Back in 1994, I wrote to the NSW Racing Minister of the day, C.J. Downy, voicing my concern about the lack of direction in greyhound racing. Following the rapid rise of newish SKY Channel coverage I surmised that:
“Within a few years, a Kerry Packer look-alike would buy up a few hectares outside Dubbo, build two or three different dog tracks and a few thousand kennels, and start running nightly meetings. Using crowd noises played from a variety of tapes, each meeting would be projected into clubs and pubs throughout the state to happy groups of gamblers. The TAB and tax income would benefit, a few skilled dog handlers would be well paid, the notoriously inefficient greyhound clubs would disappear and life would be more predictable.”
That was a bit tongue in cheek, of course, but it was prompted by what was already a significant decline in racecourse crowds as patrons were migrating to handier and more pleasant surroundings in licensed clubs and pubs. At the same time, the greyhound authority was ineffective in countering this major shift by developing other means of promoting the sport, and the breed, to more distant patrons.
Nothing happened then. Nothing much has happened since. Crowds are negligible except on very special occasions, raceclubs are still spread across each state with only occasional closures, usually prompted by falling income from either local fans or the TAB. Nationally, around 43 of these have TAB/SKY coverage, some recently added as authorities grab hold of opportunities to shove low quality racing onto the weekly program. Three states – WA, Victoria and Tasmania – now have all their races on SKY, as does the ACT.
Two things bring all this to the fore.
First, NSW is looking down a dark tunnel as costs are rising while the cream of its income from increased TAB racing disappears into the coffers of the gallops and harness codes under the iniquitous commission sharing agreement signed long ago. Yet it still has to fund 18 non-TAB clubs as well as 15 on the TAB list.
Second, in Victoria extra races and better commission deals are funding multi-million dollar deals for track and facility re-building across the state. Bendigo and Ballarat have just been completed, Traralgon is about to get under way and Cranbourne is next on the list. In the recent past, Horsham, Geelong, Healesville, Sale, Shepparton, Warragul and Warrnambool have enjoyed expensive improvements.
While NSW has nowhere to go, the key question in Victoria is how far ahead will Santa Claus continue to deposit an increasing number of presents around the fireplace. After all, irrespective of what happened in the past, the future will depend on the habits of mug gamblers in clubs and pubs. For example, will the $3 million-plus just invested in Ballarat return a dividend over the long term? (More likely, nothing much will change as most mug gamblers would not have a clue about track improvements, and they certainly will not be going to the track – most would need to take their annual holidays just to get there).
Which brings us back to the underlying code structure and the presence of local tracks scattered across each state. Do we need them all?
There are only two sorts of people who might visit a track today – trainers and patrons. Since there are very few of the latter it then comes down to the needs of trainers. Some are local folk, of course, but for the most part they are visitors from afar, used to piling a batch of dogs into the trailer and heading off on a trip of 50km, 100km, 200km, or whatever, to their preferred track. (The trip is often paid for by “petrol money” supplied by the authority).
The upcoming jobs at Traralgon and Cranbourne also bring into focus the value of spending any money at all to attract customers. Probably uniquely now, these two are tri-code layouts with the dog track located far away in the middle of the complex, where dogs look like ants to fans in the grandstand. Cranbourne fans in particular must look across a massive grassed area in front of the grandstand even before they get to the first of the three circuits. Logically, anyone present would ignore the live race and turn around to check the TV monitors in the lounge – ie something they could do even more easily back in their social club, pub, home or on their hand-held device. (Do you know Australia has more mobile phones than people?)
Indeed, amongst many others, the example of a dual-code track at Albion Park further emphasises the point. Even prior to its building problems, a well-designed and provisioned seating area was routinely ignored by attendees, in favour of indoor monitors. Many other facilities lack any grandstand at all, notably one of the most expensive – The Meadows, a $13 million project a decade ago, where you have to stand on tiptoe to watch the races.
Catering to trainers in each region is of some value but it may not be the best business avenue to follow. If the local community were to add their support – and voted with their feet – it would be a different matter. But that is not going to happen. On-course patronage is pretty well dead as a concept, not just in greyhounds but in all codes. It’s also why bookmakers have largely disappeared, thereby removing much of the glamour of the experience.
Any re-emergence of fans would have to be a function of some other activity generating regular interest in the facility. While that is theoretically possible, it does not happen often and, even then, is so far limited to poker machine operations of one sort or another. That does not auger well for the development of potential greyhound supporters.
No, the long term will demand increases in efficiency which are beyond the current collection of raceclubs and racetracks. A greater concentration of effort and resources is the only logical answer.
A major reduction in the number of racetracks would offer the bonus of being able to devote more study and more funds to creating circuits of excellence. Perhaps even to better promoting the worth of the greyhound product to a wider range of people.