Well, this time we have the Sun Herald to thank for bringing out into the open what is apparently an ongoing but secretive investigation into shifting Wentworth Park to western Sydney.
Several stories last Saturday, Sunday and Monday, together with letters to the editor, are rabbitting on about the pros and cons of selling off the headquarters of greyhound racing and moving to a newly built complex at Eastern Creek, some 34 km from the CBD. That puts it half way between Parramatta (20km) and Penrith (49km). The facility would be shared with the harness code and perhaps other sporting organisations. Or so the story goes.
The problem is that it is just a story. A hopeful one, at that. A property developer, Brookfield Multiplex, is putting together a proposal to government which would require selling off Wentworth Park in its entirety and allowing it to build high density housing on the site. It suggests the cash would go towards creating a collection of sporting facilities in the west.
Wentworth Park is not just a dog track and a grandstand. While it is hardly a ‚Äúpark‚ÄĚ in the original sense of the word, it does contain several sporting fields used mostly for junior football and schools. A trust controls the racing property and leases bits to various people, including GRNSW which then rents it to the GBOTA. The lease runs until 2027 but GRNSW says it has been negotiating an extension to 2054 ‚Äď without any resolution so far. The playing fields are actually under the control of the local council, which also charges greyhound fans parking fees when they use the area.
Interestingly, the trust is chaired by Percy Allan, a former public servant, part-time academic and previously chairman of the very same GRNSW. This is the bloke who once spoke out aggressively about the horrors of allowing NT bookies access to racing and wagering. He implored participants to avoid them at all cost. How times change! It is a small world, isn‚Äôt it?
In principle, there is nothing wrong with GRNSW having a look at the potential for a replacement site for racing, although it would have been nice for them to tell us about it before we read it in the daily papers. GRNSW is paying Deloittes to look into the possibilities so you can expect a substantial bill to arrive, regardless of what happens with the developers.
The Wenty complex is turning into a bit of a disaster. When last I counted there were some 13 organisations that had to sign off on any change to the place. That would now be down to 12 following the demise of the NCA, but it still includes people like the Heritage Society which views the kennel block as some sort of national icon (translation ‚Äď it‚Äôs very old). The grandstand is aging, which is why big money had to be spent on the roof recently. A once thriving mezzanine level has now been put out to pasture as crowd numbers have progressively dwindled over the years.
Most important of all, the track is a disruptive one and badly needs a complete rebuild in order to provide fairer racing as well as middle distance events.
One group that would not mind a shift to the west are trainers. Many of them live out there where they have room for their dogs. Of course, so do half the population of Sydney ‚Äď a growing half ‚Äď while industrial development is moving on apace, as is planning for Badgerys Creek airport, which is less than 10km from Eastern Creek.
Football has done well by shifting many matches west to Homebush, which is less than half way to Eastern Creek and both are already served by freeways to one degree or another. The airport will ramp that up a bit more.
However, the whole deal will turn on what government decides to do about Wenty and the surrounding playing fields. The harness people came up smelling like a rose when they sold off Harold Park and moved to the outskirts of town at Menangle Park (52km) with a brand new track. That will not happen at Wenty. The land is owned by ‚Äúthe people‚ÄĚ and so politics will govern its future.
In turn, that will mean a battle between the environmental lobby and a government always keen to fill its coffers. Should the former win, as is highly likely, the whole thing would be turned into a recreational area, or at least largely so. Green space is as scarce as hen‚Äôs teeth in that part of the city.
In that event, greyhounds would be entitled to compensation for the unused portion of its 2027 lease, and hopefully to some additional help from a government which is highly dependent on tax income from racing. Coincidentally, that might give government the opportunity to restore, in one way or another, some fairness to the way TAB commissions are being distributed (as recommended by the current parliamentary Inquiry). After all, it makes no sense to allow greyhound racing to wither away, taking with it a substantial annual contribution to the Treasury.
Racing Minister, George Souris, has been of no great help to greyhounds but he is a country boy at heart and may not like to see any forced de-licensing of provincial tracks, particularly his local circuit at Muswellbrook.
The more likely outcome is that Multiplex and Co will not get what they want out of Wentworth Park, but they may get a little bit to take home. That still leaves them with the potential for big developments as they are also after the nearby Fish Markets. They may well be able to do a Packer/Bangaroo style deal which leaves everyone reasonably happy.
Either way, hang on to your tickets for the next ten years as it will take at least that long to make any headway. After all, the new airport took 50 years to bring about and the options there were as plain as a pikestaff.
HIT‚Äô√ČM WHERE IT HURTS
Great to see, for the first time I can remember, the Golden Easter Egg being advertised on free-to-air TV ‚Äď 7-Three in this case – in the middle of an AFL match. That‚Äôs likely to be more productive than the traditional ads on SKY where only the already-converted are watching.
Having said that, the ad was not a memorable one. It mentioned only the fact that the races were on and made little emotional appeal to viewers. Budget restrictions (presumably of the GBOTA‚Äôs) may have limited the production expense. That‚Äôs a pity because we need much more of this.
By comparison, it‚Äôs worth noting a comment on the gallops‚Äô ‚ÄúChampionship‚ÄĚ advertising by Patrick Smith of The Australian (April 11).
‚ÄúIT is hard to think of a sport more oblivious to the world in which it seeks to operate than thoroughbred racing. It is a pastime/industry that only connects with the greater community when the grog flows and the business is dressed up to party hard‚ÄĚ.
‚ÄúThe advertisement that you can see now promoting the Randwick championship carnival seems at pains to celebrate everything bar the horse. The animal is an afterthought. Everything else takes precedence. Alcohol, punting, bores, wankers, snappy suits, cool guys and good-looking girls‚ÄĚ.
All very true, but they did get reasonable crowds to Randwick, so it is a start. The point being that they were giving fans a reason to attend, rather than just posting a diary note, as the greyhounds did.
This is the story of a modest punter but I would not be surprised if there were many others like it.
The constant flow of good dogs from NSW and Queensland to points south of the Murray River has got all the attention over the last 15 years or so. Nothing those two states do seems to slow down this process. The attractions of more prizemoney, kinder grading and a bigger choice of suitable tracks are the big pullers. They certainly are for Australia‚Äôs biggest owner, Paul Wheeler.
But punting is a different subject. These days, you can bet on anything, anywhere, at any time, from wherever you sit. The choice is yours.
I choose Victoria. Not for the tracks. Not for the better dogs. And, certainly not for the cash in the pools; they are much of a muchness everywhere. The main reason, in fact virtually the only reason, is the information. Victoria offers much more information, more conveniently, and it is more accurate. It‚Äôs not quite perfect but it is near enough.
There are two key aspects of that information flow ‚Äď formguides and results.
Leaving aside Queensland, where the local formguides are rudimentary at best, the comparison is between Victoria and the rest ‚Äď ie NSW, SA, WA and Tasmania. Those four are now embroiled in the Ozchase system designed and operated by GRNSW.
Whatever other benefits the partners get from Ozchase, its three ‚Äúformguides‚ÄĚ are terrible. Here‚Äôs why.
The (F) option is not a formguide at all but simply a list of runners. Even so, it still takes one and a half pages to print out ten races. One page would have been enough.
The (W) option not a formguide either. It is a list ofaccompanied by a sectional map. That also takes a page and half to print out but don‚Äôt try to print it from you own program‚Äôs Print option as that will show only the left half of the page. Use the onscreen Print Meeting although that will still take up one and a half pages, usually with four races on one page and six on the other. As for the sectional map, forget it as it will only lead you astray. It does not assess most interstate runs, Tasmanian times are mostly lies (that state assigns the only sectional time to the winner in every race, regardless of what dog ran it) and NSW calculations are unreliable because many tracks record only the leader‚Äôs time, but you have to guess which dog was responsible. A particular problem is the shortage of times at the state‚Äôs two main one-turn tracks ‚Äď Bulli and Maitland. It‚Äôs a hotchpotch.
The big one is option (E) ‚Äď for ‚ÄúExpert‚ÄĚ. It is a formguide, but it contains all of the problems with the (W) version as well as some of its own. Each race soaks up two and a half pages of paper and even then you will need a magnifying glass to read the formlines. In poor light it would be an impossible task. In an era when the average age is increasing (including those for trainers and punters) and reading capability is therefore falling, this is very poor planning.
The task of designing all these was outsourced to an alleged racing ‚Äúexpert‚ÄĚ a few years ago, according to GRNSW. (From personal dialogues with those people, I can assure you they were not).
The NSW effort to publish race results is not a lot better. The screen will show you an attractive and colourful page for a given race so no problem so far. However, there is no option allowing you to Print the whole meeting, or even to show it all at once. If there was one, it would require many more forests to be cut down due to all the wasted space on the page.
If you try to Print directly from the screen, bad luck. You will get only two thirds of the page. As for a Download option ‚Äď forget it, it does not exist. If you try to do it manually you will not be able to send it to one of the common programs such as MS Word ‚Äď it will tell you ‚Äúit does not compute‚ÄĚ, or words to that effect.
Alternatively, you can download it to a basic text editor, which will lose all the formatting and, for reasons which escape me, GRNSW has another trick up its sleeve ‚Äď it deletes all the box numbers on the way. Apparently, they want to keep them a secret.
As for a comma-delimited file, which many fans might like to allow them to insert the details into their own programs ‚Äď nothing. That does not exist either.
By comparison, here is what Victoria offers.
Free and easy access to all local formguides via the Watchdog section. Just hit the button to download it or print it out. All races occupy only one page and the typeface is easy to read. If you wish, you can print some pages and ignore others.
Free and easy access to meeting results ‚Äď the whole meeting on the same file ‚Äď so you can print or download that, too, as you wish. There is a comma-delimited option as well.
A sister option also provides full colour presentation, together with videos and stewards reports, all on the same page. No need to go searching all over the website.
All Victorian races have complete sectional times for all runners (except, once again, for interstate runs).
The only drawback in Victoria is the misleading presentation of Handicap race times. There is insufficient distinction between them and normal races over the same nominal distances, so readers can get confused.
In other words, for Victorian races you just go bang, bang and it all happens easily. For the NSW coverage, which now involves four states with Queensland to come later, everything is hard work while presentation and usability are poor to non-existent. All four states were advised of these shortcomings before they signed up but chose to ignore the advice. So did GRNSW.
So, one Australian state offers good information which encourages fans to take part, the others put up a long string of obstacles to make life difficult. On balance, that cannot be good for the industry.
That‚Äôs why I favour Victorian racing.
Of course, many of these hassles are overcome by the subscription-only National Tabform formguide ($11 weekly), but not for NSW meetings.
Note: For our personal system we have been forced to develop our own means of producing formguides for those few non-Victorian occasions when we need them. The GRNSW-Ozchase system, which probably cost millions to implement, is just impossible to handle. The effectiveness of that project would make a good start for the proposed independent Integrity Auditor, as recommended by the recent parliamentary Inquiry.
CRIMINALS WIN, VICTIMS LOSE
It used to be the convention ‚Äď if that is the right word ‚Äď for stewards to accept that an injury was sufficient explanation for a dog‚Äôs misbehaviour (fighting, failure to chase, etc). Now a suspension or warning or satisfactory trial and so on get mentioned in the same breath. Is there a standard here? We are confused.
