The high profile Healesville re-opening last Sunday got some good headlines for a number of reasons but not for the most important one, and not for a lone black mark, of which more later.
The change from grass to loam is more than worthwhile, given the uncertainty created by weather conditions. It also seems to be offering a good run for all dogs, despite its unique use of a cable lure along the rails (normal straight track practice is a drag lure along the centre of the track). Funny, though, that some normally good beginners failed to get out well in the Cup heats. Still, local experience always counts.
Actually, the running is better than good. Previously, the track featured consistent crashing to the rail, which is why boxes 8, 7 and 6 – in that order – did best.
That was not the case in the first two loam meetings with most runners taking a straightaway line to the end of the 350m trip. Certainly there were a few heading left and right but they were dogs that do that anywhere. By and large, interference was sharply reduced. Indeed, the fastest dog so far, I’m A Fencer, came from the back half of the field, out of box 2, went straight through the field and was running away from them at the finish. It’s doubtful that could have happened on the old track.
Surprisingly, times promise to be better than expected. Normally, a loam surface is around 2% slower than the grass yet Healesville’s new surface already is averaging only about 1% slower than the old one (17.90 m/sec v 18.11 m/sec). As the track settles, even faster times should be on the cards.
However, the speeding up at Healesville is likely to be due to more than just the surface mixture. A reasonable suspect is that less interference means quicker average times. The underlying reasons for this improvement are unknown but should be investigated in fine detail – the evidence may help elsewhere.
However, the big point about the successful changes at Healesville was missing in all the corporate spin. It now leads the country in straight track racing. The loam surface is unique, financial support has been good, the TAB coverage puts it in a special category, and it works well.
All of this contrasts with shaky performances elsewhere. Wyong has gone, despite its popularity with trainers, supposedly for economic reasons (although the NCA did manage to get extra race dates at The Gardens after Wyong’s closure). Capalaba in Queensland is also popular with trainers but not any longer with big gallops punters – hence the recent bailout by Racing Queensland. It is also subject to flooding. Kulpara in SA is no more while neither WA or Tasmania offer straight track racing. And trial tracks are not really the same thing.
That leaves Appin in NSW as the only other successful operation.
Critically, all except Healesville operate on Saturday afternoons, none has had TAB coverage (apart from a tiny local pool run at Wyong) and they are dependent on income from betting activity with bookmakers on parallel horse races. This has proved to be a fragile policy, as Capalaba found out recently. (Digressing a bit, greater attention to “simulcasting” in the US has failed to stem the diversion of business from racetracks to casinos, and several tracks have closed down, or will soon. Still, taxes on pari-mutuel betting in the US can be pretty heavy).
The Healesville example therefore points the way to future prosperity. Do your own thing but get TAB coverage first. That will never happen on Saturdays as the TAB calendars will forever be clogged with major gallops meetings. In fact, in the 1990s that traffic jam was one of two basic causes of the shutdown of the Newcastle Jockey Club’s 70-years-old Beaumont Park dog track (the other being the auditorium license the NJC gained for its gallops complex across the road). In December 1927, Newcastle, Maitland and Cessnock had followed Sydney’s Harold Park as the location of Australia’s first mechanical hare racing.
However, more recent times haves seen some major shifts. There were 22 other TAB meetings last Sunday – 16 thoroughbreds, 8 greyhounds and 5 harness. Opportunities like that should be enough to keep everybody happy. Indeed, it’s a far cry from Premier Cain’s time when Victorians were not even allowed to play football on Sundays, let alone have a bet.
And the black mark?
It is inexcusable that GRV designed and built a new track and failed to place the camera opposite the finishing post. It is not even close, with the result that viewers will never know what won. That is a cardinal sin.
While Healesville is the worst, it is not the only track with a poorly placed camera – Bulli’s is past the post, for example, Dapto’s a little before, as is Angle Park’s. Other cameras are too low or too close to supply a good picture of the action, particularly in the back straight. The Gardens, Sale and Ballarat are not great in that area, and Shepparton is guesswork. Wangaratta used to offer a distorted picture. And few tracks have bothered to sling a cable from the Finishlynx system to the SKY picture so that viewers can see the ‘photo finish’ for themselves. Only a few help punters by providing a sighting aid from the outside fence across to the finishing post.
99% of punters are paid out on what appears on a TV screen. They deserve better.