Periodically, it is necessary to rebirth a longstanding subject – one with numerous commentators for and against.
Are stayers better or worse than they used to be? Are stayers as good as we can make them? Are staying races fair to all? Are there options other than blindly following historical practice?
The ”better” campaign relies only on the occasional record breaker, such as the younger version of Tornado Tears (he still holds the top times at Albion Park, Wentworth Park and Cannington) or Here's Tears, a later member of the same family, who did it once at Sandown but has been only average since then. Another is the great Miata but you would have to go back to the previous version of the Cannington track to find her name.
The “worse” group would point to a general inability to back up track record (or any) performances when racing seven days later – a program that is enforced for all major staying series. The sometimes brilliant Xylia Allen would be a prime example there but there are many others which might be classified as “oncers”.
Some folk prefer to dismiss times and measure dogs by the number of races won or the prize money stashed away during their career. Yet both of those lose traction when you consider inflation or the standard of the opposition. Fanta Bale – a very fine racer – easily leads that group but also lacks a top spot on the time sheet.
Anyway, true greatness can't be gauged by a single fast run; it's their careers and the overall industry trend that matter most.
Like it or not, the prime determinant of ultimate staying success is the ability to keep on keeping on. Can the dog repeat past good efforts, especially when it may not have had enough time to replenish its juices? The short answer to that is very seldom but let's go to a couple of recent examples (there are hundreds over several years).
Perth's Galaxy over 715m has just been run and won by odds-on pop Zack Monelli, leading all the way in both heat and final. But it ran two lengths slower in the final (41.54) than in its heat a week earlier (41.39). Four other starters did likewise, two ran almost the same time and two were actually quicker (although one of those had put up a pretty slow time in the heat so the comparison was odious).
Incidentally, back in February, Zack Monelli had performed nicely in the Super Stayers at The Meadows but did lead and then fade in the home straight in the final.
Then the recent Association Cup at Wentworth Park was won by a genuine stayer in Stanley Road (also the winner of that Meadows race) but it and five others ran slower time in the final than in the heats. Only two of the starters improved a couple of lengths, including Fernando Cazz which, amazingly, was sent over the long trip at Sandown just five days later when it led and then faded badly as an even money favourite (albeit with some sort of injury).
In effect, what punters are betting on is not a dog's speed or even its natural endurance but its ability to sustain its peak condition (the last two are not quite the same thing). All three are desirable for victory in the final.
Of course, fortunes can be affected by luck in running or by the box draw. Even so, the nature of the beast is that roughly two thirds of runners cannot maintain their performances after a seven day break while one third may well do so. Examples like the Galaxy and the Association Cup have been seen consistently over the years.
The outcome is that heat and final series over the 700s may display false characteristics which are not fair to any party involved. Still, there are ready solutions available.
A better system would be to scrub all heat and final staying series and replace them with a final only. Dogs would qualify for that final by some other measure than a heat seven days earlier. Effectively, this already occurs with competitors in the National Championships as each state makes up its own mind about when to run the qualifying events. That approach also has the advantage of limiting any effect of cross-country positioning trips.
Another method would be to require candidates to run within 2.5% of the track record at any major track over the previous, say, three months with the end results determined by average time order. And so on.
None of this really addresses the question of whether there is a downward trend in distance capability for the breed at large. That's a hard call to make as conditions and personal qualities vary from era to era. However, the strongest indicator is that today's patterns show that dogs are being entered for shorter and shorter races and that new starting boxes are being installed to cater for them. Further, city meetings are seeing the standard 500s replaced by 300s on many occasions. Where that is not the case (eg in Melbourne) it is because no such trips are available.
A failure to adopt fresh solutions would simply mean that state authorities either do not care or do not know that a mini-revolution is occurring and the breed is changing in an uncontrolled fashion. That lack of knowledge makes a mockery of repeated attempts to better popularise long races simply by offering more money. While desirable in itself as a policy matter it assumes that cash is the only remedy and therefore ignores other measures that might produce greater success. Those bonuses have been present for several years without achieving any success.
While we are primarily talking about 700m racing it does follow that any weakening of the breed would also affect 500m and 600m racing to one degree or another. Watch any 500m race to see how many of the field start fading as they hit the home turn.
Prima facie, policies which improve the strength and stamina of the breed must take precedence over throwing cash around and hoping for the best. That does not work – the evidence is on the board. It is also uncertain whether the welfare of some of the dogs is at risk when they attempt to do something beyond their true capability.
Current racing rules barely tiptoe into this area – there is a ban on backing up within two days – but all that tells us is that authorities have not bothered to seriously investigate the situation (and Greyhounds Australasia (GA) has ignored suggestions). On the other hand, Victorian stewards are regularly querying trainers who require their charges to race over longish periods with only three or four days between starts, no matter what the distance. Very confusing. What are they doing with this information?
Then, while the relevance might be criticised, it is interesting to see that thoroughbreds almost never buy into the quick backup syndrome and that the galloping code has seen numerous examples of a shortening of distances, including for traditional Group races. Concurrently, imports now dominate long races such as the Melbourne Cup while Aussie breeds concentrate on big money six furlong races for youngsters.
Finally, go back a few years to the days when the local club ran Bulli racing. The management always declined to put on 400m races unless it had no other option. Their reason was that 472m and longer trips pulled in more cash on the TAB. Customers preferred a longer run for their money. But once the GBOTA took over the shorter trip took over and the new managers even installed a 340m trip for squibs. And Bulli is not the only track where the same pattern appeared.
An independent audit might be worthwhile.