I am all for chucking out fighters but not this way. Anyway, on a related issue, if we are serious about this subject then surely it is time that greyhound racing rules were changed to require fighters to be disqualified and lose any prizemoney. Every other competition on this planet, including both the other two codes of racing, does exactly that. I have been proposing this for many years but everyone seems to ignore the need. It‚Äôs not a fair go, especially for the victims.
Shakey Jakey‚Äôs 29.07 record run at Wentworth Park was amazing, particularly for a Maiden, but it has also eclipsed one other world famous figure. To date, nothing has ever got near to Brett Lee‚Äôs 28.88 run over Angle Park‚Äôs 515m trip. That was an average speed of 17.83 m/sec, yet Shakey Jakey‚Äôs time over 520m was at a rate of 17.89 m/sec on what is certainly a tougher track. That puts it in rarefied territory, unsurpassed on a circle track anywhere here or overseas. It‚Äôs right up there with Black Magic Opal‚Äôs 25.11 over Geelong‚Äôs one-turn 460m, averaging 18.32 m/sec.
Nevertheless, it was also out of kilter with the prevailing trend. Of the last 50 track records, 30 were run at distances from 460 m down to 312m. Many of the remainder were at less competitive country tracks, re-built tracks or over lightly used trips. Obviously, the push is on to produce speedier but less robust dogs.
David Pringle‚Äôs 23 months old Shakey Jakey (Collision-Kiacatoo Pearl ‚Äď her 3rd litter) is a massive exception to the rule. Indeed, the way he went into the pen he looked as though he could go around again at the same rate. Not only that, but he handled the track beautifully. And, apparently, there are more like him to come. Bring it on!
* * * * *
Still on statistics, our latest survey of the number of dogs actually racing has continued to edge upwards. The calendar year averages are shown here.
These figures are obtained by scanning all Australian race fields and results for individual dog names ‚Äď no doubling up. In the March quarter of 2014, the trend continued on a like for like basis.
More dogs race in Winter and Spring than in the warmer months.
To comment sensibly on these figures we would also need to see breeding figures for the same years. Sadly, GAL still has not produced figures for 2012 and 2013. However, trends from 2002 to 2011 were flat or negative, which suggests more dogs from each litter are getting to the track, or dogs are racing more often, or more likely both. That interim conclusion is supported by the increase in the number of races, particularly from mid-2010 when NSW, Victoria, and later SA, introduced low prize races to cater for slow dogs. Several clubs have also added ultra short races to their programs. All of these moves tend to encourage lesser dogs, so where will it end?
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE ARE THINKING
Cash in Hand?
Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson and Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens have been warning us that the next ten years will see real income per person easing off from its recent high rate. Parkinson predicts growth will fall from the 2.3% p.a. ‚Äúto which Australians have become accustomed‚ÄĚ to around 0.7% (reported by Ross Gittins at Fairfax Media). Not a catastrophe but it may leave the average worker with a bit less to play with than he once had.
But that‚Äôs the bit that sustains wagering, especially from the mug gambler category which has already become more important to racing. It follows another trend of recent years in a shift away from betting at unsociable times, such as late at night, to twilight meetings when workers are having a drink on the way home.
Even a few years ago I can recall advising the Bulli club not to worry when GRNSW, playing musical chairs with race dates, shifted it from its preferred Wednesday night slot to the twilight zone. Yes, it did do better. Now it is back in the old slot again but tending to be outranked by Dapto on Thursdays, which was never the case historically. In another example, we have previously mentioned that NSW punters regularly bet more on Horsham on Tuesday afternoons than they do on Sandown on Thursday night, despite the difference in field quality.
Anyway, the fix for the economic concerns and their influence on pay packets is to make the country more productive ‚Äď more output per person in real terms. That has not been easy to achieve recently as mining activity eases off and employment figures are wobbly.
All the more reason for racing to sharpen its pencil and seek out ways of spending money on stuff which provides a better return ‚Äď better tracks, new customers, improved public relations and getting rid of subsidies. The competition will get tougher.
Professor Edward J. Blakely, an American currently attached to the University of Sydney, has been studying the rise and rise of the western Sydney suburb of Parramatta, which lies at the epicentre of the city‚Äôs population. He says it offers a great example for administrators.
‚ÄúWhat can we learn from Parramatta? First, sitting and waiting is not going to shape the future of any community. Second, all civic leaders must learn from other places, not by imitation but by seeing the ingredients that will create a better future and mixing them together to fit their local circumstances. Finally, people, quality and community amenity attract jobs, not merely good plans or available land. Strong leadership with a well-articulated vision helps create the market conditions that both attract and sustain a strong local economy‚ÄĚ.
‚ÄúParramatta is a lesson for all NSW on how to build tomorrow‚Äôs urban industrial future by attracting and retaining the quality human resources who will create and attract the new jobs that will sustain the region‚Äôs and the nation‚Äôs economy‚ÄĚ.
The full story is at .smh.com.au/comment/why-parramatta-is-nsws-best-suburb-20140406-zqrgt.html
Directly, this has nothing to do with racing. However, the principles are readily transferred.
She‚Äôs done it again. Natalie O‚ÄôBrien, the Fairfax reporter who has been sniping at greyhound racing for a couple of years now, has had another crack at the industry in her March 30 item in the Sun Herald.
Despite the parliamentary Inquiry reporting that abuses were ‚Äúminimal‚ÄĚ, O‚ÄôBrien devoted most of her article to dissenting comments by Greens MP John Kaye, who claimed that GRNSW ‚Äúhas dodged a bullet‚ÄĚ after the Inquiry ignored references to euthanised dogs and other matters. Those words were uttered under parliamentary privilege but neither Kaye nor O‚ÄôBrien has tried to better define ‚Äúdodged‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúbullet‚ÄĚ. As a reporter, O‚ÄôBrien was duty bound to delve further, but did not bother, instead just repeating the claims verbatim. Kaye himself had originally got wide media coverage after making wild and unsustainable accusations about the industry.
While those issues were well canvassed during the hearings, the other six members of the committee obviously thought it not of sufficient concern to make a song and dance about it. However, many of its other recommendations went to such matters as the need to improve supervision of trainers‚Äô practices, to increase efforts to re-home dogs and to watch over the ‚Äúsocialisation‚ÄĚ aspect during their early careers in particular.
It is striking that O‚ÄôBrien has managed to extract a string of adverse comments by Kaye at the far end of the 184 page report while skating briefly over the parts that did not suit her agenda. Did Kaye prompt O‚ÄôBrien or was it vice versa?
O‚ÄôBrien‚Äôs previous greyhound efforts in Fairfax papers (Jul 15, 2012, Aug 12, 2012, Nov 24, 2013) contained a few valid points but otherwise they were all backed by unsubstantiated and untested claims by people who later failed to present their cases to GRNSW. They could be best described as hearsay and innuendo, yet were presented as facts.
Effectively, Kaye was the instigator of the whole Inquiry following his original attack on what he has termed abuses, bullying, secrecy and cronyism. Like any other walk of life, greyhound racing is not perfect but the balance found by the Inquiry was that while improvements could and should be made, in the overall sense participants ‚Äútake great care and pride in their dogs‚ÄĚ.
Kaye, like other tiny minorities which made submissions to the Inquiry, implies that he does not like greyhound racing in any form. That‚Äôs his privilege but it should not be allowed to govern everything that happens. Society contains murderers, burglars, embezzlers and rapists but that does not mean the rest of the population should also get a black mark.
O‚ÄôBrien‚Äôs situation is similar but more serious. Her actions appear to run counter to the journalist‚Äôs ethics and code of practice. She has failed on two major counts; first to properly verify the claims of abuses by making contact with a range of involved parties, and secondly by failing to give balance in her articles to facts and arguments for and against.
The ABC 7:30 Report was also at fault in this way. In one example in a highly critical program, a 15 minute interview with one senior authority figure ended up as an 8-second grab on the program, while lengthy complaints by others were never verified. At best, it was a blatant attempt at tabloid-style headline grabbing. The ABC has been widely criticised for similar treatment of other subjects.
In both these cases, their comments were massively (and in O‚ÄôBrien‚Äôs case, repeatedly) slanted to paint a poor picture of the industry while offering only fleeting opportunities for contrary views to be put. That the all-party parliamentary Inquiry has found and acted differently serves only to underline the slack nature of the reporting. Remember that O‚ÄôBrien‚Äôs writing did not come under the heading of ‚Äúopinion‚ÄĚ. As with the ABC 7.30 report, it purported to be straight reporting. Consequently, both parties should be hauled over the coals for misleading the public.
For reference, here are just two items in the journalists‚Äô code of practice. It requires them to …
‚Äú1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply‚ÄĚ.
‚Äú4. Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence‚ÄĚ.
To use a term popular in legal circles these days, would an ‚Äúordinary person‚ÄĚ see any breaches there, or not?
Separately, let‚Äôs note that the RSPCA, an organisation with some standing in the community, also has been at pains to highlight what it claims is an excessive number of greyhounds euthanised. Yet, under questioning, it was unable to provide accurate data on that subject or to offer comparable evidence for any other dog breed, or even of horses. This somewhat slapdash and unprofessional approach reduces the worth of its submissions. Like the above two media sources, it smacks of an emotional bias against greyhound racing.
There is an anti-football league in Melbourne but at least they are honest about it. They are also part of a tiny minority. In fact, society has lots of tiny minorities. Such is democracy, but life goes on regardless.
Whatever comes of this exercise, it does not relieve the greyhound industry of the obligation to better inform the public about the breed and how the industry works. At the very least, it owes that to owners, trainers and employees. It is also good business practice.
IT‚ÄôS ENGINEERING, NOT SCIENCE
Punters marvelling at super fast times at Cranbourne recently will be glad to know that the club chucked out all the old loam and put in 100 tonnes of new stuff. Hence all the records and fast times being recorded.
It seems like differences of several lengths are involved but we may need a little more evidence to be sure. Meantime, take care with any tipsters‚Äô comments about fantastic runs over all distances. Make your own judgements.
Massive changes like this are becoming a habit. Albion Park‚Äôs 520m trip quickened by a good three lengths last November following the installation of new Steraline boxes with a different timing system. Previously, we had seen GRV fiddle with the timing mechanism at Sandown and elsewhere, leading to new record times going into the books. That followed a similar speeding up when its loam was replaced a few years ago.
The worrying issue is that the record books are becoming a joke and undeserving dogs are being allocated a place in history. The solution, of course, is to declare the circuit a new track and re-start the whole process. In either case, more advance notice and more testing might help punters work out what‚Äôs what.
HI HO SILVER!
There is always a chuckle left in racing. Isn‚Äôt it magical how every race starter in the nation presses the button to switch on the green light and then waves madly to his mate in the tower to get the bunny running? Every one of them does it. Are we missing something here?
Not so funny is the incidence of people standing outside the safety rope at the start, thereby risking contact with an errant lure. Their numbers include stewards.
