Queensland racing, about which much has been written here and elsewhere, is about to be hamstrung by the most peculiar set of management structures seen anywhere in racing. It flies in the face of all modern business practice, to say nothing of advice from the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport and the progress made by major sporting bodies in recent times.
Critically, the state risks oblivion unless its new boards do the unexpected and bring in major reforms. In the case of greyhound racing, it risks becoming an also-ran. Watch this space.
The LNP Racing Minister, Steve Dickson, still wearing L plates, ran true to his forecast to create four separate boards – one for each code and one in charge of all of them – and to appoint insiders to all the boards. He had specified that only those supported by racing groups were eligible for consideration. Here’s what he demanded: “all applicants for a board position must hold the endorsement of an industry licensee, a race club, racing association or association related to promoting the relevant code of racing prior to being considered for appointment”.
Amongst other things, this might be paraphrased as: “It’s never worked here or anywhere else but we will give it another go”.
The timing is not great either. The move coincides with the release of a forensic audit report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu that the previous board may have breached the rules by failing to put contracts worth $158 million out to tender, and also queried big payouts to displaced former employees (two of whom subsequently went to work for the above contractor). Legal steps are recommended.
Meantime, the new mix will immediately introduce conflicts of interest, starting with the chairman of the All Codes Racing Industry Board, Kevin Dixon, who doubles as the chairman of the thoroughbred board.
The three greyhound board members, lawyer and Albion Park President Michael Byrne, racecaller and owner Steve Hawkins and Ipswich businessman Chris Williams, all have racing histories – Hawkins with both turf clubs and greyhounds. Whether that will matter is possibly not so important because their board has little power outside running races. Major decisions will all go to the over-arching All Codes board, where greyhounds will have only one representative, Michael Byrne, out of five members. Can you imagine Racing NSW deciding on Wentworth Park’s future? Or Racing Victoria working on finances for Sandown or The Meadows? The mind boggles.
By definition, the four boards have no truly independent members, and no women either. They may all be fine people but that is hardly the point.
The big question now remains open: how will these boards, nominated with the support of their mates, make the tough decisions needed to drag Queensland out of the mess it is in? How will justice be seen to be done? Both harness and greyhounds have been losing money, while field quality continues to decline and short fields appear regularly. This is not a new problem as it was identified by Bob Bentley, chairman of the previous Racing Queensland board, as well as by hard statistics over the last decade.
Probably the most important financial burden they carry is having to deal with Tatts, whose contract is up for renewal soon. As the smallest of the three major totes, Tatts customers have little incentive to patronise their home tote if they want to make a decent bet. The absence of a national betting pool and the rapid increase in the use of phone and internet devices will continue to relegate Queensland, SA and Tasmania to relative poverty as punters look for better deals with Tabcorp, NT bookmakers and Betfair. In particular, Tasmania suffered a dramatic downturn when it recently lost its association with SuperTab following Tatts’ purchase of the local tote.
In passing, note that bookmakers and Betfair (hated by previous greyhound administrations) are banned from sponsoring races in Queensland because of an exclusive agreement with Tatts. Perhaps upcoming contract negotiations will do something about that.
Still, the greyhound code will have little to do with that as the powerful All Codes board will be advising the government.
When you sit back and think about it, the new greyhound board is not really much different to those which have gone before. Only the names have changed. Yet those past boards failed to remedy the code’s shortcomings, or even to recognise them, judging by their inaction. But now it has even less power than before.
The most urgent question is what to do about Albion Park, where everyone from the government down is dithering about its future, and that of the periodic proposals to move to another site. The state’s poor overall finances do not help.
Ideally, both Queensland’s major tracks, Albion Park and Ipswich, should be discarded and a new track built promptly. Albion Park has never been satisfactory, with two main trips using bend starts and the 520m first turn a continual disruption, while Ipswich has a shocking start to its 431m races and a flat first turn for 520m events. Owners are regularly shifting dogs to the southern states, while trainers take dogs to the Northern Rivers area to avoid those bend starts (although there is a frying pan and fire aspect to that).
The least of the new board’s tasks will be how to handle the oddball request from GRNSW to takeover the Border Park operation. All Codes chairman, Kevin Dixon, has said he thought it was a good idea. However, it’s easy to get the impression that Dixon is inclined to say anything is a good idea. Going back, it reminds me of that great all-rounder, Keith Miller, doing radio broadcasts at the time, when every time a promising name came up he picked him for the upcoming Ashes tour of England. They must have had a team of 48 by the time he finished.
Anyway, somebody needs to turn the battleship around. If Mal Meninga can’t get on the board, at least they could make him a consultant. After all, he is a winner, and his Ipswich mates, Langer and Walters, are into dogs, too. There’s a threesome (or foursome) for you! Independent, too.
LEST WE FORGET
Here’s to the diggers, especially my old man who got off a telegram delivery boy’s bicycle to go to France in WW1.