Track Design – Is Anything Happening There?

According to Greek philosopher Aristotle long, long ago, “nature abhors a vacuum” and tries to fill it up. As it happens, a bloke named Einstein and a few others have since disproved it. In fact, they claim that a vacuum never really exists.

Well, I know one. I would suggest that the state of the art in track design is as near as you can get to a vacuum – or a nothingness, as scientists might like to term it. Arguably, never in the history of mankind has so much been spent by so many to create outcomes where no-one knows what factors cause which results.

Yes, there has been a small amount of work done by vets on the effect of various turn cambers on injury rates (work that is apparently continuing in studies commenced in WA and SA and being carried on within GRV). As a result, various numbers are sometimes adopted when specifying banking angles.

But even if track builders happened on the perfect turn shape, that goes nowhere near the need to mesh those numbers with many other factors that go into the end design package. For example, where does the “turn” start and finish, what are the transition gradients and what effect does the turn radius have on the outcome? Is the turn a small or large part of the arc? Where should boxes be placed and how should they be constructed? Do different lures have any impact? What about hard or soft track surfaces, which have attracted studies in America but not here?

And, to take some specific examples, why do we see cleaner racing at Hobart and Mandurah than anywhere else in the country? Why do we not see that on all the expensive rebuilds of one-turn tracks in Victoria, where interference is common on turns, especially for the 400m bracket of races? Is that avoidable or not?

This subject came to the fore three times in NSW, first when the 413m boxes at The Gardens had to be shifted after the new track had been designed by “experts” (as NCA claimed), then when the GBOTA modified the 400m start at Gosford some months after receiving advice (which it rejected) to move it to a more favourable position, and again in 2010 when GRNSW authorised another $50,000 to be spent on cutting away the first turn at Maitland on the ground that it had been a successful move elsewhere. No it hadn’t. This sort of change had failed at Wentworth Park, Bulli, Launceston and Cannington where it confused dogs, increased interference and biased the tracks. It did the very opposite of what was intended – it created less fair races. Why give the box one dog a greater advantage than it already has?

Strangely, Maitland’s remedial work paid no attention to its home turn where dogs are regularly thrown to the outside. And that was on a recently re-built track.

In other words, whether GRNSW was guessing or telling porkies, or both, it failed the practical tests. The Maitland change increased the proportion of winners coming from boxes one, two and eight.

Similarly, why would Victorian authorities have spent (in today’s money) over $20 million on The Meadows to build one of the most heavily biased tracks in the country, and also forget to put in a grandstand? (For those who have not visited, it has no grandstand at all, only a small balcony which is restricted to people who rent out the upstairs dining area).

WA people were advised not to cut away the first turn at Cannington, yet went ahead anyway and so created a huge bias in favour of the rails box, and also some for box two. That change has decided major Group races. Much the same thing occurred at the new Mandurah track but, happily, they identified the problem and fixed it.

Anyway, now is the time to do what this column has been rabbitting on about for years. The industry must invest in an expert panel to study current practices and all the options in order to come up with reliable track design parameters.

That panel would consist of three people: a veterinarian, an engineer and a biomechanical expert, all preferably with some greyhound exposure but independent of racing authorities. They would be charged with taking a year to study the subject and given, say, $1 million to do the job.

They would look at box styles and their positioning, lure types, surface quality, gradients and turn radii and establish the relationship between each. The aim would be to achieve a result which maximises the chances of each runner and minimises the level of interference.

At its simplest, this is what your local golf pro does when he videos your swing. It is what experts at the Australian Institute of Sport do for a multitude of different activities. It is why swimming coaches get up at four o’clock every morning to videotape how the kids do it. It is why football clubs attach GPS stickers to the jerseys of their players to see where and how they run, and what causes injuries. The technology is highly sophisticated and widely available.

Indeed, attaching the GPS marker to a dog’s vest would bring into play the second of the two major aspects of racing. One is the physical structure of the track and its equipment, the other is the nature of the dogs using it. Without jockeys or drivers, greyhounds just do their normal thing, perhaps coloured a little by their past experiences. Those habits must be defined in the context of the race before them.

There are crazy dogs, neat dogs, unlucky dogs, big and small dogs, good and bad beginners, frightened dogs, railers and wide runners. Like people, every one of them is different. Catering for all that is not an easy job and it would take months to gather evidence, analyse it and come up with optimal solutions. That’s why we need some highly qualified people and plenty of time to do the job. The “she’ll be right” attitude has never worked, and never will.

Athletes run in lanes or risk disqualification. Tennis players and cricketers have to watch the lines, too. Competitors in any sport must abide by the rules or suffer the consequences. Yet, aside from fighting, greyhounds can get away with blue murder, probably harming themselves as well as their fellow competitors in the process, and have it all put down to the luck of the game. So it is, but man controls much of that luck, or can if he wants to.

The end rewards are big – less interference, fewer injuries and some encouragement for the punters to invest more and more often. Spending a million to do that is peanuts by comparison with the amount thrown away in building crook tracks – and then sometimes re-building them with the same faults.

It would be a bonus that the effort would counter many of the objections of the anti-racing lobbies, which can be expected to rise and rise in years to come. That makes it a win-win program.

It would be the best investment greyhound racing has ever made. In fact, we might even be able to sell the secrets to other countries.

 

WHAT WAS THAT AGAIN?

 

“Buckle Up Wes crossed to the rail soon after the start checking Innocent Til, Hallelujah Henry and Musquin Bale”. That was the advice in the steward’s report on the Australian Cup.

Not in my eyes. If Buckle Up Wes (7) brushed with Musquin Bale (6) at the start it was very minor and, in any event, the latter had come out awkwardly and slowly. But Wes had nothing to do with the other two dogs as it roared to the front, perhaps brushing Kiss Me Ketut (1) as they rounded the turn. The other dogs all did their own damage in an otherwise messy race. ”Messy” is quite normal at The Meadows, of course.

Why do Victorian stewards make up these stories?

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