‚ÄúAustralian school students never master multiplication ¬¨tables, no longer learn long division and can‚Äôt add fractions by the time they get to university‚ÄĚ, according to Melbourne mathematician Marty Ross. Other experts agreed (The Australian April 5).
Perhaps this is where mug gamblers come from? Obviously, we need a school for punting.
Did you notice that this website was the only publication to report why race 7 at Wentworth Park on Saturday ‚Äď an Easter Egg heat ‚Äď was declared a ‚ÄúNo Race‚ÄĚ, and what happened afterwards. The TAB and GRNSW simply said ‚ÄúAbandoned‚ÄĚ, so leaving fans in the dark. See our article Keybow Sizzles In Golden Easter Egg Heats by Clarinda Campbell.
This is nostalgia week so I am taking the opportunity to repeat here some comments made in 2003 in the QGRA Journal (hopefully RQ will not mind the copyright infringement). It looks at the past and makes some guesses about the future. Make of them what you wish. The only thing missing here is the arrival of online bookmakers in strength, and the NBN fibre connection. Still, I did make note of the gaps in TAB coverage ‚Äď ones which the newcomers were able to drive trucks through.
Everything below was written 11 years ago.
20/20 VISION HELPS
Crystal ball gazing can be useful at times. For instance, I just learnt that in 20 years time many of today‚Äôs raceclubs will have disappeared. Of those that remain, the bigger ones will be part of a multi-purpose complex, either jointly with other racing codes or in a ‚Äúshopping mall‚ÄĚ concept. Under good management, they will be very profitable. Those smaller country clubs which hang on will be little different from today but they will be strictly for local enthusiasts and won‚Äôt offer much in the way of prize money.
However, one State is rumoured to be on the point of closing down all but one of its racing complexes. The one that‚Äôs left will contain three side-by-side tracks ‚Äď of different styles ‚Äď and be located on cheap land 200 km northwest of the capital city. The latest CAD techniques (computer-assisted-design) will produce turns where dogs never fall and boxes that always open. Box draws are seeded, of course, in sympathy with the dogs‚Äô running styles. The surrounding 3,000 kennels will be run by the ZammBate Corporation, currently capitalised by the market at $50 million. The company now operates in five countries and is considering opening branches in three more.
Rocky Mountain Ltd will supply most of the dogs, flown in by jumbo freighters after early schooling at the company‚Äôs breeding farm at Chow Mein, a small island off the Chinese coast (labour‚Äôs cheaper there). Beijing is reported to be very happy with its 51% ownership of this joint venture.
Race meetings each morning, afternoon and evening will be broadcast around Australia and to 35 other countries, accompanied by crowd noises from a battery of DVD machines. Race broadcasts will be auto-generated by the same system, using laser beams to identify each dog by the tiny chip embedded in its ear. Computerised voices will have been constructed years before from recordings of oldtime racecallers Dolan and Ambrosoli. Mentions of ti-trees and bands of wild Indians will have been deleted first. Within seconds of the finish, photos, prices and times will be flashed to the media, the National Database and Racedata subscribers, while winnings will be credited to your Smart Card.
On cooling down, all dogs will have their blood analysed on the spot and then pass through one of several MRI machines, which now cost about the same as a top end TV set. Stresses and strains will be detected, recorded and treated with the help of the on-site branch of the State University‚Äôs veterinary faculty. Drug offenders will be dispatched immediately to help boost the new racing operation at Mt Isa, a leading mining town in the old days but now host to thriving art galleries, dude ranches and archaeological digs.
AussieTAB, the national tote company, will negotiate coverage with the National Greyhound Commission although Betfair and its local competitor, Packfair, now handle 33% of all betting turnover. Form details will be available to all comers just by calling up the National Database from your remote controller (as soon as the missus finishes using it to organise the dinner menu). Formguides disappeared altogether 10 years ago but most punters subscribe to one of several race analysis services, the most popular being the Daily Greyword, published by Ripkin and Sons at its Long Bay facility.
Your PackPay TV subscription will give you separate channels for live broadcasts from each racing code as well as an additional channel you can use to call up past races on demand. Charges and bets will be recorded on your phone account and debited to your National Smart Card.
Your internet connection is made through the electricity system, which turned out to be more efficient after all than satellite transmission or the ugly thick cables many suburbs once suffered. Actually, some city folk might also see a lot more live races at boutique tracks, in between shopping at the megamarket, taking in a virtual movie, buying a MacDonalds lentil burger or relaxing with a joint at the licensed pot shop. Your electric gomobile is parked in the middle of all those facilities.
All a bit fanciful? Well if you think that‚Äôs a bit much, consider that was happening in 1983.
20 YEARS AGO
Thousands of fans attended race meetings.
Punters actually knew something about the dogs they were backing.
Bookmakers were plentiful; some actually used their judgement to take punters on.
SKY Channel did not exist.
The internet did not exist.
Vanuatu was where you went on your adventure holiday.
Governments owned all the TABs.
The Gabba, Toowoomba, Mt Isa, Lawnton and Beenleigh were happily running race meetings.
So was Harold Park, the country‚Äôs premier one-turn track.
Big kennels were rare and local Councils quite helpful.
The local formguide publisher was doing a brisk business.
You found the race results in the morning papers (if you were lucky and if you lived in the city).
Most main roads were slow, freeways were rare and air transport very expensive.
NSW used to hold on to all its good dogs.
Ministers were promising to really get stuck into a review of racing.
OK, given the differences between 1983 and 2003, are the projections for 2023 too ambitious? It wouldn‚Äôt seem so. By any definition, the industry has seen massive changes over the last two decades. Of course, many were outside greyhound control, while others were just follow-the-leader episodes ‚Äď SKY twilight coverage, for example. Some of them were forced ‚Äď such as vacating the Gabba or shutting down Olympic Park for main road development. Unfortunately, Harold Park, in Sydney‚Äôs historic Glebe and the birthplace of Australian greyhound racing, closed for no good reason at all.
Anyway, for those who doubt this sort of progression, please check out the history of World Series and one-day cricket, Rugby amateurism, Murdoch-owned football clubs or advertisements on the backs of referees, all revolutions in their own right and all happening in the last 20 years.
Which leaves us with the question: how will our Governments and our racing authorities handle the future? What sort of 2023 might they envisage and how will they plan our progress from here to there?
While there are several options, there‚Äôs little doubt about the main issue. Just how will the commercialisation of racing proceed? In this day and age, the countrywide ban on proprietary racing looks pretty silly. After 180 years of thoroughbred racing and 76 years of mechanical hare racing every other aspect of the industry is in the hands of entrepreneurs and professional managers ‚Äď breeding, training, owning, videos and broadcasting, TABs, feed, medicines, veterinary science, racetrack concessions and the major formguide publisher. So are the illegal betting operations, which can exist only because many customers don‚Äôt much like the legal options. Oddly, Governments have been quick to let go control of other functions which they are not good at. Yet they still hang on to racing ‚Äď or, more accurately, betting – like grim death.
Whether the greyhound developmental process is fast or slow is not so much the point. They key will be to assume that it will happen and then to plan the growth of the industry to best advantage. The greyhound industry has been a follower over the last 20 years. In the next 20 it has the opportunity to take the lead ‚Äď and leaders win most of the races.
The Select Committee on Greyhound Racing in NSW (Committee) has released its First Report (Report). The Committee has made two findings and 18 recommendations.
ARG has reviewed the Report and provides the following summary to ensure industry participants are well informed.
The Economic Viability Of The Greyhound Racing Industry
The Committee made a finding that greyhound racing in NSW may be unsustainable in the current circumstances (Finding 1).
In the Report, the Committee refers to current industry funding, prize money levels, the Racing Distribution Agreement and inter-code agreement and the Cameron Report. The current arrangements under the inter-code agreement have been a cause for concern for many participants however, at this stage, no recommendations have been made to amend that agreement.
The Committee did make some interesting comments on the negotiation of the inter-code agreement by GRNSW. The Committee concluded that those involved in the negotiations failed to explain to participants the major components of the agreement that were negotiated.
Returning to the findings, as stated above, the Committee acknowledged that the current situation is due, in part, to factors outside the current management but it was also critical of the way the current management has conducted itself:
“The Committee is of the opinion that the difficulties the greyhound industry finds itself in are in part due to factors beyond the control of current management. The distribution of racing funds and lower tax rates in competing jurisdictions puts GRNSW at a competitive disadvantage. The Committee also notes that the current management has been involved with or perpetuated a number of decisions that have compromised the viability of the industry.”
The Committee has recommended that the Treasurer provide financial modelling of the economic impact on state revenue and the greyhound industry of a number of scenarios that best reflect optimum outcomes for the future of the racing industry (Recommendation 1).
Michael Eberand, a greyhound racing participant with extensive commercial and financial experience, prepared a submission and presentation for the Committee in respect to propositions for the NSW government to make changes to return the industry to sustainability. Eberand has kindly provided some of his time to ARG to explain what he thinks Recommendation 1 means for the greyhound industry and what approach he believes should be adopted to return the industry to sustainability.
“My view is that the final report is pleasing from the perspective that it is in effect a parliamentary recognition of the importance of greyhound racing to the state and its current financial predicament. Further, the Committee has recommended government support, with financial modelling to be conducted by Treasury, with a view to optimum outcomes for the greyhound racing industry.”
Eberand’s proposal is outlined on page 47 of the Report. In summary, Eberand describes his proposal as follows:
“My proposal is for the government to use differential tax (the extra tax earned by NSW Government in comparison to Victoria) to support a transition to a more market based TAB revenue funding model. The proposal was that the funding model would be broken down into fixed or variable components, similar to Victoria. The fixed would recognise thoroughbreds greater contribution to fixed costs/infrastructure; and be reviewed say three yearly; the variable would be purely market based and reward innovation and performance.”
Eberand is hoping that consideration is given to his proposal by Treasury but believes that even if it is not, it is clear that the Committee recognises the need for change.
“It remains to be seen whether Treasury work from that proposal or others, but regardless, it is clear that an optimal outcome for the industry is supported by the Committee in terms of its findings and recommendations.”
Eberand is hoping the government can deliver an assistance package for the industry and urges fellow participants to keep lobbying politicians.
“The government can effectively deliver an overall assistance package for the racing industries and assist with the development of the state economy at the same time. I believe that is where the Committee, Treasury and Government is heading. That being the case, it should be good news for the industry. In my view, it is now up to each participant, regardless of memberships and backgrounds, whether they are Action Group, the GBOTA, and particularly GBOTA as it is the largest representative body, clubs etc, to continue to meet local politicians and to lobby the government to deliver an outcome that returns the industry to its once great state.”
A second report will be produced by 30 June 2014 on the modelling and make any recommendations. The Greyhound Action Group (GAG) believes this second report will be a defining moment for the industry. Dennis Carl from GAG told ARG:
“Part 2 of the Select committees report on June 30 will be the defining moment for the Greyhound industry in NSW. The outcome of those findings will determine whether or not the Industry is to be financially sustainable in the future.”
GRNSW has stated that it:
“Looks forward to working with the Select Committee and Treasury on the financial modelling of options…the joint industry submission, led by GRNSW to the Select Committee made a number of recommendations to address long term viability and GRNSW argues that these must be among the options modelled.”
