It’s early days at the new Traralgon track but we need to talk about it for a few reasons.
First, how is the new track working? Second, how did UTS, the main designing influence, get such wild applause for what is a newfangled but unproven idea? Third, what does it mean for all the other tracks where UTS has been involved, or for those that might get their attention in the future?
According to GRV, Traralgon is “the world’s most advanced greyhound racing track, designed to optimise both racing safety and the audience experience”. It has “a state of art J-curve track” and is “a benchmark for greyhound racing worldwide” and will offer “the safest possible greyhound racing environment”. All due to “the work of Professor David Eager and his University of Technology Sydney team”, according to Chair Duncan. Now that is pure corporate spin. No-one can possibly know that until a few hundred races have been run and won.
The Eager group have great qualifications in engineering and mathematics but started with none at all in racing or greyhounds. They have picked up a little on the way and created lots of computer modelling to help them come up with proposals for future track designs. Separately, engineer David Allen also contributed to the Traralgon exercise.
Essentially, UTS was first selected by GRNSW to investigate ways and means of improving track designs. It sent in two major reports which included some design features plus several recommendations for needed experiments to validate their hopes. No doubt their work encouraged the building of a new straight track at Richmond – a long delayed need for the state. (UTS likes straight tracks because of their inherent low injury rates).
In practical terms UTS has been involved – to unknown degrees – in NSW tracks at Wentworth Park, Gosford and Grafton, as well as conducting checks at a few other NSW tracks. But nobody really knows who was responsible for what, or why.
There have been no obvious improvements at Wenty or Gosford. Dogs still crash and burn at Wenty’s first turn while the Gosford reconstruction ended up with a bend start over 400m being replaced by a similar bend start for 388m trip, as well as continuing disruptions at the first turn for 520m races. Falls are reasonably common as the 388m dogs straighten up for the run down the back straight. On the other hand, Grafton seems to have turned out well with bigger turn radii than usual and well offset boxes for 350m trips – both helping to reduce early interference.
UTS advised GRSA (on Murray Bridge) and GRV (on Horsham, Shepparton and now Traralgon). Murray Bridge has worked out fairly well – although it needed some post-construction fiddling with the turn and got left with a conventional bend start for 530m races. Horsham and Shepparton benefitted from better banking (to 10%) but not from the installation of drop-in boxes for their short trips. These tightly located boxes are very close to the running rail and generate far too much early bunching as well as increased race falls and interference and track bias.
Unfortunately, that crowding and interference has been repeated at Traralgon where the majority of the field in the majority of races make a beeline for the rail straight after the jump. Hence, stewards note that some dogs are being forced into the rail itself, early interference is common and three races have involved falls already (out of some 80 or so).
From all that, we already knew that siting boxes near the first turn is a bad policy but maximising turn radii and increasing banking to 10% are both good moves. However, shoving the boxes up close to the rail is a big negative, regardless of what UTS models suggest. None of these work well and they never have in the past. All the evidence at Australian tracks shows that wide box spacing encourages the field to separate more readily. Conversely, the close-up alternatives (such as at Dapto) are disasters. (We are talking here about the run to the turn, not what happens on the turn).
Traralgon So Far
The wide sweeping turn (there is only one turn) is sensible enough but the actual running is significantly affected by the early crowding from the closely-spaced boxes. Stewards are commonly recording lots of bumps and shoves, including inside dogs being slammed against the rail as the field bores over to the rail. That applies both 395m and 500m trips.
In short, a few races are cleanly run but most are not. The wildly exaggerated claims (hopes, really) by GRV are not borne out in practice. Any difference between Traralgon and any other one-turn track is small and mostly due to the large turn radius. Even then, many runners are getting off at the turn into the straight while neater railers can zoom through on the fence. Perhaps that’s a banking issue?
It is impossible to find any positive outcome emerging from a start pushed up against the rail. Not just at Traralgon, but anywhere. Space to move around is a critical need for any greyhound racer.
The whole idea of commissioning outside help on track layouts was a sound move, largely because historical contributions have come from rank amateurs, working bees, authority staff without necessary skills or outside engineering firms with no greyhound racing experience. Sadly, even UTS seems to have ignored the need to properly analyse historical racing data to better determine what works and what doesn’t. Instead it created its own theories and simulations and worked from them.
Even so, most observers and trainers are adamant about a single vital error – that of locating starts on or near a bend. In spite of that, SA, WA and now Queensland (for its proposed Yamanto/Purga complex near Ipswich) have deliberately installed bend starts at brand new tracks. Victoria re-built tracks at Sale and Ballarat in particular without straightening out long present bend starts (over 511m and 550m resp). Why is that so? Why the clash of principles?
Horsham previously owned a widely displaced 410m start – itself fairly new – yet dumped it in favour of drop-in boxes which jam up the runners against the rail. Shepparton was roughly similar. Purely on the say-so of UTS. Bad move!
Why have we gone off the rails, so to speak? Why these obvious shortcomings?
The key problem is that, no matter how good any advice from UTS may be, it has not been filtered through sensible management processes, let alone hard evidence from existing tracks. Greater safety is a fine objective yet, so far, the reverse is occurring. Theories are one thing but proving them out is a different matter.
Where To Now?
Clearly, this is yet another area where piecemeal or haphazard approaches to track design are letting down the industry. There may well be useful information generated by groups such as UTS but it needs more serious filtering to see how it best fits into the industry package.
This is one of a several fields where there is an urgent need to establish a permanent, professional and skilled national unit to oversight all track works, independently of state authorities. (Similar units are required to address the State of the Greyhound Breed and Data Processing).
Footnote: There have been too few races to allow sensible conclusions about some aspects of the new Traralgon circuit (injuries and winning boxes, for example). Some 500 or so races will tell more accurately. However, the experience so far – of fields pushing hard and early over to the rails – is consistent and worrying.
A Lost Opportunity
A just-announced $700k upgrade of the Richmond track will tidy up and modernise a few aspects of the popular track. It may or may not improve the running – time will tell – but it is unlikely to help safety very much. Critically, the 400m and 618m starts (now to be 401m and 622m) will stay where they are on the bend – a big no-no. Hopefully, the contours will be improved so that dogs coming around the 520m first turn (was 535m) will not be met with a flat surface designed to suit 400m starters. Running off used to be common there.