THE latest data tells us that February’s live baiting and other hassles are almost certainly having some effect on what the dog population is doing. In particular, there has been a 2% drop in the number of dogs racing in the June quarter of 2015, compared with 2014. That followed a smaller drop in the March quarter.
However, let’s not get too worked up about that. Clearly, a fair number of racing dogs were taken out of the force for one reason or another. In another few months that situation may well change.
Meantime, there is much more which should concern policy makers and race programmers. While our own figures for the number of dogs actually racing are current, the latest data from Greyhounds Australasia are limited to the decade ending in 2013. Still, there is no indication that trends have changed since then. Consider the big ones.
Here there has been a whopping change. Litter numbers fell by 15.7% over the decade but the number of dogs named rose by 9.8%. Obviously a much larger proportion of each litter has been readied for racing. That is consistent with a 6.4% rise between 2010 and 2014 in dogs actually racing. (Our data is compiled by scanning all Australian fields for individual names and deleting any double counting. Currently, the total is running just over or under 14,000).
In turn, the latter period coincided with the introduction of low class TAB races from mid-2010 onwards. It also accelerated the reduction in average field quality as slower dogs infiltrated the normal patterns as well as the low class events. That trend has seeped through to major city tracks where Novice and Maiden events are now more common.
Authorities may well be pleased that a bigger proportion of the dog population is getting a run but it is coming at a cost.
The next most alarming trend is that average field sizes have declined from 7.7 to 7.4 over the decade. While the smaller fields can be found anywhere, they occur mainly in higher grade and middle or long distance races. A contributing factor would be the practice in many states to make it easier for dogs to win more lower grade races, thereby avoiding a compulsory rise in grade (Victoria is probably the major offender there but it is not alone).
The trend is further emphasised by the difference between the increase in the number of races (+4.6%) and the number of starters (+0.3%). Responsibility for that lies solely with state authorities which schedule the races – they have over-reached themselves in a search for more income.
Anyway, whatever the cause, smaller fields discourage higher turnover due to less attractive dividend payouts. When coupled with lower quality fields and smaller pools, this means fewer races are worthy of investors’ attention. Logically, this must be a significant factor in the fall of serious punter numbers and the compensating rise in the proportion of mug gamblers.
More races equals more income?
Well, not entirely. Although we ran 4.6% more races in 2013 than in 2003 there has really been no natural increase in income. Certainly total receipts have gone up but in most cases the rise was due to better tax deals being cut with state governments and to some widening of the market as field fees from online bookmakers came to the fore.
Those changes will be reinforced as bigger commissions on Ubet turnover in Queensland and a lower tax rate in NSW (from later in the year) take full effect. Of course, all rises will be tempered by higher allocations to welfare matters.
More generally, turnover on a like-for-like basis has either stayed the same or fallen. In the latter case, for example, extra meetings in prime time on Saturday nights reduced turnover at Wentworth Park and The Meadows.
Essentially, the industry has become less efficient (less income per race) save only for government handouts.
This effect has been exacerbated by the introduction of additional races by the TABs (which means Tabcorp), particularly from overseas, and the eagerness of state authorities to grab hold of vacant spots. More racing per hour has not been accompanied by a comparable rise in gamblers. Supply has exceeded demand, causing average turnover per race to slide across the board.
How much should we pay?
By far the biggest jump between 2003 and 2013 was in the stakemoney paid out. It climbed 96% to over $91 million dollars in Australia and over $100 million counting New Zealand as well. This far exceeded the inflation rate.
Assessing whether that is a good, bad or indifferent figure is beyond the reach of this analysis. That would require detailed examination of operating costs and capital investments but it certainly sounds good to start with.
However, I do have a beef in two particular areas.
First, an increasing proportion of prize money is going into Group racing, particularly at the very top level. It’s too much by any objective measure. Prizes of $250k to $350k are well above that necessary to attract top fields. They are economically unsound. The same dogs and the same punters would line up for much less. Equally, big money is going into special events for maiden dogs, often unraced, albeit sometimes with the bonus of encouraging more owners to enter the industry. The idea is fine, the cash is unnecessarily high.
Second, the excessive incentives to top dogs is a concept diametrically opposed to other policies encouraging participation by low standard dogs, or even the daily grind of provincial racing. Arguably, more encouragement of, say, 5th Grade racing would provide a bigger long term benefit to the code and a wider interest in provincial racing. In the latter case there is a strong economic case for boosting day to day racing and thereby increasing rewards to a much larger number of owners and trainers. Better provincial fields might be a desirable by-product.
The big picture
Taking the above and many other items into account, the big bugbear to progress is the all-too-common absence of national leadership, consistency and co-operation. No two jurisdictions have the same idea – or any idea – about a given subject with the result that often nothing happens or happens far too slowly, or differently. Currently, that happens to be breeding or the follow-on-lure. In both cases, hard evidence runs a distant second to emotion.
The existing concept of Greyhounds Australasia is not only limited by its self-enforced ban on discussions of commercial matters but also on its lack of executive power. For an industry with national and even international interests this is farcical. It seriously weakens the code. And it is no defence that the other racing codes are no better. The time is overdue for professional structures and business-savvy managers to take over.