The Board And Management Of GRNSW
The second finding of the Committee is that the current management and operational model under which the industry operates needs substantial review and restructure (Finding 2).
The Report referred to the current composition of the GRNSW Board and its selection process and the various criticisms made by the industry. These criticisms alluded to “jobs for the boys” and the secrecy of the selection process. Various criticisms were also made by participants of the board and their financial management of greyhound racing in NSW. In this respect, The Gardens situation was analysed as a case study.
Participants also stated that GRNSW does not effectively communicate with participants and involve them in consultation. Participants were also critical of the level of autonomy held by GRNSW. Essentially, it is autonomous to the extent of having “no watchdog”. Concerns were also raised about the independence of the Integrity Auditor and the application of penalties and offences under the Greyhound Racing Rules (Rules).
The Committee recognised that changes need to be made to improve the structure and accountability of GRNSW as well as the provision of greater consultation with the industry. The Committee stated that an independent review should be undertaken of the financial management of greyhound racing.
The Committee acknowledged that the selection process for the board and convening of the selection panel needs to be reformed. The Committee agreed with concerns that question the fairness of the process, including the independence of panel members. The Committee stated that a review should be undertaken to ensure that an objective and independent selection panel is convened.
The Committee agreed that there should be a mix of independents and greyhound participants on the Board and has recommended the government take this into account when reviewing the selection process of the members of GRNSW (Recommendation 2).
The Committee agreed that GRNSW needs to engage in stronger consultation with the industry to ensure well-informed decision making (Recommendation 3).
The Committee also stated that GRNSW needs to have greater accountability. To this end, the Committee said that ICAC should have authority to investigate the greyhound racing industry and GRNSW should be placed under their oversight (Recommendation 4).
The Committee noted that it believes the current appeal structure for participants is sufficient but that penalties and offences under the Rules have not been applied consistently or fairly. The Committee was alarmed by the persecution of whistle blowers and agitators in the industry (the examples referred to include the matters of Tom Astbury, Chris Arletos and Robert Whitelaw). The Committee stated that GRNSW should delete the rule which allows GRNSW to hold liable those that engage in conduct they deem detrimental or prejudicial to greyhound racing (Recommendation 5).
GAG has welcomed these recommended measures:
“Applying accountability to GRNSW is critical, the absolute independence of the Integrity Auditor likewise.
GAG also stated that in relation to the selection process for the Board, if the review finds that two additional Directors are to be appointed, they should be elected by licensed greyhound racing participants.
“Would straight up front change all the administration. They’ve had the chance to get NSW spot on. I would start straight at the top and shaft the lot of them. I’m talking from the head honcho, right through the stewards, right through the administration…I would wipe them all out.”
This was in response to a question about the Inquiry and what changes should be made to the greyhound racing industry in NSW.
The Report outlined issues raised with the integrity of greyhound racing. The submissions to the Committee, referenced in the Report, noted the following concerns:
- that the administration of drugs to greyhounds is still being practiced in the industry (evidence of Dr Zammit and Dr Humphries);
- the different standards across the States concerning the permitted levels of prohibited substances, including testosterone;
- the existing swabbing procedures and that they are not tamper proof. Some participants called for the return of the ‘red marble’ system to allow more random testing;
- the confusion of industry participants about which substances were banned and withholding periods. Particular reference was made to therapeutic substances to keep bitches off season;
- penalties not applied fairly;
- the failure to undertake regular kennel inspections;
- the independence of the Integrity Auditor
The Committee commended the efforts of GRNSW to increase its drug testing but noted that there was still a substantial difference between the level of drug testing in greyhound racing compared to the two other racing codes. The Committee stated that there needs to be a substantial increase in the quantity of drug testing and that a proportion of the increased swabs be allocated randomly (Recommendation 8).
The Committee noted the concerns of participants surrounding the use of therapeutic drugs and stated that GRNSW should provide more information to participants regarding the administration of therapeutic substances for greyhounds (Recommendation 9).
The Committee acknowledged that there is a defined penalty system in place. However, to ensure transparency and that the Rules are applied in a fair and consistent manner, the penalty table and how it applies to each case should be included when publishing the outcome of hearings (Recommendation 6).
The Committee expressed concern that routine inspections historically haven’t been carried out. The evidence of one participant demonstrated that they had only had one kennel inspection in 55 years of training. GRNSW indicated to the Committee that it will conduct kennel inspections once every two years. The Committee endorsed this target, stating that kennel inspections should increase and GRNSW should ensure they are conducted at least once every two years (Recommendation 10).
In relation to the Integrity Auditor, it was noted that the current situation is that the Integrity Auditor is selected and directed by the Board and therefore lacks independence. Former Integrity Auditor David Landa was strongly critical of the lack of independence afforded to the position and resigned in 2012. Proposals were raised by participants for a new independent integrity body which would appoint an Integrity Commissioner. GRNSW recommended a model based on Victoria that sees one body responsible for all the racing codes.
The Committee shared the participants concerns about the current role and function of the Integrity Auditor and supported the suggestion of GRNSW to establish a Racing Integrity Commissioner based on the Victorian model. If that was not adopted, then the fall-back recommendation is to establish a new Racing Integrity Commissioner to oversee the greyhound racing industry (Recommendations 11, 12 and 13).
In relation to welfare issues surrounding greyhound racing in NSW, the Committee found that the incidence of cruelty and neglect is minimal and that, on the whole, greyhound owners take great care and pride in their dogs.
The Report noted that the RSPCA has welcomed the welfare initiatives adopted by GRNSW but believes they do not address key welfare issues associated with current breeding, rearing, kennelling and training practices.
In relation to over breeding concerns, the RSPCA submitted a proposal, which is found on page 100 of the Report. The proposal sets out ways to improve the quality of breeding programs and breeding limitation strategies.
The Committee noted the concerns about the lack of detail in the Joint Animal Welfare Strategy and recommended that GRNSW investigates placing limits on the frequency of litters and maximum number of litters permitted for each breeding female (Recommendation 14).
The Committee also accepted that the socialisation of greyhounds for the successful integration of them back into the community after their racing career was necessary. The Committee felt that this is an area of animal welfare that needs to be more fully addressed and that GRNSW should undertake further review of best practice in this area with the view to including socialisation in its animal welfare strategy (Recommendation 15).
In relation to the concerns raised about racing track injuries, track design, track surface and provision of race track vet services the Committee recommended that GRNSW develop and implement industry standards for best practice for race track design, maintenance and the provision of veterinary services (Recommendation 16).
The Report also refers to the practice of live baiting and recommended a review of the¬†relevant section of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 to ensure the provisions within the legislation prevent live baiting from occurring and allow for effective enforcement (Recommendation 17).
Lastly, in relation to greyhound adoption, the Committee expressed its support for the work done by community and privately operated greyhound centres. However, the Committee stated that GRNSW and/or the Government needs to do more to increase the number of greyhounds rehomed at the end of their racing career (Recommendation 18).
Concerns were also raised in some submissions to the Inquiry about the export of greyhounds from Australia. The Committee noted the concerns about the export of greyhounds but stated it was an issue for the Australian government.
Industry Response So Far
GAG has welcomed the Report and its findings:
“Meanwhile the findings posted on March 28 give hope that the performance and construction of GRNSW is to be under review. In other words the concerns expressed by participants at numerous hearings and multiple submissions have been taken on board and a number of recommendations has ensued.The findings and recommendations so far detailed will alert GRNSW that the participant’s views have been listened to, and are now very well known, by the selection committee and the Government and to the Industry at large. Thanks must go to Robert Borsak MLC, whose concerns for the participants, at all levels of the Sport of Greyhound Racing in NSW, enabled this whole process to see the light of day.”
GRNSW has welcomed the Report and has stated that it is:
“Pleasing that a number of the recommendations build on the work already undertaken by GRNSW or are supportive of the position put forward by GRNSW to the Select Committee…these recommendations will require a considered approach and GRNSW is looking forward to working with the Select Committee and the NSW Government to achieve this.”
The Government response to the Report is due on 29 September 2014. The Report has recommended that the Minister for Tourism, Major Events, Hospitality and Racing confer with GRNSW regarding the implementations of Recommendations 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and that the Government response to the Report include a statement on the outcomes of such discussions (Recommendation 7).
As previously mentioned, the Second Report mentioned in Recommendation 1 (financial modelling) is to be tabled by 30 June 2014.
… It fell to earth I know not where‚ÄĚ.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)
Can this be a lesson for racing authorities?
Now under investigation, the botched pink batts exercise rushed through by the previous government was bad enough. However, its sister program, the Building the Education Revolution (BER), has now attracted attention from international groups (The Australian, April 1). In both cases, the government attempted to overcome the effect of the global financial crisis by simply spending money on the first thing that came to mind.
The International Journal of Public Administration has just published a paper by three Australian academics pointing out that ‚Äúa better designed program would have reduced waste and produced better value for money‚ÄĚ. They concluded that the BER was run ‚Äúby bureaucrats rather than people with technical expertise and that‚Äôs a big problem‚ÄĚ. Further claims pointed out that ‚Äúprincipals are better placed than distant bureaucrats to make sure school budgets achieve value for money‚ÄĚ.
In any event, the money was spent too late to have any great effect on the crisis, and so goes down as nothing more than a blatant political exercise.
It is hard to avoid the similarity between these failures and greyhound authorities‚Äô policies of handing out subsidies for local breeders and for distance races (many of which are well short of the 700m mark anyway). No results have ever been published for the outcomes of either program, nor have any objectives been announced, yet they continue today. ‚ÄúMore‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúbetter‚ÄĚ are the most descriptive words that can be found in media releases, yet we still don‚Äôt know if that has happened.
In particular, the distance racing incentives are being applied to the existing dog population, which has already shown that it is not capable of producing enough dogs with more stamina. Field quality is often poor, full fields are hard to find and provincial starting boxes are awkwardly placed. That expense would have been better put to an investigation into discovering what the problem is, and then attacking whatever challenges that threw up.
Back in 2002, in a QGRA Journal article, I wrote that ‚Äúfor a punter, 5th Grade 700s hardly bear thinking about these days as dogs seem to take it in turns to win. The occasional very good one flies through these events and goes on to better things but many runners are dogs that can‚Äôt win shorter races and are looking for some other way to add to the kitty‚ÄĚ.
So what has happened since? Over 12 years, nothing much except for the subsidies. The dogs are still taking it in turns, investigations into breeding patterns have not occurred, and recent trends showing that short course racing is on the increase. There is movement at the station but the bosses have not noticed it. The industry is all about processes and not about management.
As the NSW Inquiry recently implied, perhaps a strengthening of the Racing Integrity role, and its greater independence, would provide the means to critically examine the worth of programs like these.
WHERE IT COMES OUT IN THE WASH
Also back in 2002, I mentioned (in the QGRA Journal) that ‚ÄúQueensland race caller Paul Dolan wrote in his column that it was a surprise to see Maiden races on the program at Albion Park‚ÄĚ. After another 12 years the situation is no better. It‚Äôs actually worse.
