Upside-Down Policies

Prize money increases are the talk of the town at the moment, but particularly in Queensland where there is much discussion about how much should go where. Head of the list is an additional low-class meeting for Ipswich but there are modest changes proposed elsewhere, including some improvements for the battling provincial clubs up the coast.

On the other hand, the Brisbane club wants to see even more races because, according to Luke Gatehouse, “in excess of 150 greyhounds are not required in SEQ each week”.

This is a strange demand for a number of reasons.

First, the big picture. The Australian greyhound population has been flat or declining over the last decade – litters are down by 10.7% and dogs named down by 1.7%%, according to GA statistics. Note the difference in those figures. It tells us that more pups from each litter are being named – and presumably becoming race starters. (These figures are calculated after first deducting activity, which is subject to different influences).

Second, our own moving quarterly surveys show that there has been very little change in recent years in the total number of dogs actually racing.

Third, the number of meetings, the number of races and the number of starters are all down slightly over the decade. The average number of races per meeting is up from 10.3 to 10.5 but starters per race declined from 7.7 to 7.6 – a reflection of more short fields.

Fourth, , Victoria and have recently added low-standard events suited to slower dogs. Or, in some cases, younger ones. These have been included in the weekly TAB program since spots became available and will show up more in 2012 figures when they are published. Races are also becoming shorter on average. Obviously, starters have been drawn from the bottom of the barrel – there was nowhere else for them to come from.

Fifth, the shortage of starters in Victoria is becoming chronic. Sandown had four short fields last Thursday, four short on Friday and Meadows four short on Saturday. Nominations for many meetings, including in the city, are being held open every week in order to attract sufficient dogs. Repeated surveys show that more or less than 20% of all races are now starting with a short field, partly because they had no reserves in the first place. One of the outcomes of this trend is that more sub-standard dogs are finding their way into what were once better class fields.

Sixth, going back to Queensland and using last week as an example, 37% of SEQ races catered for Maidens and Novices. 50% of all races were run over 331m, 395m and 431m, telling us that stamina is in short supply. Two of those trips have unpopular bend starts and many of them were also Maidens. 12% of all races started with a short field. (These figures exclude non-TAB racing at ).

All of which leaves us with the question: Who were those 150 surplus dogs mentioned by the Brisbane club? Surely, if they were any good, they would have long since got a run. Clearly, they must be the runts of the litter.

So, do we really want them? What possible value is there in foisting bad dogs on the punting public? Already, the high proportion of Maidens, Novice and short races impacts on the overall quality of the greyhound product. Yet a key aim of new Racing Queensland President Dixon is to encourage more betting from existing punters. How could slow dogs possibly do that?

Gatehouse may be closer to the mark when he talks about organising “a lower class non-TAB meeting aimed at greyhounds not gaining a start elsewhere”. By all means let the industry use its imagination to create useful opportunities for sub-standard dogs. That’s a humane policy and it is good PR, but it has nothing to do with proper racing.

Meantime, the SEQ area of Queensland has one significant advantage over other states; its TAB activity is concentrated on two tracks with three weekly meetings each. That constitutes a more efficient use of resources than in the bigger states. It should make the best of it, pending the arrival of a single new dual-track complex at Logan or wherever in a few years time.

But what it needs is not more races but more good dogs. Building a future on Maidens and Novices is a mug’s game. You cannot promote unpredictable dogs, no matter how hard you try.

A key issue in Australian greyhound racing is that the big two states – NSW and Victoria – get the cream of the crop while the next four states – , SA, Queensland and Tasmania – get the leftovers. That imbalance is barely justified by prize money levels, which are now quite reasonable in the smaller states. No, it’s a matter of opportunities, whether for distance racing or one-turn tracks or grading differences or whatever (even the type convinced top owner-trainer to decamp from Queensland to NSW).

None of those four smaller states have quite got to the tipping point where the system routinely encourages good local dogs to prefer to stay at home rather than seek greener fields interstate. A quick visit is one thing, emigrating is quite another.

Indeed, there is a constant flow of good dogs out of NSW to Victoria and has been for years now (yet Victoria still cannot fill all the available boxes). But that’s not all. The Wheelers contribute mightily to the imbalance by sending all their good dogs to Victoria, the lesser ones to SA, and virtually none to any other state. Then solid performers which have used up their 5th grade eligibility in the eastern states regularly make their way to WA. Similarly, many such dogs move from Victoria to SA.

It all adds up to artificial, or man-made, factors influencing where dogs race. Those factors are primarily economic ones but it comes out in the wash as dogs going to wherever the opportunities are better. Consequently, it follows that any region not getting its share of the quality performers needs first to work out why that is so and then take action to correct the problem.

If Queensland wants to progress, it must create an environment which gives owners reason to stay at home. Critical to that objective is the need to build up the numbers and generate more high quality races. In turn, that will encourage more people to bet or bet bigger (assuming good marketing), thereby generating bigger prize money. And so the cycle continues.

Maidens are very necessary things but only in the right proportions. Concentrating on the bottom end of the range might keep a few trainers happy but it will not make the industry more profitable in the long run.

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