You Get What You Pay For

Gai Waterhouse has bemoaned the shortage of Australian-bred stayers in the thoroughbreds’ Melbourne Cup, blaming a lack of incentives, and is busy trying to buy European horses which can get 3200m. So are other trainers.

Dogs have much the same problem but it’s there for reasons which are similar in some ways, different in others.

The first would be that stayers take more time to develop and therefore return less to their connections. They still retire at much the same age as sprinters so their economic life has to be shorter. Horses are better off in this respect.

On top of that, for premium 700m trips is substantially less than that for sprints. So even if you get there the rewards are more modest. In 2010 only two distance races paid more than $50,000 while six 500’s did so.

The opportunities are not great either. In the last two months the three eastern states would have run around 5,000 races. Of those, only 32 were 700’s in the capital cities (very few are run at provincial tracks, with the exception of in Sydney). 600m races are much more plentiful but that trip is at the more lucrative meetings.

Helpfully, Melbourne’s club has reversed a long standing policy and instituted 595m races, which have proved very popular. Even so, all these are subject to high interference because of their bend starts, so they are a mixed blessing.

At the gallops a major incentive for owners is an ever increasing pile of cash offered to youngsters. Huge prizes for two-year-olds emerged over the last decade or so, in turn resulting in the rising popularity of sires which throw sprinters. All this occurred through the efforts of individual clubs – eg the former Sydney Turf Club with the Golden Slipper – or enterprises like the Harvey/ Magic Millions.

Greyhound clubs distribute cash in odd ways, too. Added prize money for maiden series make them popular with trainers, although results are erratic for both punters and dogs. Then the relatively massive rises in cash for a half dozen premium sprint events around the country are out of kilter with economic criteria. In those, the size of the prize has got little to do with the quality of the performers. Prestige seems to be the dominant motive. Halving the prize money would, in all likelihood, make no difference to fields. In any event, it has got to the stage when a crowded calendar does not allow top dogs to fit them all in.

In total, a number of financial and availability factors hamper the development of stayers.

But how many dogs are demanding a spot in the first place?

Casual observation suggests very few actual ‘stayers’ qualify for the title anyway. Many are useful middle distance racers hoping to get a break on the field and flop over the line. Others in the lower grades are dogs which cannot succeed over sprints and are trying something different. Rarely do they succeed.

Surveys of 700m competitors over the last two months in Sydney and Melbourne reveal that of 29 sires involved, only 2 had any staying experience at all – and . The rest were pure sprinters. One or two were even a bit suspect at 500m.

To a casual observer, it seems choices are therefore not particularly encouraging. Others may like to add to that discussion.

The other major issue is what sort of efforts are clubs and authorities mounting to develop more stayers. Two financial matters emerge here: breeding subsidies and bonus prizes for distance races.

At the moment breeding subsidies are state-specific, not purpose-specific (a dicey policy in itself). Indeed, since all states offer them the question that must be asked is whether they serve any purpose at all. None has ever been put forward other than that they are a ‘good idea’. This sounds a lot like chest thumping. And there is always the risk that a subsidy might influence a bitch owner to select the “wrong” sire.

A better question would be whether there is some other more productive use of those funds.

SA and NSW are offering bonuses for certain distances races but there is no evidence that they will produce nett benefits over the medium term. Indeed, the truth is that in SA, with one or two dogs excepted, the competitors are hopeless at the longer trip. Queensland is not much better while WA dogs are rarely competitive when they come to the east. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so the saying goes.

Actually, a reverse trend is apparent. At the other end of the scale, more and more squibs’ races over 300m are appearing, thereby providing insurance for sprinters failing over the tougher trips. Indeed, for a while a few years ago, even the mighty Wheeler combine was flat out producing dogs that could run out a decent 500m (better now, though).

All this adds up to a sad picture and a worse outlook, barring remedial action. So, what can we do?

The aim has to be to convince more owners to pursue staying options when they are looking at pups or matings. To do that requires money. First, to equalise prize money for equivalent staying and sprint events. That is already true of week to week meetings so attention has to go to premium races where discrimination is present today.

Second, having attended to the supply side of the argument, we need to look at the demand. State breeding subsidies should be eliminated and replaced with subsidies for sires which offer better chances of producing dogs with more stamina. Picking such sires (or dams) might be a subjective job but the starting point would be their success in 700m racing – a not too difficult task. An asterisk for past staying wins is much more promising than one which says the owner has paid a rego fee for the local breeding plan.

Meantime, improving middle-distance racing by eliminating disruptive bend starts would be a very good back-up policy. Currently, these races are harmful to both dogs and punters, and deliberately so. Be warned!

Of course, improvement would not occur overnight. It will take some years to filter through the system. However, a good result would be worth its weight in gold, both for the breed and for customers who will always enjoy the longer trips.

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