What’s In A Title?

Recently I wrote to a government department asking it to change my records – primarily about a change of address. It rejected the letter, instead sending me a form to fill out. I did that, although the form contained less information than I had put in my letter. They then sent me letter saying that my details were now what I had just told them they were.

I would estimate that, from go to whoa, that department spent well over $100 in dealing with me. Had someone initially tapped in a few keystrokes and gone on to the next job it might have cost, say, $10 or so. So much for how bureaucracies work.

All racing authorities are bureaucracies.

One reason for that is that all the power rests with board members. They are the managers. Employees are simply there to do their bidding. Much the same is true of raceclubs.

Which is why the title of Chief Executive Officer is a misnomer. By and large, the occupants do not have executive power. I have mentioned before that such a person was once called Secretary to the Board, then they became a sort of Chief Clerk, and finally they all assumed the mantle. But still without power.

Since racing authorities are quasi-government organisations, the titles are important to them. Public service guidelines make sure a CEO gets paid more than a Chief Operating Officer, who gets paid more than a General Manager, and so on. Bonuses are fashionable these days, too. All this happens almost irrespective of how much real authority they have, or the worth of their input.

The thing to remember is that bureaucracies are geared to process stuff, not to initiate, take risks or look very far into the future. Especially, they should not innovate. Sometimes they claim they are customer -focussed but that’s because they are paid to say that – someone has written so on a piece of paper. Their job is safe unless they punch someone on the nose. Their main objective is to keep the Minister (or chairman) happy and avoid nasty items coming to his attention. Or to the attention of the public, for that matter. Indeed, that appears to have been one of the problems with Greyhound recently.

This is not to say that I have not met a number of very fine public servants. They are certainly there and we cannot do without them. But they still work in a bureaucracy.

Think about the contrast.

At heart, the primary objective of the racing industry and its participants is to make a buck. Yet that aim runs counter to the bureaucratic structure they are burdened with. People or organisations that don’t take risks – ie that don’t manage – are destined to end up with second or third best, or to fail. Typically, committees, otherwise called boards, end up choosing the lowest common denominator. The extremes at either end are removed and the middle course wins out. There is virtually no other option unless a dictator is present (which is not unheard of).

This is the basic reason for racing’s failure to keep pace with the modern world, and its devastating loss of market share over the last 20 years or so. The product and the market are no longer a good match. It’s due not so much to the people involved as it is to the outmoded system they work in.

It’s almost certainly why the Australian racing industry, Racing Ministers and their departments – almost to a man – noisily opposed the “legalisation” of the bookmaking group and Betfair, and produced numerous reports to support their views, yet today they all enjoy the benefits of their business. The newcomers saw the gaps in the market and have now revitalised wagering.

Consider another topical example. 50% of the population once bought newspapers. Now it’s 17% and dropping, and profitability is disappearing with it. Hence all the kerfuffle about creating online products, cutting staff and closing print shops – not just here but all over the world. It’s not that newspapers did not recognise the symptoms; it’s just that they did not do much about it. They were not quick enough to change course, or else they hoped tradition would pull them through. Fortunately for free speech, they are trying to fix things now.

Similarly, wool once comprised 20% of the world’s fabrics. Today it’s 1% to 2%, and maintaining that level only after booting out the old mob and reforming the organisation and its attitude to management, promotion and research. But the sheep population is only a fraction of what it once was.

You seldom get your formguide in hard copy any more, but over the internet, and even there much less often if the customer profile is any guide. Evidence and observations suggest there has been a huge switch from people who work out form to those who rely on tipsters and Mystery bets, much as they rely on certain Lotto numbers.

So, while all these things are changing around us, the same old 50, 60 or 70-years old organisational structures are still running the show. No wonder the industry cannot keep pace.

Today, Victoria and Queensland are both welcoming new leaders. Will they end up as managers or secretaries to the board? The signs suggest that only Victoria offers any hope but time will tell.

As for the publicity about the extra $6 million about to go into owner and trainer pockets in Victoria – nice, but unearned. Nothing really changed. The same dogs will run around, the same races will be drawn up, and the same will take place (the Minister’s recent hopeful grant will make not the slightest difference).

What happened is that a combination of the government, the TAB and the industry simply screwed more out of the existing system. Much the same will probably occur soon in Queensland, although for slightly different reasons. It has already happened in and wishes it had there.

All this sounds helpful at first glance but it contains no reform whatever, no fresh initiatives, and promises little progress in the long term.

(As an aside, GRV and are merrily telling all that they now control about 20% of the racing dollar in their respective states, and therefore things are wonderful. That is factual enough but it skips over the facts that (a) the gallops and harness codes’ business has been in relative decline for years now, so the size and shape of the pie has changed, and (b) greyhound income is strongly influenced by running more TAB races and has been doing so ever since the 1990s when SKY was getting up a head of steam. Per-race income is not improving, rather the reverse, and the dog population has not increased. And none of the publicity bothers to mention inflation, nor does it address the continuing change in the customer profile – ie from more to less knowledgeable investors – perhaps because they don’t know, or care).

Meantime, the two Melbourne clubs are about to add a 12th race to their main weekly meeting, even though they regularly have trouble getting enough starters for 11 races, and even though provincial field quality continues to decline. Frankly, I have trouble getting my head around the detail in 10 races, let alone 12. To say nothing about the multiple meeting clashes – five or six simultaneous greyhound meetings on most nights. It’s like playing the best of seven sets at Wimbledon, or a football match that goes into extra time when everybody is knackered. Too much of a good thing!

This is the last of three decisions which caused structural changes to Victorian racing. The first was the addition of a third, and then a fourth, city meeting each week, starting over a decade ago. Payments were first set below provincial levels but later increased to parity. The second was the introduction of more low quality and non-penalty races across the state from three or four years ago. Those two factors and the upcoming increase in city activity serve to suck the cream out of provincial racing and/or reduce average field quality across the state, or both.

Has anybody looked at the (unintended) consequences of running more races in town when the dog population is static? That sounds like a management challenge for somebody. How it is handled will provide a guide to future prosperity.

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