Playing With Figures – Not Kindergarten Stuff (Part 3- final)

So far, the NSW parliamentary hearings have heard a stack of evidence from a range of racing authorities, animal welfare types, bookies and lawyers. All of them naturally pushed their own wares but very little of that touched on who the industry’s customers were and what their preferences might be.

Yet, together with willing owners, they are the only people bringing in fresh funds to pay for wages and prizes and keep the industry on the go. Everybody else, including the government, is taking cash out or shifting the same stuff round and round the same old circle. But although punters are “taxed”, they have no representation. They get little attention from racing authorities, whose major resources go into counting money and regulating trainers. Even their advisory groups don’t always contain a punter’s nominee.

Bookies are keen to see commission rates kept down and offshore operators discouraged, all of which is understandable. Lower rates will help then promote more and build the market, they point out. True enough, but they still fail to tell us how that market is made up, or how it is changing.

For example, in recent times both bookies and TABs have introduced a fresh gimmick – Fixed Odds – which has proved quite popular and is taking business away from the normal tote. That’s good for the betting operators because they price them well above the rates on the tote, using books of 130% compared with 114.5% for Win bets. That’s like selling petrol at $1.70 a litre when everyone else is charging $1.50. Since they all do the same thing, competition is minimal and they get away with it.

Conversely, it is not much help for punters. At those rates they would find it impossible to make profits over a period. Put another way, those using Fixed Odds are either not aware or not concerned about the rip-off prices. Yet it threatens the first law of punting – both sides should have a chance of winning.

This gives us a lead into the punter or gambler profile. Many are clearly not sophisticated enough to look for the value which might give them a chance of making profits. There are plenty of other indicators as well.

Over two decades there has been a gradual decline in the proportion of punters betting to win on the tote. At the dogs, consistent overbetting on favourites has made that product less rewarding. Instead, high-return multiples such as Big Six and First Four have grown in importance.

Mystery bets are popular and are pushed by TABs in advertising and in the way betting tickets are prominently displayed. Mathematically, these are guaranteed losers due to (a) boxing runners which have different chances of winning and (b) a higher takeout by the TAB. Yet they still sell.

The strength of the Mystery market is emphasised by the fact that Quinella and Trifecta dividends are distorted and normally pay well below true market odds. (Mystery bets typically offer a package split between Win, Quinella and Trifecta bets).

Sales of formguides have fallen away and the free ones produced by GRNSW (the majority) are impractical, often incomplete, and their usage is doubtful, while gamblers are turning to tipsters of varying quality and who frequently suggest boxed bets. As above, these are all winners for the house, even before the race starts. Serious punters would not go that way but mug gamblers would.

NSW wall sheet formguides in TAB outlets were never great, but are now being replaced by touch screen versions which are more cumbersome to use and contain only half the information. Similarly, personal attention at ticket counters is being replaced by touch screen betting machines which are fine for those familiar with them but messy and error-prone for newcomers. They give no change, only vouchers which have to be cashed in later (if the office is open).

There is a concerted push towards arming hand-held devices with racing information and betting facilities. That’s good as far as it goes. However, the physical limits of this fast-growing sector means investors will have less comprehensive information to deal with, probably less time to consider it, and will tend to rely on tipsters of variable quality.

Continuing increases in race frequency, often resulting in overlapping starts, have reduced the amount of cash bet per race, thereby making them very difficult for serious punters to assess. Win pools of $10,000 and below are normal, except at popular weekend meetings. However, only about half that amount will be visible to punters before they need to make a bet.

The last trend is exacerbated by greyhound authorities’ actions to schedule more racing, despite a static dog population, thereby promoting more low standard dogs to compete in TAB races. Any success in improving total turnover is then countered by a decline in average field quality and therefore more erratic outcomes. Another deterrent to serious punters.

These events can be summed up only by concluding that the industry is now being energised by the mug gambler, unable or uninterested in studying the pros and cons of a race, or in working out what sort of dogs do well, and in what circumstances. Such people come and go, probably not bothering to become genuine fans. There is nothing wrong with this business in isolation, but not when they heavily influence tote prices.

Allowing the code’s fortunes to rest on such a customer mix should surely be at the top of the inquiry’s worry list. If the trends continue it means racing bosses will lose even more control over its destiny, and all the other stuff will matter little.

There are many things that can improve the outlook but by far the most important is a concerted national program to better educate the public about the greyhound’s life and history and what makes it tick.

WHO IS TO JUDGE?

The legal news is messy. In an extraordinary merry-go-round, Gai Waterhouse was successively found guilty by Sydney stewards of failing to notify them of a favoured horse’s soreness (More Joyous), then exonerated by the Racing Appeals Tribunal, but is now subject to a Racing NSW appeal to the Supreme Court for a reversal of that decision.

It revolves around the question of whether Racing NSW and its stewards are entitled to rely on the Rules of Racing, which require trainers to notify them of any problems in the lead-up to a race. Similar requirements exist in greyhound rules.

The first judge has ruled that Racing NSW processes were not up to the required legal standard in demanding such reporting. Previously, owner John Singleton had agreed with the stewards and withdrew his horses from the Waterhouse stable, making a lot of noise en route.

So, are the thoroughbred rules reasonable, or are they adequately worded? The next judge will presumably throw some more light on that. Lawyers will then be off to bank their winnings.

Either way, the average punter would hardly support trainers getting away with secrecy about a competitor’s lack of fitness. Sadly, in the greyhound field, the availability of such information is the exception rather than the rule.

Let’s hope greyhound authorities watch developments closely and review their own positions.

ON THE OTHER HAND …

What were they on about?

From GRV stewards following the running of race 9 at The Meadows last Saturday: “Stewards issued a warning to Ms. L. Britton, the trainer of the greyhound Star Recall regarding the greyhound’s racing manners approaching the home turn”.

After examining the video three times it is clear that Star Recall and another dog bumped heavily trying to get around the first turn (common at this track), but there was no evidence that its manners posed any problem there or on the home turn, where it was racing in the centre of the track and only one other dog was within coooee of it. Anyway, it had faded and run wide by that time.

On top of that, Star Recall was found to be injured and was put out for seven days.

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