Albion Park‚Äôs prime Thursday night meeting has long included one or two Novice races, the odd short race and a lot of empty boxes in others. The state‚Äôs second ranked meeting there on Monday nights never has full fields and includes up to five maiden or novice races. This week it put in a 395m race, presumably because of the shortage of starters for longer trips.
On top of that, Tattsbet takings are dismal and will get worse as punters are now able to access a range of betting operators just by pressing a button. Or, if you live in Coolangatta, you can get the same service by walking over the road to the Tweed Heads Services Club (which is in NSW).
The shortage of starters is not only a Queensland problem as the whole country is putting on more races than the (static) greyhound population can cope with. That includes Victoria, by the way.
However, Queensland‚Äôs major problem is not the funding for an on-again, off-again new track to replace Albion Park and/or Ipswich. It‚Äôs the fact that it has actually run out of dogs. The next question is what will it do when it reaches the point of no return? Run 8-race meetings as it did just a few weeks ago? Run 6-dog races, as in the UK? Eliminate one of the remaining two SEQ tracks? Or sell off the racing rights to the highest bidder (changes to laws needed there)?
Many years ago I encouraged the then-QGRA to call Paul Wheeler and do a deal for 100 or so fresh stock. The good ones could be on-sold or leased to Brisbane locals, with lesser dogs going to clubs up the coast. I never had a response to my letter (which is par for the course with QGRA and RQ).
Either way, it needs a white knight to underwrite the industry and put some progressive management in place. The obsolete system they have now will never work. Would somebody please tell the Minister. Or ask James Packer to add it to his rumoured buyout of Betfair.
A Curate’s Egg describes something that is at least partly bad, but has some arguably redeeming features.
For a parliamentary Inquiry that started off with a hiss and a roar about alleged abuses in the NSW greyhound industry, the eventual report is a bit more logical. ‚ÄúThe incidence is minimal‚ÄĚ, it found, and ‚Äúgreyhound owners and trainers take great care and pride in their dogs‚ÄĚ.
So much for the nonsense put about by a poorly researched ABC 7:30 program, Fairfax press and numerous animal lover organisations, including the RSPCA. All either got their facts wrong or used information selectively and out of context. Even so, it gave the industry a clear message that it needs to tell its story better and earlier.
What the Inquiry did find is that the NSW industry is desperately short of money and also that it needs organisational change. The former claim is pretty right and revolves around the crazy 99-year commission agreement signed off fifteen years ago. On the latter point the inquiry has got the right idea but has ignored the needed solution and instead proposed one that would make it worse.
The report now goes to Parliament and to the responsible Ministers but will be followed up by a second report (due in late June) which will include comments on financial options yet to be assessed by the Treasury.
The money question will, as always, depend on the will of the state government to over-ride the current conditions of the Racing Distribution Agreement in one way or another. The prospect of greyhounds continuing to subsidise the gallops and trots is unrealistic and unworkable, yet those two codes are immovable in demanding it stay as it is, despite their declining patronage figures and greyhound‚Äôs increased popularity.
To improve the working of GRNSW the Inquiry has recommended that the board be increased by two members, who should come from the ranks of licensed persons. There are two fundamental errors in that reasoning.
First, it implies that the current system and the current board members do not perform well enough, but bases that view primarily on the complaints of various participants and outside groups. They may well have reached the right answer but the evidence is mostly sketchy and reflects personal opinions, including those of animal lover groups, few of which can be substantiated. A better conclusion would emerge only from a forensic examination of the board‚Äôs actions ‚Äď did it make good decisions and did their investments produce results, for example? They have never been properly scrutinised, but might be if the Racing Integrity position is enhanced, as the Inquiry recommends.
Secondly, to return to the bad old days by installing a couple of owners or trainers on the board would be to dismiss all the reasoning behind the recent appointment of (supposedly) independent people and to re-introduce the conflicts of interest that plagued previous boards. Justice would never be seen to be done. In any case, it tends to downgrade the importance of choosing members with special qualifications. Running an industry is a very different thing to running a greyhound kennel, for example. If you have a broken leg you don‚Äôt call the plumber.
What the inquiry did not address was whether the structure of this or any racing organisation is satisfactory or relevant. The evidence suggests that the concept of an Act of Parliament assigning all management authority to a committee is simply not workable in this day and age, which is why it is never used in commerce and has been largely bypassed in most ‚Äúgrower‚ÄĚ style boards (wheat, wool, meat and livestock, etc). The long term decline in racing‚Äôs share of the gambling market is proof enough of its failure.
Committees which meet occasionally are, by definition, slow to act and reflect the lowest common denominator view. Rarely do they innovate. Any power they might delegate to staff is variable from place to place and tends only to confuse. It probably depends as much on the personalities as anything else, which is always a risky process.
The proper role of a board is to look after broad policy, the budget and capital expenditure and to hire and fire the CEO. It should not be running the organisation as such. Yet, to take a current example, Greyhounds SA has just announced that ‚Äúthe board‚ÄĚ has approved the dismantling of the Follow-On-Lure system at Angle Park. Clearly, that is an ongoing operational matter in which the board has no special expertise. It would be like the BHP board telling its engineers what sort of drill bit to use. The job should be left to the CEO and staff.
Boards often make curious decisions anyway. In NSW, for example, a proposal to shift Tweed Heads greyhounds from NSW to Queensland jurisdiction has ‚Äúthe full support from the board‚ÄĚ, GRNSW tells us. Yet although it started off more than a year ago and was highlighted in the 2013 annual report, nothing has been seen in practice. But why would a board take that action in the first place? What would it achieve? It has massive legal, constitutional and contractual implications in both states – measures which could cost millions to process. Nor do we know what the NSW Treasury thinks about the loss of taxes to Queensland, were it to happen. It has all the hallmarks of a financial and operational fiasco.
NSW has also spent over half a million dollars on each of Dapto and Richmond to re-furbish their tracks yet the outcomes were that pre-existing design faults were repeated and interference is still high. Similar problems occurred after constructing expensive new tracks at Gosford and The Gardens. This may be why the Inquiry recommended that GRNSW ‚Äúdevelop and implement industry standards for best practice for race track design‚ÄĚ (R16). Of course, the difficulty there is that no-one knows what best practice is. It‚Äôs a job that has yet to be undertaken. Either way, such an investigation is sensibly a national task requiring lots of money and a spread of technical skills, preferably independent ones. Demonstrably, they do not exist within GRNSW, or any other authority for that matter.
Otherwise, the Inquiry talks about increasing the number of swabs, providing information about drugs, more kennel inspections, re-homing dogs, and so on. However, there is a thread here of some lack of appreciation of how the industry works, to say nothing about how increased activity could be funded in a tight financial environment. For example, information about therapeutic substances and their withholding periods is a matter long since covered by Greyhounds Australasia and published in great detail. To the extent that NSW varies from those ‚Äúrules‚ÄĚ is to weaken and confuse the overall effort, given that hundreds of dogs and trainers cross state borders every day.
Nevertheless, the Inquiry at least got many things out in the open in an industry which has long been too secretive and still largely relies on the ‚Äúshe‚Äôll be right‚ÄĚ syndrome. It should happen more often, and it should happen nationally. For one thing, the Productivity Commission report on Problem Gambling got many things badly wrong about the Australian racing industry, not the least of which was its recommendation that racing authorities rely on betting operators paying commission on their profits rather than on turnover. Thankfully, Racing NSW and the High Court managed to get that straightened out, and most of the country is better off as a result.
Even so, in GRNSW‚Äô case it still works on the profit basis, demonstrating that it brings in more cash than a commission on turnover. No doubt, but it is virtually the only racing authority that now does that, which indicates there are very peculiar transactions going on between betting operators and their NSW customers. That may well change over time, if or when the gambler profile continues to shift further in the direction of refugees from the poker machines. In that event, the impact on the industry will be much larger than anything discussed in this Inquiry.
Note: Complaints by many owners and trainers about the poor level of NSW prize money and the better options available in Victoria are both correct and understandable. However, I would be even more sympathetic were it not for all the empty boxes going around at Wenty every week. And Sandown and The Meadows are no better. We are talking about $4,500 to $7,000 per race here ‚Äď for 5th Graders, or even Novices ‚Äď but not enough people want to take the chance. Is there a hidden problem?
In recent times this column has noted that decision-making in several areas of the industry is faulty, that vital matters are being ignored, or that important subjects are being approached on a shallow or piecemeal basis, or even not at all.
Once or twice this might be seen as careless, but taken as a whole these shortcomings point to a serious problem in the nationwide management of the sport. The pattern everywhere is that personal opinions and guesswork are preferred to professional analysis. It suggests that nothing less than major reforms are needed.
This list is just the start, but it tells a consistent story.
Lengthy trials in two and a bit states have shown conclusively that use of the FOL reduces injuries and improves failure-to-chase figures. Yet it has now been stopped everywhere except at Gawler in SA, which itself is odd. It is like asking the SA team to play cricket one week and baseball the next. No independent nationwide study has been conducted and only the views of a limited number of local trainers in two states have been sought. Those views were personalised, conflicting and do not answer the question.
The industry is plagued by poorly laid out tracks which contribute to interference, erratic results and race falls yet all design decisions, or lack thereof, are based on the guesswork of the local people. Research and analysis of cause and effect is absent while repeated calls for serious independent studies have been ignored.
A once simple structure has deteriorated into a mish-mash of options in each state, all of which continue to grow by the day for no obvious reason. Moving from the original 6 to 123 grades is too much to bear and far more than necessary. Trainers and punters don‚Äôt need costly complexity but more simplicity and consistency. Administrative labour and IT costs would be rising in sympathy with the number of grading options.
Across the whole country breeders are being plied with subsidies whether they need them or not. Studies of the need, the objectives and the results of these programs are nowhere to be seen. Authorities consider only the personal views of the recipients rather than the productivity of the programs or the welfare of the industry as a whole. Breeding numbers have actually fallen over the last decade, reflecting the failure of these programs (ditto for thoroughbreds, for what it is worth).
In recent years there has been clear evidence of long term change in the nature of the Australian greyhound, which is now less robust that it used to be and less capable of running longer distances. Short races (normally less predictable) are proliferating following the acceptance by authorities and clubs of trainer requests, notwithstanding the public‚Äôs general preference for longer races. Authorities have ignored suggestions that the trends warrant serious independent investigation and analysis.
In line with the lack of growth in breeding, the actual racing population has barely maintained a level. Slight increases over the last three years in dogs racing have been stimulated only by the increased availability of races, particularly for slow dogs. In sympathy, the average number of starters per race is in decline, encouraging a fall in per-race betting turnover. This fundamental issue appears to have escaped the attention of authorities, despite its vital importance to the industry‚Äôs prosperity.
