The Triple Whammy

Last week’s item on Racing’s Corporate Challenge suggested that the industry’s prime source of income – betting commission – was on shaky ground, mostly because average product quality had declined and mug gamblers had replaced serious punters. Any nominal increases in income in recent times could be put down to extra meetings rather than more enthusiasm for “normal” races.

So what are we doing about it?

On three key issues – track standards, field quality and breeding trends – it’s hard to see any concerted effort by the industry to improve performance. A bit here and a bit there really doesn’t count in the long run because greyhounds have long since moved into a “dogs without borders” mode. It’s a sport more and more dominated by national and international factors. Wherever the bunny moves, dogs will come to compete. And today’s customers often do not know where the race is being run anyway.

The need for track improvements has been addressed briefly in WA and SA but much more aggressively in Victoria. Yet all three still have faults which affect the normal running of races, notably at each state’s city tracks. Queensland and NSW do not seem to know what the question is while Tasmania has fluked a good track in Hobart but lost out in Launceston.

In short, nearly all Australian tracks have faults, particularly circle tracks. Interference occurs far too often – after the jump, going into the first turn, on the first turn and sometimes on the home turn. Last weekend’s $108,000 Silver Chief at The Meadows, for instance, was a triumph of interference over ability (but three different media statements virtually ignored what actually happened in the race – see the video and decide for yourself).

This is why winners pay an average of around $6.00 to $6.50 on the tote. You could say you have one chance in seven of getting your money back. To put it another way, throwing a dart at the racebook would do just as well.

Interference is a way of life in racing, especially as dogs have no-one to steer them. But man has increased the level of difficulty by applying guesswork to the design of tracks, many of which started life over 50 years ago with the help of volunteer working bees and heavy use of the wet finger. Even so, those which started only a few years ago have copied old mistakes and failed to use the benefits of scientific research (which barely exists).

This comes out in the wash when new, cashed-up punters take a look at greyhound racing, only to find that the odds are too risky to make it worth the trouble. Time after time, (speaking of my own potential customers’ experiences) they look, analyse and then walk away.

Right after a national betting pool, this is the biggest challenge affecting future growth. Unless we get the physical product right, fresh money will never come.

Breaking through that barrier would then leave you facing an era of declining average field quality. That problem has increased in recent times as poor quality dogs have obtained a run via the July 2010 increase in TAB meetings, mostly squeezed in on SKY2. There has been no increase in dog population so scraping the bottom of the barrel has left us with not only low class meetings but an infiltration of less predictable dogs into races that were once reasonable betting prospects. It’s a chain reaction.

(In 1985 3,385 litters were registered in Australasia and 15,383 dogs named. By 2010 those figures had fallen to 3,193 and 13,954 respectively).

Another outcome of this process has been an increase in the proportion of short races, most of which (a) attract lower standard dogs and (b) are more disruptive because they start on or near a bend.

For example, a recent multi-track survey in the three eastern states revealed that in 2004 60% of all TAB races were run over distances from 500m to 600m. A similar check for December 2011 showed such races accounted for only 50% of the total. Over the same period, races between 300m and 420m increased from 5% to 25% of the total, often frustrating even mug gamblers, who are looking for a better run for their money. The longer it is, the better they like it.

Currently, about 27% of all TAB races are for Maidens, Novices (ie Maiden winners) or dogs with “Restricted Wins”, all of which are poor betting propositions. To those you have to add a good many low standard 5th grades which are just as problematical.

Taking those last two points together, even on a perfect track, over half the Australian product would require a miracle for a punter to break even, let alone make a profit. Mugs would have no chance at all, as TABs take much higher cuts out of Mystery bets and the like.

Track design and race programming are specifically under the control of state authorities. In both cases they have failed to achieve or maintain standards which would lead to improved patronage of greyhound racing – which should be their prime objective.

The third issue – breeding – is difficult to pin down, especially as your author is not expert in this field. Nevertheless, it is not hard to observe that distance racing is on the wane as fewer dogs are offered for such races (short fields are common) and even fewer can actually run out the 700m.

Coupling this fact with the major shift towards short course racing, and the dominance of speed sires over the last decade or so, leads to the conclusion that the breed has become unbalanced, at least on historical comparisons.

Whether that is fixable, and how to do it, is for greater minds to work out. What will not work is simply paying distance competitors more money, as has occurred in two states already. In fact, it is downright embarrassing to watch some of these dogs going up and down in the one spot in the home straight.

(Note, incidentally, that building up prize money for the thoroughbreds Melbourne Cup to $6 million has not produced more or better Australian stayers. Instead, it just attracted lots more imports. In fact, foaling numbers have fallen there, too).

This is the second of three commentaries on challenges facing the greyhound industry. It is plain that income, tracks, fields and breeding all need attention. But are we organised well enough to give it a go? Major reform is overdue but are our authorities set up well enough to do the job? And do they want to?

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