It’s hard to believe but last Friday Wentworth Park managed to put on only nine races. Apparently, in the whole state there were not another eight takers to chase after the $3,300 first prize on offer. They would not have had to run fast – a modest 30.50 would have done it in three of the eight sprints on offer. Stayers might have had a go in the four-dog field over 720m, never mind that the not-too-consistent Smart Valentino had the one box and could have won on three legs.
That a few were up in Newcastle for feature races is hardly an excuse. Not many better dogs nominate for Friday meetings in town anyway. And Saturday night was not bursting at the seams as two races there were short of a full field as well. So where have they all gone?
The short answer is that we have not had the numbers for a long time now. We have run out of dogs, and those that are available are tending to race more often. In a previous article, (A COSTLY SQUEEZE PLAY, 6 January), we related how the Australian dog population has barely been maintaining a level over the last decade. Starters have been kept up only by dragging more pups out of each litter and putting them in low grade races.
For more background, consider what has been happening over the last month in the bigger four greyhound states. The figures below cover a representative sample of 1,132 races in 99 meetings, split about one third in the city and two thirds at provincial tracks. (There is some overlap in these figures)
These made up 18.6% of all races. While they are very necessary, they are also clogging up TAB meetings, often during prime time, when they should be parked out of harm’s way. Always unpredictable, they are for gamblers only, not punters.
Trips below 411m:
These accounted for 32.5% of the total and most involved some sort of bend start, thereby creating a higher risk for both dogs and punters. They have been rising in popularity with trainers, who obviously view their chances better than in longer races. Even newly constructed sub-350m races have been added to the program in recent years, while the NSW GBOTA has resurrected 280m jumping competitions at Wenty for reasons best known to itself.
Traditional grades have been discarded in favour of Tier 3 and C Class events limited to slow or inexperienced dogs. Together with Non Penalty races in Victoria and Novice races, they now make up 23.7% of all races and are generally worth avoiding because of inconsistent performances. To that group you might add all the Restricted Win races designed to give unsuccessful dogs a chance to win money.
Only just over 7% of races were over a distance (595m-plus), but more than half of those had short fields and many low standard runners, indicating that the breed’s stamina is falling away. Indeed, that view is supported by erratic results and the relatively poor times being run in most staying races.
In total, up to a quarter of all races started with fewer than eight runners, which is not a new deal as it has been going on for months and even years now. Not only does that amplify the numbers story, but it also impacts on betting turnover as there will be less enthusiasm for exotic bets. At the same time, competition for spots is not strong, so lesser types will be getting a run and probably confusing the outcome of any race. Indeed, quite a few races in the city now contain what are Novice dogs (no more than one win), an unheard of practice in past years.
The customer is now looking at a situation where the majority of races are either unbettable or dubious propositions – i.e. maidens and short races where starts are on top of the nearby turn. And that is not counting all the other unpredictable bend starts over longer distances, or the inconsistency of staying dogs over the 700s. Perhaps only a quarter of all races are worth looking at seriously.
Apart from pulling dogs out of the bottom of the barrel, one culprit has been the every-increasing practice of scheduling 11- and 12-race meetings, rather than the traditional 10. Then, wherever a hole appears on the TAB calendar, someone rushes to fill it up. Quality is irrelevant, only numbers count.
So much for the type of race we are putting on. But these conundrums must be considered along with two other challenges for punters; first, the squirrelly nature of TAB prices from one minute to the next due to the smaller pools now available, and especially the over-bet favourites and, second, disruptions caused by poor track layouts.
In the latter case, I can find only four Australian tracks where there is a good chance of dogs getting a fair run – Hobart, Horsham, Mandurah and Northam. Hobart is out of the question for betting purposes due to its lack of (correct) sectional times, while Northam just does not have a high enough field quality to justify betting attention. Horsham’s 480m and 570m trips are manageable providing the field quality is up to scratch, which is not always the case. That leaves the better Mandurah meetings (minus its 305m squibs’ races) as worthy of promotion to prime time for punters in the east. Please.
I hardly think that is enough to promote such a worthwhile sport as greyhound racing. Yet that’s what eight state and territory authorities have allowed to happen. In fact, they have encouraged the process.
We must be able to do better. A continuation of this trend does not bear thinking about.
A postscript on the Warragul Cup, run last Friday.
This race, and others over the 460m trip at the same meeting, were featured again by disruptions of one sort or another. Poor old Black Magic Opal, never before beaten when leading, was ankle-tapped at least twice in the rush to get around the turn and dropped back into the ruck. Paw Licking, which is always subject to being run down, jumped well from the rails but could not get a clean run and was comfortably passed in the straight by two stronger dogs – Walk Hard and Evies Entity – which both ran top races from back in the field.
The trick is that such races are nearly always won by the neatest dog, preferably a railer which can avoid the interference. Publicity blurbs from state authorities are forever telling us what the winner did but they are forgetting about what happened to the other seven dogs. Or six, or five, as the case may be.
They are also forgetting that more than half the industry’s income derives from those other seven, or six, or five. And that the winner’s price will probably be under its correct odds anyway. The Warragul layout, like many others, needs serious review. Whatever change is needed, it probably won’t be massive, but it does require a study to determine the facts.