Major negative changes have been taking place to the style and number of betting operators. Initially, the arrival of online bookmakers was welcome as they simulated a renewal of interest in wagering. As this sector matured, it has been significantly affected by the parallel increase in races and the resultant thinning out of pools. Few races are able to sustain decent bets and perhaps a quarter of all activity has been diverted towhere all operators have been able to fleece customers by offering books equivalent to 130% or more. Even suggested prices displayed by state authorities have conformed to that level, thereby further misleading customers. At that figure it is impossible for punters to ever make profits. In parallel to these trends, the three main states served by Tattsbet ‚Äď the smaller tote – are suffering a continuing decline in pool sizes. That trend will continue as punters are now easily able to access a wide range of betting operators.
BUT THERE‚ÄôS MORE:
To that list we could add the decline in average field quality, a lack of national marketing, the absence of PR programs to improve the public‚Äôs perception of the greyhound, the rise in importance of the mug gambler, unproductive subsidies for distance races, and so on.
All the above matters are fundamental to the success of the greyhound racing industry yet they have failed to gain sufficient or any attention from state authorities, let alone from our only national body, Greyhounds Australasia, which itself has no authority whatever.
The lackadaisical approach to the above subjects is in sharp contrast to advances made in other areas of the industry ‚Äď for example, in drug testing, veterinary services, training techniques, feed and medicines. However, note that those services are mostly outside the reach of state administrators as they are supplied essentially by private enterprise and are stimulated by competition.
In many cases, greyhound practice also compares badly with other codes of racing and with other sports where professionalism, technological advances and innovation are ongoing and consistent. Greyhound racing has not only fallen far behind community standards but it has failed to recognise its shortcomings.
Why is this so?
Well, the buck has to stop at the top. It is inescapable that most obsolete element in greyhound racing is its old-time governance structure. A committee of management coupled with a bureaucracy to serve it is a relic of the dark ages. The inbuilt lowest common denominator effect contributes to mediocrity. It applies in all state authorities and all raceclubs and has done so since the 1950s, or earlier in some states. It contrasts sharply with modern practice in nearly all other sports and certainly with commercial company practice.
In essence, racing has never grown up. Consequently, the world has passed it by and so, amongst other things, it has lost its share of the gambling market steadily over the last three decades.
While that is worry enough, it does not excuse the lack of professional attention to the matters listed above. They are all readily fixable but only when the industry‚Äôs leaders pull their fingers out, think nationally and look objectively at where it is headed and why.
Of course, there‚Äôs the rub. We do not have any leaders, only people who process paperwork, chase short term cash, administer four-legged poker machines and try to curry favour with state governments. Ironically, it is those governments which are the root cause of the industry‚Äôs structural problems ‚Äď governments set the rules by which racing is governed. As with the national betting pool, state Racing Ministers are the only people who can bring about reform. It‚Äôs time for the voters to demand that they do that.
How do you know if spending money is a good idea? Well, GWA has just conducted a participants survey which included a question about keeping or changing its current breeding subsidies for locally-bred dogs.
Amazingly, 93% said Yes, they would like more money, please. A few years ago GRNSW surveyed breeders about the same thing. They also voted Yes, we would like more money.
Let‚Äôs repeat that. In both cases, the people who were about to get the money were asked if they still wanted it. Was it a surprise that they said Yes? Hardly. However, many were not so sure about any extra cash as 71% wanted to see that go to stakemoney rather than to breeding incentives.
None of the WA questions, or any of the introductory remarks, offered comment about the pros and cons of spending money in this way. So the respondents would have been influenced mainly by their personal situation. That‚Äôs understandable. It is like a bookie giving you 10/1 about a 3/1 chance. You have to take it.
But is it good business to decide things in this way? And how does it help the overall industry? Bear in mind that the job of racing authorities is to ‚Äúprogress and develop‚ÄĚ the industry, or words to that effect. Should they succeed in doing that, then it would be obvious that participants would also benefit over time, regardless of action in the breeding area. More customers equals higher prizemoney.
Breeding is a vital sector of the industry, but does it need extra handouts? The short answer would have to be ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt Know‚ÄĚ because, so far as we can determine, no authority has ever run a decent study of the effects of their breeding policies. There are lots of waffly announcements about how marvelous it would be, but never do we see the proof of the pudding.
For example, last year the Victorian Premier/Racing Minister issued a media release claiming that the increased breeding subsidies he was supporting would lead to higher employment in the industry. Now, is that a reasonable claim? It would not be hard to whip around all the Victorian breeders to see whose numbers were up and who had put more staff on because of the subsidy.
Somehow I doubt they would find much, especially about staff numbers.
There are two underlying issues here. First, the very small or casual breeder is faced with fairly solid fees and fixed overheads he has to overcome before making a profit. If we consider more breeding by these people is a good thing (some indicate it is not), then it is quite simple to address that by offering various concessions based on volume.
The second matter is that the general view would be that substantial breeders are involved in the most lucrative sector of the industry. If you are getting a good flow of $1,000 to $2,000 fees then you are probably doing nicely. Stories about sires being booked out are common. Big ads for sires underwrite formguide finances and track billboards. Some even make expensive overseas trips to obtain breeding stock. In other words, the need or justification for subsidy is very watery indeed.
The alternative is to put the cash towards higher prizemoney, thereby encouraging more owners to take part, and leading then to higher rewards for trainers. What goes around comes around. Besides, I would guess that there are many more battling trainers than battling breeders.
I have no idea of the actual profitability of breeders. Nor, I suspect, does anyone else. That being the case, why are they getting a subsidy in the first place? The principle of a subsidy is to help the disadvantaged overcome a tough period, but then only for a specific reason and for a specific time period. No subsidy should ever be introduced without a sunset clause.
Another point is that breeding is the only sector of the industry which is otherwise subject to the normal forces of the market place ‚Äď supply and demand. That‚Äôs a good thing because it makes the sector more efficient, more attuned to customers‚Äô needs. It also rewards the better operators. But if you interfere with that process then you run the risk of getting something you did not anticipate – like breeding with second or third choice of sires and dams.
And, since everybody has subsidies, there is no competitive advantage to be had.
This is yet another reason why independent auditors are needed to check on the effectiveness of expenditure undertaken by authorities. They are spending our money ‚Äď punters‚Äô money, that is ‚Äď and should be held accountable for getting a return on ‚Äúour‚ÄĚ investments.
Of course, the underlying intention of state breeding subsidies is to build up the local breeding sector. Whether that happens, or just how that would help the overall industry is never stated, nor are any objectives ever nominated. In any case, this sort of activity pales into insignificance by comparison with other major economic trends in the industry. We have frequently mentioned the disparate size of betting pools as a big challenge, and a risk, to the smaller states (no doubt one reason why WA combines its pools with Victoria).
But probably the biggest economic impact comes from the movement of dogs themselves. For many years now, Victoria has enjoyed an inflow of better dogs from the huge Wheeler camp and from NSW and Queensland generally. SA is sustained by the inflow of second level Wheeler dogs, helped a little by transfers of average dogs from Victoria. WA is massively influenced by the continuing transfer of dogs from the three eastern states, usually when they have become less competitive at home (transfers which are financed by accumulated prizemoney).
Without commenting further here on those actual flows (it is a big subject on its own) the point is that, relatively, breeding as such can have only a minute effect on the fortunes of any one state. Consequently, artificially created subsidies are highly unlikely to help in any meaningful way. The market will look after things very efficiently. Good managers would get rid of subsidies and find better uses for the money.
I also note that the last WA sire of any significance ‚Äď Prince of Thiefs ‚Äď was sent to Victoria to work at his trade. Of course, Miata‚Äôs litter will create great interest in WA, but then she was bred in NSW, wasn‚Äôt she? Nuff said.
All of which leaves us with only one piece of hard evidence. Greyhounds Australasia data show that between 2002 and 2011 breeding activity actually dropped. Spending all those millions of dollars over the years produced no growth at all. The money was wasted. But it also leaves some questions open. Why has there been no increase? And has all the discriminatory prizemoney for locally bred race winners done more harm than good? Or made no difference?
As for surveys themselves ‚Äď they are always better drafted by research professionals, lest you get crook answers
DO WE REALLY NEED THEM?
I have to correct my recent claim that there are 120 different grades for Australian trainers to worry about. That should now read 123. GRV has just added (a) the ‚Äú300‚ÄĚ club for dogs which fit between T3 and 5th Grade, and runs on a complex points basis, (b) Bendigo has just run heats of an event for dogs with 1 to 4 wins but no more than 14 total runs and (c) not to be outdone, The Meadows is offering a four heat series for dogs with 1 to 4 wins but they must have had more than 14 career runs.
The mind boggles at the labour and IT costs of implementing and administering all these strange new races. The punters will have to pay for that, too.
Apparently, Greyhounds Australasia Ltd has one of its quarterly board meetings this month. The date and the agenda are not available because they are kept secret, as are the decisions, if any. However, it is timely for our leaders to get together because there are big political and economic moves on at the moment and they could have wide ranging effects on the industry.
Tasmania has just voted in a new Liberal government which is intent on cutting costs and encouraging new business, including more forestry activity. What it will do about the loss-making government instrumentality that runs greyhound racing is unknown. In South Australia, whatever way the final votes go, it will have a hung parliament, or nearly so, meaning decisions will be few, hard fought and possibly illogical.
Both states have been suffering from a drop in employment and business activity and are being kept alive by handouts from Canberra, including attracting a bigger share of GST takings than is justified by their population orvolumes. Either way, it does not augur well for betting growth from recreational punters.
Queensland, another smaller greyhound state under the Tattsbet wing, continues to blunder along under the worst governance structure ever seen in racing history (run by insiders voted for by other insiders) and suffers from a chronic shortage of dogs of all standards. Even horses are moving south of the border looking for higher prize money. The LNP state government is still at sixes and sevens as it tries to combat financial problems left by the previous occupants and is stuck with a racing minister who keeps demonstrating he has not a clue about what makes the industry tick. He has just issued a media release looking forward to a fantastic year ahead, which is like whistling as you walk through the cemetery at midnight.
Tattsbet has also been doing some hopeful whistling despite the poor performance of its tote business and its declining share of the market ‚Äď a process which must inevitably continue as the big get bigger and the small get smaller.
So the GAL meeting will be looking at the most worrying trends seen in decades as the lopsided growth continues across the country, with only one possible means of avoiding disaster ‚Äď it has to scream from the rooftops for state racing ministers to bring in a national betting pool, and quickly. Nothing less will help small state finances.
It will be a good test of the seriousness and the vision of the people around the GAL table.
And, by the way, WA has moved past its mining boom era so cash will not be as plentiful as it has been in the past. Racing authorities have yet to obtain funding for a good part of the new Cannington complex ‚Äď due next year. Then NSW is shortly to hear from the parliamentary inquiry into greyhound racing. That minority report is unlikely to be complimentary, but it is also unlikely to provoke much action from the current government. Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen. The low probability of a dismantling of the horrible 99-year commission sharing agreement is the main worry.
SMALL POINTS, BUT TELLING
Formguides, which are the industry‚Äôs prime means of communication with the public, need to be informative, accurate and easy to read. Yet the current lot fall short in several ways. Here is a small example.
Some time back, our leaders (no idea who) decided to change the system for posting running numbers, which are very important in assessing the sort of dog you are dealing with. They cut off the last number ‚Äď the one denoting its finishing position ‚Äď and included only those relevant to a ‚Äúcorner‚ÄĚ of the track. Translated, that actually means the entry to and exit from each turn. This process adopted the practice used in WA, but not anywhere else (although Queensland has never published running numbers in its entire life).
