truth can easily go missing. Evidence is essential. Cause and effect must be established.

The unique J-curve development at Traralgon is a case in point. It may well turn out to be a wonder of the age but we will have to see what happens when it opens later this year. Meantime, there is no clarity about the exact positioning of the starting boxes (relative to the width of the track and their proximity to the rail.

The three starting options are termed “Drop On Boxes: 450m, 395m, 350m” which implies that they will copy the recent Horsham and Shepparton practice of siting them very close to the running rail. (To be accurate, the Shepparton system is actually a roll-on one as the boxes are on wheels and are pushed on to the track prior to each 385m race).

That policy offers risks. For example, it contrasts greatly with the new circuit at Grafton in NSW where an alleged “state of the art” design puts the 350m and 660m boxes way off to the side of the track proper. With some experience now, they seem to be working well. UTS was also involved in that development but who actually did what is unstated. Very confusing!

It is also intriguing that a camber of 8% is specified for Traralgon when other new concepts (also preferred by UTS) call for 10%. The difference is not explained but could be quite critical. Rain, storm effects and loam types can always be troublesome.

Note: a design figure of 8% or 10% is one thing; what is maintained over time is quite another.

Anyway, back to the score at the Test. GRV has proclaimed that six factors have contributed to an improved injury rate at Shepparton (11 Sep media release) …

– Increase in track camber to reduce injuries on race turns
– Improved track harrowing
– Increased track monitoring and water management
– Roll-on starting boxes for the 385m distance
– Resident vet on-site three days a week
– Free trials which encourages better preparation of greyhounds for racing

Well, we will have to take their word for most of these as they can’t really be checked. However, the increased camber sounds very sensible (so long as it can be maintained). Flattish turns are a definite no-no for dog racing as runners can easily lose their balance and smash into nearby dogs (one glaring example is the Richmond 535m first turn).

Yet, in practice, the Shepparton change generated a significant increase in race falls, as recorded over an eight months period in 2020. They jumped from 7.2% of races in the earlier model to 10.0% with the new box position.

Comparable outcomes were seen at Horsham which also got a drop-in (not roll-on) set of boxes for its 400m trip. At both tracks there was no significant change to their longer trips (485m and 450m), both of which owned conventional starts but would have benefitted from the higher turn cambers.

As an aside, Shepparton’s past and present experience suggest that the high cambers peter out too early. Desirably, they should continue until well into the straight because far too many dogs seem unable to hold their course as they round the final corner, thereby upsetting the running order. Geelong and others are similar. (GRV has an excellent Curator’s Manual but its camber figures specify only an overall number, not where they start and finish).

The roll-on boxes are a different question altogether. We know from the 2020 survey mentioned above that race falls increased substantially by comparison with the old 390m trip where the boxes were sited well away from the rail. In contrast, the roll-on boxes are pushed right up to the rail.

Under those conditions, a worsening is entirely logical. If you force the field to work in a much more limited space then smash-and-grab is a probable outcome and interference has to be greater. The higher fall rate confirms that.

Secondly, there has been a major change in winning box distribution between the pre-2019 figures for 390m and the current 385m performances. Box 1 wins have shot up from 15.9% to 20.2% and Box 8 from 13.0% to 13.9%. The middle boxes got squeezed out, relatively speaking, clearly as a function of the more extreme crowding. The race does not optimise fairness to all.

In other words, the UTS theory is faulty. Hard experience beats out simulated computer exercises (where the outcome is determined by the sort of assumptions inserted into the program – just as has occurred with wonky climate change predictions, for example). By all means, some experimentation is always worthwhile if done for solid reasons. But making permanent changes without proof is not what engineering is all about.

Besides those points, let’s note that not all falls result in injuries (or not physical ones) and that many injuries are minor and could occur for any number of reasons. Any injury figures should always be itemised – perhaps as regularly published by GWIC in NSW. Additionally, many injuries are self-inflicted as slower-beginning runners try to bullock their way through the field and come a cropper. Clumsy is as clumsy does.

That does not negate the importance of injury reductions. But a much stronger case might be made that, if anything, it was the improved cambers that helped in that direction, not badly located boxes.

For GRV (and others) more effort must go into validating the equation before making wild claims to suit the PR campaign. It also validates a long held view by this column that investments should have clear objectives and sound measurement of outcomes. Neither occurred at the two tracks in question.

Incidentally, it’s good to hear that GRV is keeping track of injury numbers and their location. But why is that a secret? No such information is ever published. Why not?

Where Is The Peer Review?

The history of track design in this country is fragmented, personalised and frequently amateurish. That is why this column has long supported the use of independent experts to investigate the processes and come up with principles that can and should underpin all jobs. That was why we complimented then CEO in NSW, Paul Newson, for taking action to commission inquiries into both live baiting (by WDA) and track design (by UTS). Many participants took a different view, apparently not liking “outsiders” to horn in on their work environment.

Some UTS reports have been made public but they are mostly recommendations and we still have not seen the details of the eventual solutions or changes. What was actually done and whoever was responsible for them remains in la-la land. Consequently, those desirable principles we were looking for are largely a mystery today. That is insulting to the industry members and customers who paid for them and it fails to allow suitable debate about the pros and cons. The end result is that mediocrity triumphs.

The Grafton development appears to be an exception but how would you know?

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