Newcastle Failure Also A Great Opportunity

A very resilient lot, these Hunter region people. They have braved the shutdown of Newcastle’s huge steel making industry and are moving forward with arts, tourism, wine, science, Silverchair and the Johns brothers. Coal loading facilities are set to double, which will make things easier for the dozens of ships waiting patiently out in the ocean for parking spots to open up. Meantime, yacht races brighten the harbour, passing by a wonderful park and historic buildings now sporting fancy restaurants.

Hunter Street, once a hive of activity and the venue for an iconic pop song, is now pretty shabby, but will soon sparkle as new industries and modern apartment buildings pop up. Some already have.

That same spot featured in December 1927 when four greyhound clubs got going – two in Newcastle and one each in and Cessnock – and dogs with monkey jockeys paraded down the main street to attract customers. Advertisements in the Newcastle Herald were larger than those for department stores. One and sixpence to come in or one shilling for ladies.

Then the Hunter produced Chief Havoc, and a host of other great gallopers. In the 1950s and 1960s you had to push and shove past burly miners to get to a bookmaker on Maitland’s Derby night. Beaumont Park’s Winfield Challenge ran up until the early 1990s, pulling in competitors from Victoria and Queensland (after shifting temporarily to Thursday nights) and the biggest crowd problem was negotiating your way amongst babies in strollers in the ring. At Cessnock, a few trainers liked the track but the public was never enthusiastic about its cold and dusty betting ring, or the distant view of the races, although the crumbed cutlets were always good. Anyway, after that bad things started to happen

1987 had been the first marker, when , the birthplace of mechanical hare racing, closed down and those big striding Hunter dogs were left with nowhere to go for the big money. (Some years ago I surveyed 500 runners at each of Maitland and and found the former averaged 2 kg heavier, which tells you a lot). The industry, lacking imagination and foresight, failed to provide a one-turn alternative.

It got worse in the 1990s when local clubs were slow to move into the SKY era, lagging well behind Sydney and the Illawarra area. That cost them dearly as it would have the effect of doubling TAB turnover. Eventually, only a rampaging tour around northern NSW by SKY boss, Warren Wilson (later chief of Tab Ltd and now of the Panthers at Penrith), rounded them up on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Even then they bickered about costs and dates until finally the GRA arrived from Sydney to referee the fights. Otherwise, GRA had taken no interest.

On top of that, Tab Ltd was forcing Beaumont Park in Newcastle into submission by chopping its coverage down to four races on Saturday afternoons, then later to none. Trainers went on when fell after the club (the Newcastle Jockey Club) found the books would no longer balance and refused to move to another time slot.

The NJC was not too fussed anyway, as it had kept Beaumont Park dogs only to provide thoroughbred punters with a place to get set when the horses were not running at Broadmeadow racecourse across the road. That need disappeared when local boy and Racing Minister, Richard Face, gave them the state’s second auditorium licence (after Randwick), which they located at the gallops track. The dogs then died quickly and the Hunter lost its second focal point, not that those big dogs had ever liked the tight track much but a lot from Western Sydney did. It had nicely complemented Maitland just up the road.

The NJC offered the complex as a going concern to the GRA, GBOTA and NCA for the bargain price of $3 million but all knocked it back. So it became a housing development, greyhound racing lost its mojo and much of its cash. It was to be another decade before emerged as a bright new venture.

Meantime, the GRA had dithered for years about which of Cessnock and the nearby Maitland should drop out – a duplication which made no sense financially – prompting the Minister to stick his nose in and appoint a friendly local firm to conduct an . (So much for Ministers staying at arms’ length). The consultants favoured Cessnock, a pro-Labor area, over the swinging seat of Maitland but their report (I still have a copy) was full of holes and the decision was eventually reversed. Cessnock people were horrified and mounted a legal challenge which they could not pay for and which they had no hope of winning. That was poor advice and poor governance.

The major outcome of all that fooling around was that TAB commissions in the Hunter fell by a quarter, helped also by the progressive disappearance of track-side commission rooms with their professional punters as modern communications changed the ball game. All of which had the obvious flow-on impact on owners and trainers fortunes.

The next decade saw the straight track at Wyong (another Jockey Club operation) shut down when visiting horse punters faded away and income dropped alarmingly. GRA then got involved in a giant raffle with the two major clubs to see who got what out of the remnants of the wars. GBOTA assumed responsibility for Maitland while NCA was helping out Singleton – at least for a while. However, taking over the former Wyong dates allowed the NCA’s new complex at The Gardens to mount Saturday races, mostly over 272m around a bend, in addition to its two weekday dates. The total of all that would presumably allow them to make ends meet. But, alas, worse was to come.