Taking another example from that March 11 meeting at Warragul mentioned previously in this column, we find that the winner Arizona Showman was shown as ‚Äú11‚ÄĚ rather than ‚Äú111‚ÄĚ as was once the case. That is both annoying and unnecessary. But, for different reasons, it also happens to be factually misleading.
At best, when reading a future formguide, it means your eye has to dodge back and forth between the finishing position column and the column showing running numbers. It does not sound like a big deal but it makes life harder for anyone reading that page (or between two and four pages if reading the cumbersome GRNSW guide).
At worst, it does not reveal the true facts. In this case, if you read the stewards report you would see that ‚ÄúArizona Showman was slow to begin‚ÄĚ. So which is right ‚Äď ‚Äú11‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúslow to begin‚ÄĚ? They are contradictory.
The answer is that both are right under current practice. The dog was stone motherless after the jump, but then roared to the lead from its outside box to record a slashing sectional of 8.34, which meant it was in front at both the official markers. Yet anyone noting that sectional time might think stewards were talking nonsense.
And there is another even more important factor. Anyone reading a future formguide would assume the dog is brilliant early, yet it is far from it. The dog‚Äôs sectional history shows it had averaged (in Warragul equivalent) a time of 8.72 and the best it had ever done was 8.50. For the subject race, more informative running numbers would have been something like 8311. That would have told readers exactly how the race was run.
In a future race where it has to battle its way out of a middle box it would be highly unlikely to run such a sectional time again. More likely it would strike trouble getting through the traffic.
Whatever reason our masters had for changing the system, it does not pass the road test. Like the convoluted GRNSW formguide, which is now becoming the dominant version across the country, it fails the KISS principle. And it can be misleading.
Let‚Äôs go a bit further than that. These concepts and formats are developed inside state authorities where, generally speaking, the staff are not allowed to bet. Consequently, they do not use the product of their efforts in the real world. It all ends up as a ‚Äúit would be a good idea if …‚ÄĚ process, which is fraught with danger. (I should add that the TABs do much the same thing).
Far better to start with what the customers need and work your way back. The reverse direction is never a success.
There‚Äôs nothing better than a great view of a great race. Everyone can cheer and see where their money went. It‚Äôs what sells the industry to the public.
But for years now I have been squinting my eyes trying to make out what is going on in the back straights. It‚Äôs hard enough at the track, but much worse when you have to rely on film ‚Äď either on SKY or from race videos ‚Äď which is how 99% of people watch a race.
Three issues come into play: the environment, the dogs and the equipment. All pose problems. It‚Äôs easy enough when the dogs are right in front of you but far too difficult to tell what is going on once the distance increases. Here‚Äôs why.
1. Cameras, or camera work, are not good enough. Still photos are fine but as soon as the dogs start moving their images become blotchy. Telling them apart is not helped by long distances, low photo angles, or obstructions (such as the rail infrastructure, light poles or yahoos waving madly at the start). None of this happens for pictures of the gallops or the football, so a technical solution is obviously available.
2. Camera positions are often dependent on the nature of the building that houses them ‚Äď high or low, further away or closer, in line with the finishing post or not. All these matters are more important to more people than any other purposes served by the building. Customer numbers demand that nothing should take precedence over the camera.
3. Track lighting varies considerably, night and day involves different visual perceptions, rainy weather makes all runners look much the same and, once again, long distances are a challenge.
4. The dogs‚Äô rug colours do not work well ‚Äď of which more below.
5. Generally, major city tracks perform better than provincial tracks, possibly partly because their cameras are positioned higher. Yet by far the majority of races are held at those provincial tracks, so they therefore dominate public impressions.
Rug colours were assessed a few years ago at Greyhounds Australasia when a long drawn-out process ended with the brown rug being changed to green and cloth giving way to synthetics ‚Äď both sound enough moves. Apparently, nothing else was examined at the time, but it should have been.
Rug colours do vary a bit from country to country but they are broadly much of a muchness. However, they give the impression that they have all been chosen by a group of blokes spreading them out across a boardroom table. Theory has outweighed practice. That is, they are done mostly by amateurs with only a little help here and there from material manufacturers. Unfortunately, the challenge here is not to create a fashion statement but to achieve a result that works in varied and trying conditions. We are not after the right shoes to wear with a tuxedo but a workboot that satisfies a range of mucky conditions, so to speak.
The difficulty in separating runners at long distances is critical, of course, but the problem is not helped by the rug colours in use today. For example, Red and Pink are fine when they are put in front of you, but not in wild and woolly weather, and when the field is mixing. The same goes for Blue and Green.
More subtle is the job of telling apart the Black and White stripes, the White, the Black and the Green and White stripes when they are placed on dogs that might be coloured White, Black and White, or Black. Or even when they are not. It ends up as guesswork.
Broadcasters with powerful binoculars might handle the task, but how about ordinary viewers with a mixture of eye strength, short or long sight, varying colour sensitivity, or wearing glasses to boot?
The subject was dramatically illustrated last Tuesday while watching a 680m race at Warragul (R6). Arising (3) quickly ran to the lead in the front straight and then cleared out. But by the time they reached the back straight it had become impossible to see where the rest of them were at any stage. It was all a blur. And it did not improve a lot when they were bunching in the home straight. To tell the truth, the first half of 460m trips are no better, or not once they start moving.
By all means check the GRV videos yourself, but it is only one example of many as many other tracks are no better. Bulli, for one, is an absolute horror. Canberra has huge light poles in the way. Angle Park makes you go cross-eyed when racing in bright sunlight.
Cameras, lighting and photo angles are all matters which can be improved readily by technical people and by good management. But the question of rug colours is much more complex. Colour perception is a highly skilled science due to the varying interfaces of human eye properties, the equipment in use and the targets. The job is way beyond the reach of anyone except a true professional. As we have mentioned in respect to track design, nothing less than a full scientific study would be able to achieve an acceptable result.
As just another amateur, it is not for me to suggest a better range of colours. However, let‚Äôs note that Dayglo colours are in wide commercial use today and could do a remarkable job of distinguishing one dog from another. For example, a Dayglo Pink would immediately remove doubts about the Red/Pink clash.
Finally, a small but important point. A few clubs show still pictures of close finishes on SKY but most do not. This involves only a simple process of stringing up a bit of cable from one spot to another in the judge‚Äôs box so it should be made common practice everywhere. The customers love being their own judge.
Digressing a bit, here is some interesting information from ‚ÄúHow Dogs See the World‚ÄĚ by Natalie Wolchover on the Live Science website. It points out that it‚Äôs not the eyes that works things out, but the brain that deciphers the signals sent to it by the eyes.
‚ÄúNormal human eyes contain three kinds of color-detecting cells called cones, and by comparing the way these cones are each stimulated by incoming light, our brains distinguish red wavelengths from green and blue wavelengths from yellow. Dogs’ eyes, like those of most other mammals, contain just two kinds of cones. These enable their brains to distinguish blue from yellow, but not red from green‚ÄĚ.
Apart from the three musketeers, that‚Äôs the unofficial motto of Switzerland, as well as a few traditional unionists, but it is far from the thoughts of greyhound administrators at the moment.
To an outside observer, we are stuck with a collection of sometimes illogical, complex, outdated and always variable set of practices and rules governing greyhound racing – nationally and in each state.
For example, greyhound racing has a straightforward set of six Grades ‚Äď Maiden, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st. But that‚Äôs only the start. In practice, those basic Grades end up as 94 different types once you take into account different classes of meetings set up by each state authority. Then you have to add in the normal extras ‚Äď Novice, T3, T3 Maiden, Juvenile, Juvenile-Maiden, Handicaps, Veterans (different ages, though), Open and Free for All (the last two are sometimes not the same thing). That‚Äôs at least another 15 types. And then there are all the Restricted Win events, the mixed grades ‚Äď 4th/5th, 3rd/4th – and so on.
And none of that counts the non-grade category, which includes most major or specialty races as well as Victoria‚Äôs peculiar Non Penalty category, from which good dogs are banned and which were created out of nothing as a sort of make-work deal for the city clubs. Many of these have different qualifying standards to be met, also varying from state to state. Most are free of grading penalties. All the while, increasingly complex and costly computer programs are being devised to sort them all out. No wonder people regularly complain about the cost of running racing authorities. Where is the KISS principle when you need it?
In total, there are over 120 different styles of races that a trainer or a punter has to assess before making a decision. The six Grades we started with are just a distant memory. Even then, two of the originals are rarely used ‚Äď Grades 1 and 2. They were once, but no longer.
There is an underlying reason for that last point. For some years now, administrators have been remorselessly using the grading system to offer more and more opportunities to slow dogs. The introduction of C Class in NSW and T3 in Victoria (and perhaps SA, too) are just the latest in a long line of changes to make it easier to win a low grade race, and win more of them. As trainers wind their way through this maze the average dog‚Äôs career is almost over before it has any need to move up. (Remember the average dog‚Äôs racing career lasts only about a year).
So, fewer dogs make it to Grades 4, 3, 2 and 1, which means there are fewer races for them and those that do appear are often short of a full field. We are left with low and high and not a lot in the middle. This leads to an unholy mix with races at prime city meetings often including not only some Novice grade dogs but also races for Novices only.
And there are variations within the variations. Some have different rules for interstate visitors and local entrants, including discriminatory prize money. The eastern states classify Angle Park in the second rank, while WA puts it in the top list. Distance break points for grading purposes vary from 560m to 565m or 569m, depending on the location. A juvenile in SA means 24 months or less, in Tasmania it is 27 months. Good heavens, features races are being won by dogs of that age! In WA you can win three Grade 5s while others usually say two wins. (But not in Victoria or Tasmania where you can go round the provincial circuits picking up 5th Grades as you go). Then some demand a qualifying run before competing in a Maiden, others don‚Äôt.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in respect not only to grading but to other subjects as well.
If the dogs in boxes one and five are scratched, where should a lone reserve go? Some states say it will be decided by ballot. Consequently, there is a 50% chance of achieving the worse result if the dog were to go into the five box. A better race outcome would be to leave the 5 vacant and put the dog in the one box. To do that a new rule is not really needed. All you do is refer to the existing rule for the placement of a field of seven runners. Unfortunately, it is not used.
We mentioned the violently different attitudes to the use of the Finish-On-Lure the other day. But all lure types are a matter of someone‚Äôs personal opinion, including their colour (some failing to note that greyhounds are basically colour blind to red), single or dual bunnies and the noise they make. The same goes for the detail of box constructions, especially the size of the viewing apertures. Their placement varies, too.
Steward decision-making and penalties for breaches are inconsistent from one state to another, and often within the same state. Successful appeals are not uncommon.
Widely varying support from state governments is also having a big influence on day to day operations, from prize money to the development of more attractive facilities, or even breeding subsidies.
One factor often overlooked in the industry is that the split of industry management into half a dozen jurisdictions, plus GAL, weakens the whole structure. It makes political and commercial influence less effective and stops the industry mounting serious national programs to enhance the image of the greyhound or to influence potential customers.
