Peter Oliver’s interesting comments about the dominance of the Wheeler production line (see July 31 article) bring up some fascinating questions about how to run greyhound racing. But first some related stories.
A major manufacturer of toilet paper in America was doing well with its high quality product. Sales were big to large firms and hotels, as well as supermarkets. Then it noted that a sizeable chunk of the market was being captured by a firm making cheap, low quality stuff. So it bought it out and started making a two-pronged attack on customers. After a while it discovered that sales of the premium product were falling. Customers had changed their view of the company and no longer saw it as worth paying more for the better product. Before long, the company realised what it had gained did not make up for the losses. Overall profits were sliding but it was too late to reverse its policy and it eventually faded away. (This was a case history reported by Harvard University).
On a different slant, I like to buy rhubarb every so often to put on the Weetbix. At Woolworths or Coles it would cost me $5 a bunch and it stays at that price all year – never changes. Yet if I go down the road to a local greengrocer, which buys a lot of its stock from farmers in the area, I can get the same or a larger amount for exactly half that price. Probably fresher, too. So what would happen if the big supermarkets freeze out these small guys – which has happened in many shopping centres and towns – and I can no longer buy the better value stuff? Milk is still cheap but breakfast gets more expensive.
Of course, supermarket tactics have reduced prices in some areas, although at a cost to growers, many of whom are struggling with the tight margins – dairy farmers, for example. At the outset, the advantages are helpful for consumers. But if growers start deserting the field, where does that leave us in the long term? We are then in the hands of a couple of huge organisations who know exactly how to make a buck. Look past the weekly discounts and see how they play with prices of other goods. Their price manipulators would leave the airline yield experts for dead. For example, getting 25% off is nice, but off what?
Once again – excuse the pun – eventually the chickens will come home to roost. In the case of racing, the mighty but expensive TABs have already lost their edge, as have some of their PubTab and ClubTab outlets.
Elements of both these syndromes are impacting the greyhound code right now. It is dragging in cash from cheap races and hoping that will not affect income from the premium product. Yet it already has. Many customers have woken up to the trick and are refusing to patronise lousy fields. Big tracks are also losing turnover (eg on Saturday nights) because competing wall-to-wall events divert gamblers away from the better greyhound races. Pools now depend more on the gap before the race than what is in the race itself.
And there is absolutely no sign the trend will go away. Rather the opposite. In fact, pushing extra funds into events for untried dogs – as, for example, in the current Maiden series at The Gardens, or in similar series at Warrnambool, Dapto and Ipswich – will serve to cement that trend. So will the increasing frequency of Restricted Win races, “C” class racing in NSW and Tier 3 events in Victoria. Particularly Tier 3, as it is compulsory to have slow dogs there.
OK, there is a case – not a strong one, though - that you might be able to get away with low standard racing in, say, the lunchtime slot where the customer mix is different. But to try that at more popular times is fraught with danger. It puts racing in the same bracket as poker machines and lotteries. Bolters would dominate results. And putting a few low class races in with better ones is probably even more confusing. One outcome is that people will never bother developing the necessary punting skills as it is a waste of time trying to apply them in these cases. In effect, you are just using cheap toilet paper.
For race programmers, the challenge then is to make sure the bad dogs don’t get mixed up with the good ones. That’s not easy, although even bigger prize differences would help. So would greater efforts to grade existing tracks/clubs into premium and second level types. That way, serious customers would know which is good and which isn’t.
Sadly, tradition and politics often stop this happening. Everyone demands equal treatment, an attitude that would never be tolerated in the real world (except in communist Russia, but there they all ended up hungry and broke). However, to ensure a prosperous racing future, someone has to grasp this nettle and manage the industry with a capital “M”.
The key factor is that customers will not judge you by the best thing you do, but by the worst.
Back to the Wheelers. Of course, they are coining money at the moment. But they are also in open competition. Anybody else is welcome to try the same thing.
Still, it was not always so. A few years back hardly any Wheeler dogs could get a strong 500m. They were leading up and fading everywhere. Today, that’s been corrected in no uncertain terms but it took a lot of fiddling to get it that way (imported sires, perhaps). The current Bartrim Bale-Amelia Bale litter is a marvellous illustration of strength, for example, at least in the sprint category.
But other points should be made, too.
Have the Wheelers got that much better or has the opposition got worse? Will they get even better? What is the relative impact of different early education? Then the Wheelers don’t do very well in distance races. For example, Irma Bale is not a true stayer but a brilliant 650m dog, in my view, while Fyna Bale cannot run time, and they are just two out of hundreds. And once again, consider the opposition when you grade those two. We also don’t know what the Wheelers’ proportion of duds to good ones is. Then, even though they have never sent their top dogs to SA, it is arguable that what does go there has raised the state’s standards very significantly. WA has also done well with discards from the east. Poor old Queensland could do with them, but is missing out completely.
The upshot is that Wheelers are getting paid for quality. And so it should be.
Note 1: Saturday’s National Distance Championships at The Meadows illustrated the point about stayers from the Wheeler camp, or anywhere else for that matter. Both heat winners (Irma Bale and Lektra Jay) ran moderate times for the trip (42.82 and 43.09), way outside the 42.30 record. Five of the six placegetters have relatively better times over shorter trips. Lektra Jay is honest but has never broken 43 seconds at The Meadows, while Yowyeh tiptoes to the line.
Note 2: For an excellent summary of the supermarket situation, check Adele Ferguson’s July 28 article in the Sydney Morning Herald – “Driving down prices in a battle for an even bigger slice of the pie”. It’s worth thinking about.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
The Helion Maiden series at The Gardens has been run and won – by a 20/1 outsider. The handsome $25,000 first prize was exceeded only by the Win pool - $30,404 – which was easily the best of the night. Newcastle gamblers continue to amaze. Their courage is undoubted, but not their knowledge of greyhound racing.