There were losers, of course. To some extent that Saturday afternoon racing in Newcastle was no help to surrounding non-TAB clubs at places like Taree, Wauchope and Muswellbrook (the home of the current Minister, George Souris). But the big loser was Singleton, which disappeared off the greyhound map. This was a great shame and a poor strategy.

Certainly, Singleton had money problems and indifferent facilities but it had some lively supporters and, more importantly, it acted as a magnet for trainers based in a huge area of the north west of the state. They filtered down the New England Highway, first to Muswellbrook and then on to Singleton with its TAB prize money. It was also a town with one of the highest per capita incomes in the state, thanks to mining and related industries. Yes, the showground did need smartening up (as did Cessnock and Maitland for that matter) but it offered a potentially good future for a business-like organisation. The GRA was not impressed and allowed the NCA to grab the racing dates and take them down to Newcastle.

That has ended up as a frying pan and fire situation as the NCA, having vacated Sydney and Wentworth Park in favour of the seemingly attractive operation at The Gardens, was soon feeling the pinch again. Bailed out once already by GRNSW, it now looks to be on its deathbed as the administrators finalise their reports.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the NCA-owned Greyhound Recorder is now only a shadow of its former self. Apart from a light-fingered former “editor”, it has become boring and outdated in form and content, concentrating on a few items about last week’s racing and ads from clubs and breeders. It has little appeal to the public. If the circulation figures were known they would probably be well down on past years. Jack Woodward would be disappointed.

It all boils down to a long sequence of poor judgments, poor management and poor vision on the part of both race clubs and state administrations. Everyone seems to have had their head in the sand, hoping for miracles to suddenly appear. The glory days would come back! But that was never going to happen.

These days, you need to go out and get the business, and then look after it when you do get it. That never happened in the Hunter, with possibly a minor exception for the promotion-conscious Singleton club – not that it did them much good in the end.

Even now The Gardens website trumpets that it has “one of the leading greyhound facilities in the world”. This is nonsense, particularly in respect to the track. The awful 413m start (claimed initially by the club to be well done and “built by experts”) was eventually moved around to a better but still tight spot for 400m races, while the 515m first turn is regularly disruptive and the home turn is too flat. The camera position produces distorted pictures on SKY. And the club cannot service its debt. What more can you say?

More deeply, the whole saga points to the inability of traditionally structured clubs to hold their own in a competitive world, while successive state authorities tried to avoid getting their hands dirty. It shows how management by committee is a relic of a bygone era, whether at club or state level. Commercial discipline and hard-headed decision making is now more vital than ever, as is the incentive to achieve real profits. The NCA seems to have trouble achieving that, leaving major industry reform as the only way out.

It won’t be easy but it is possible.

First, the Hunter needs an over-arching business supremo to take control of its tracks, promote the sport, upgrade the business model and handle the money. Re-organised traditional clubs can still organise the racing as such, mainly because that’s what the law demands (another relic of the ages).

Ideally, Singleton would be reinstated but that is unlikely to be possible. Instead, Muswellbrook could be upgraded and given TAB status (so long as they get rid of its horrific 90 degree bend at the start of 429m races).

Maitland, hampered by an Agricultural Society landlord, needs a bulldozer and a total re-development into a modern multi-purpose sporting and cultural complex. Greyhounds would be just one part of that. It has huge areas going to waste and lots of decrepit facilities including an obsolete grandstand which leaks and where the roof once blew off in a storm (shades of Albion Park?). The track faces into the sun and needs re-shaping in any case. Greyhound racing must get together with the Maitland community and jointly develop a long term plan. The showground concept is dated and ineffective and they are disappearing across the state anyway. Maitland itself is growing, it has historical assets, some industry, nearby vineyards and thoroughbred studs and is, in effect, a dormitory suburb of Newcastle, which itself is the largest non-capital city in Australia and bigger than Canberra.

The Gardens’ finances will have to be zero-ed out and control handed to an entrepreneur who can run it properly. The minor job of running races can be handled by a small, new club while the NCA fades away. The NCA is essentially a small closed shop with a handful of members and no longer provides anything of value to the industry while the closure of the Recorder (as with deFax) would quickly lead to a replacement popping up – as has happened a few times in the past.

GRNSW has only to wave its magic wand and ground rules for new operators to follow. Initiative, forward thinking and courage are all that is required. In considering the options it might remember that nothing much has worked for the last 30 years so repeats are not the way to go.

Certainly, it will require millions to bring all this about. But better to invest in a modern future rather than throwing good money after bad. Racing and betting generate huge cash flows which should encourage the banks. Besides, the continuing development of Newcastle and surrounds is a major political objective which has already attracted big investment from government and others.

For greyhound racing at large, a project like this can point the way to a more modern, more efficient and more profitable way to do business. The Hunter’s owners and trainers might finally get their just reward.

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