The question of field sizes is getting more worrying by the day.
In the week starting Monday 9th a sample of 23 meetings with 256 races in the eastern states showed that 58 of them, or 23%, started with less than a full field. That’s a lot.
It’s also costly. TABs always tell us that smaller fields produce smaller turnover. I don’t have the figures to check that myself but casual observation supports that view, particularly for exotic betting.
Meetings with three or more short fields occurred at Albion Park (twice), Horsham, The Meadows twice), Wentworth Park, Sandown and Sale. Another fifteen meetings had one or two short.
Some scratchings are just bad luck, of course. Something goes wrong on the day and they have to be pulled out. But, at the other end of the scale, you have to wonder why three, four or five dogs out of a group of eight or ten are scratched. The odds about that being fair dinkum are huge. Why were they there in the first place? Did a vet certify the problem?
A major suspect in Victoria is that some trainers were prevailed on to nominate dogs when they would normally not have done so – not ready, not fit enough, not recovered from injury etc – but their arms were twisted when a shortfall became obvious and nominations were extended. Again, I have no evidence one way or another but the constant habit of holding those nominations open for one, two or three meetings each week tells a story (Sandown-Sunday is short this week – yet again) .
Scratchings are one thing but some fields just don’t have enough dogs to start with. That is particularly so for higher grade races or distance races. For example, last week they included a Wentworth Park 720m, a Richmond 717m, FFA races at Wentworth Park, Geelong and Warrnambool, and 4th/5th grade races at Traralgon, Geelong and Ipswich. And many maidens in Victoria and Queensland include unraced dogs, which is nearly as bad. That practice now banned in NSW (which begs the question of how the NSW grading system will handle its newly-assigned task of sorting out Queensland fields).
Of course, the underlying issue in the three eastern states is that there are not enough dogs to satisfy the demand from the larger number of TAB meetings now on the program.
Australian litter and naming numbers have been easing for some while now (see GA stats) while the number of dogs actually racing has been pretty static for the last few years at around 13,300 (our surveys). Yet the number of races actually rose by 4.1% between 2001 and 2011. The change in TAB race numbers would have been even greater than that – GA does not differentiate between TAB and non-TAB – following re-badging of many meetings in NSW from country to TAB “C” class and the introduction of low class Tier 3 races in Victoria.
Yet another influence would be the number of dogs exported but GA does not publish those figures. It must know them because it has to issue passports. Meanwhile, the above figures are for last year but since then both Victoria and SA have added either more meetings or increased the number of races per meeting (including at Sandown and Meadows). With dog numbers remaining much the same the coming year will show the effect of this increased pressure. One point to watch will be the incidence of dogs backing up too quickly.
It amounts to a squeeze play. The supply of racing stock (ie litters and named dogs) is flat or declining yet there are more spots to fill. The mathematical outcome has to be more unfilled boxes, which takes us back to the starting point of this article – too many short fields.
While that is worrying enough, the related symptom is even worse – a decline in field standards as more starters are drawn from the bottom of the barrel. This makes the product less attractive overall, not just in those races with empty boxes. That trend must necessarily be part of the reason for a decade-long decline in knowledgeable punters and a proportional rise in mug gamblers.
As for the claims about big prize money increases recently, they are fine but they do not come from more popular racing. They are a result of cutting better deals out of the cash already there.
The good news is that all these problems are fixable. The industry’s managers just need to take a longer view.
The Way Forward
Looking further afield, racing might take advice from what is happening in other industries at the moment.
Those heavyweights of the thoroughbred industry, the Ingham brothers, bought their horses and studs from the proceeds of the chicken business. Here is how The Australian (July 18) reported their success.
“When Bob and his late brother Jack took over their father's poultry farm in Casula, southwest Sydney, in the 1950s, chicken and turkey were luxuries, served roasted with two vegetables and gravy, on holy days and feast days, in the time-honoured fashion. Thanks to the productive industrial farming techniques the Inghams pioneered, efficient distribution systems, imaginative marketing, processing and pre-preparation, Australians now enjoy more chicken served in many more ways than any previous generation. We eat up to 10 times as much chicken a person than we did in the 50s, while its price has fallen from about $10 a kg in 1970 to a little over $6 now”.
In contrast, chocolate maker Darrel Lea is doing it tough. Sales are down and it has called in the administrators to sort out the longstanding family owned company. This comment in the SMH (July 12) came from a retail advertising expert, Anouk Darling, CEO of the ad agency formerly doing Darrell Lea.
“Darrell Lea - while there is a lot of nostalgia and goodwill – hasn’t kept evolving”. As the SMH pointed out, “Darrel Lea had ceded ground to premium brands and has been overtaken in the mid-market by quirkier and more innovative chocolates”.
You might also add Ford to that list as it sacks workers while trying to recover from a downtown caused by taking far too long to react to changes in the market. Petrol prices and environmental factors killed the premium attached to big and thirsty cars. Ford and GM in America had the same problem. Like here, where Ford and others are being supported by the taxpayer, GM USA had to be bailed out by the government.
Well, the racing market has also changed in the last 20 years but the racing establishment not only failed to see it but violently opposed the arrival of fresh blood when it did appear. Yet all the NT newcomers did was to exploit gaps you could drive a truckload of chocolates through.
That aside, things are pretty much the same as they were 20 or even 50 years ago, so far as the market is concerned. The technology behind racing has often improved significantly but the product has gone the other way. As have many customers.
Some companies get ahead of the business, others are much too slow and suffer the consequences.