More widely, the patchwork operation of multiple betting operators has destroyed the integrity of punting by creating a mess of small pools which satisfy fewer people, particularly now that bookmaker rings have virtually disappeared. Put more than $10 on your Quinella choice and you will start buying back your own money and significantly reducing the dividend. Only a single national pool will fix that problem. A solution there rests with state governments, of course, but where are the noisy campaigns from greyhound people to encourage them? Indeed, our only national organisation ‚Äď Greyhounds Australasia ‚Äď does not award itself the privilege of dealing with ‚Äúcommercial‚ÄĚ matters so there is a need to reform things in that sense, too.
Without power and punch, the industry cannot progress effectively. Today it is getting by because greyhounds are useful in financial terms only because they fill a lot of gaps in the TAB calendar, not because consumers want more. Indeed, past evidence suggests that a majority of the public do not like greyhounds and a noisy minority is opposed to greyhound racing altogether. Are we attacking that problem?
Lopsided progress from state to state is ringing alarm bells about the long term viability of racing in some areas. Notably, the four states and territories covered by Tatts are looking at smaller throughput and therefore a declining level of efficiency. This offers a less attractive product for local customers who are now unlimited in their access to alternative betting shops. South Australia is getting by, but Tasmania and Queensland badly need more dollars, yet in both the latter cases, efforts to improve their lot are virtually absent. The new guard in Queensland has failed miserably to show any sense of urgency in attacking the longstanding decline in patronage, field numbers and, consequently, finances. That state has been run by industry insiders for yonks, so innovation and forward thinking are apparently dirty words (for which their political masters are also partly to blame).
Essentially, it means greyhound racing has no leadership, no real spokesperson and no meaningful corporate objectives (ie plenty of waffle but no meaty action). What about fixing that by a total reform of Greyhounds Australasia and putting in charge someone who knows how to get the best out of the system? Two that come to mind are Boof Lehmann and Mal Meninga. Or maybe Andrew Demetriou is looking for something to do? Greyhound knowledge is not essential, it‚Äôs what‚Äôs in the heart that matters.
Actually, Demetriou might be a good choice as he knows how to squeeze $1 billion-plus out of TV channels. Mind you, he can do that because he controls the entire Australian football operation, not just one bit of it. In contrast, it is strange that not only does greyhound racing contribute to the profits of SKY and the TABs, but it has to pay for the coverage by installing equipment at its own expense. Only netball and tiddlywinks are in that position.
What the greyhound industry is missing are the three Ps ‚Äď prestige, power and passion. They are achievable but only if we all get together.
There are a lot of differences between the states. For example, a lot of them talk funny and only NSW people can pronounce Bathurst and Newcastle correctly. But greyhound folk never seem to agree on anything, which is probably why each state has dozens of pages of local rules, all of which contradict the national rules. To that you have to add varying grading policies. They might be the worst of all, and we will talk more about them at another time.
Meantime, here is an example to go on with.
The other day a colleague asked how Spirited Flame could get into a 5th grade 600m race at Albion Park ten days ago (which it won) when it had already won six of them. A good question. Well, here is my attempt to explain the dog‚Äôs history (corrections and comments welcome). All these are 600m races at Albion Park.
24 Feb 2013 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won NG Class 3 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(Sun) (No idea what the NG suggests)
11 Mar 2013 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won 5th Grade Class 2 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† (Mon)
30 Dec 2013 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won 4/5th Grade Class 2 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† (Mon)
06 Jan 2014 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won 5th Grade Class 2 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(Mon)
13 Jan 2014 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won 3/4th Grade Class 2 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(Mon)
20 Feb 2014 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won 4/5th Grade Class 1 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(Thu)
27 Feb 2014 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Won 5th Grade Class 1 ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(Thu)
The rules are that you can win two 5th Grades in a particular Class before moving up. So how did it win three in Class 2 before moving up? Presumably the explanation is that the second Class 2 win was not strictly a 5th Grade but a combined 4/5th. Never mind that it was a tougher race, apparently the dog could keep on until it won two normal 5th Grades.
The same reasoning might well apply to the two Class 1 wins, only one of which was a straight 5th Grade. That logic suggests that it can still have yet another go at a 5th Grade Class 1 race to use up its ration of two. That would then be eight in total and only then would it be a 4th Grade dog.
To follow all this rigmarole trainers obviously need a Masters degree in something, especially if they are coming from interstate.
Incidentally, on February 15, Spirited Flame also ran a very creditable 2nd in the Rookie Rebel at The Meadows, which is arguably the country‚Äôs top middle distance race and is an invitation only race. So much for that, now back to 5th Grade at home. That sounds like a drop-back of five Grades.
Just to provide some perspective, here is a rule in place in NSW:
‚ÄúWhere a greyhound wins an Event consisting of multiple grades, that win shall be classified as a win in the lowest grade for which the greyhound was eligible to compete at that track, distance and category of meeting‚ÄĚ.
Had that applied in Queensland, Spirited Flame could not have competed in some of the above races, let alone won them.
This is just one example of the clash of the states, but there are many others and none of them help the industry much.
FINISH-ON PROGRESS ‚Äď PERHAPS
The saga of the use of a Finish-On-Lure system is now over six years old and shows little sign of sorting itself out. Irrespective of the details, the fact that only two states have treated the subject seriously is a black mark on the way the industry is run.
In both Queensland and South Australia authorities went to some trouble to assess the FOL‚Äôs good and bad points. In both cases, the evidence showed that the benefits were either marginally or substantially bigger than under the old system. Yet, also in both cases, significant portions of the trainer group complained bitterly that the FOL was injuring their dogs. In the end, Queensland gave in but SA continued, but with some modifications.
The confusing part of the publicity is that the FOL discussion should really be broken down into two parts: what happens during the race and what happens after they pass the post. The former concerns everybody, the latter only the dogs and their trainers.
I am not really qualified to argue about the merits of letting dogs gnaw at the lure versus having a play in the sandpit. However, there are two key factors worth thinking about. First, finishing on the lure has been the practice for many years at a dozen or so tracks in New Zealand, apparently without any great problems. There is no reason why that experience should not be transferrable to Australia.
Second, while figures are hard to come by, there is a fair amount of evidence that dogs strike problems when mucking around in deep sand in the pen. Early and late finishers can and do clash. Humans, too, on occasions.
Indeed, if you applied the human example to the dogs, even a cursory examination of the pen system would see it struck down in a minute were an Occupational Health and Safety inspector to arrive on the scene. But not for dogs, it seems.
It is inescapable that emotions have played a much larger part in these discussions than has logic or even common sense. That‚Äôs not to say that either of the systems is perfect, or that a better third option could not be found. But whichever way you look at it, the decision-making process has been flawed to some degree.
As for the in-running value of the FOL lure structure, it seems that no serious objections have been raised and that chasing and injury hassles are lessened under it. Therefore, there is a prima facie case that the higher and wider FOL-style arm, at least, should be a standard part of the equipment at all Australian tracks. Whether dogs are better off finishing in the pen ‚Äď as GRSA has just decided they will at Angle Park ‚Äď might be worth some more objective testing. Meantime, Gawler will continue with the full FOL.
So much for the itty gritty.
The more important aspect is the erratic administration of the subject. If ever there were a need for a national examination of a subject, this is it. Yet only two states have had a proper go, and then with somewhat different outcomes. NSW ran a brief trial at two tracks ‚Äď apparently successful ‚Äď and then forgot about it and failed to offer comments. Victoria rejected it out of hand on emotional grounds, according to insider reports. Tasmania and WA do not seem to have thought about it, but we would welcome advice.
This and many other matters are what prompted my previous article on March 2 (Track Design ‚Äď Is Anything Happening There?) which called for a big effort to fund a scientific study on how we build tracks. The racetrack and its features are obviously fundamental to the integrity of mechanical hare racing. The industry depends for its life on the willingness of greyhounds to chase a lure yet it is characterised by sometimes slapdash efforts, differing approaches to every aspect of the subject in each state, with a majority dependent on personal opinions and traditions which have never been properly justified.
The item above further illustrates the folly of making up different rules in different states. So did the experience with the change from the dirty brown rug to a brighter green one, as it took the best part of 18 months to get it adopted in every state. Despite agreement at the GAL level, each wanted to conduct its own tests to verify what the previous one had found. For many months, viewers switching between states would see the brown, then the green, then the brown again. Daft, completely daft.
The time is long overdue for Greyhounds Australasia to take a long hard look at itself and the way it does its business. The concept of each state‚Äôs leaders (which is all GAL is) deciding on something and then going home and doing something else is farcical and grossly inefficient. Some may claim that state laws sometimes demand variations to the national theme, but that is largely a red herring. Many matters have nothing to do with legal niceties ‚Äď grading being one ‚Äď and are a product of an unwillingness to address change.
GAL might well examine all the processes involved in greyhound racing and separate out those which have been in place for three, four or five decades, and then throw them out. The world has moved on, folks, and it is time we caught up. The dogs will thank you for it.
Here is yet another odd quote from Victorian stewards concerning race 12 at The Meadows last Saturday: ‚ÄúDolce Vita crossed to the rail on the first turn checking Salegrey’s Power and Bayman Bale‚ÄĚ. No, wrong. Dolce Vita went past Salegrey‚Äôs Power like a rocket so if it did brush it the impact was minute and had no effect on the latter‚Äôs chances. Bayman Bale, after a moderate start, was never anywhere near Dolce Vita and was barely in the picture at any stage.
Do stewards get paid by the word?
Best to ignore these reports and watch the video for yourself.
We all know about the dominating win by Buckle Up Wes in the rich Australian Cup last Saturday. Then a day later Tasmanian pacer Beautide took out the Interdominion Championship at Sydney‚Äôs Menangle Park. But there is one more.
Also on the weekend Tasmanian cyclist, 21 year-old Amy Cure, scored a gold medal at the World Championships in Columbia. Her win in the 25 kilometre points race came after picking up two bronze medals with her team. The Hobart Mercury reports that Cure has a contract with the Belgian Lotto-Belisol Ladies team for the coming European season.
That‚Äôs a lot of excitement for the Apple Isle.
If only they could smarten up their sectional timing information in greyhound races, they may have a future down there. Yes, they are still telling lies by assigning the leader‚Äôs time to the wrong dogs. This is really strange in another way as the local organisation is leading the way in experimenting with GPS tracking using the saddlecloth on thoroughbred racers to do the same job. When perfected, the system could easily be transferred to greyhounds and then provide sectionals for all runners, not just the leader (whoever that is).
Currently, Tasmanian results offer no running orders during the race and show the sectional time against the winner‚Äôs name, regardless of whether it was responsible for it. Both would discourage intending punters, to say nothing about destroying the integrity of racing data.
This is far from the state‚Äôs only challenge. Its income is tied to the TattsBet operation which has been suffering from a diversion of business to the bigger Tabcorp TAB across the Bass Strait. Critically, Tatts problems are even bigger in its home state of Queensland where it is still battling with Racing Queensland over commission payments worth $100 million-plus and its overall tote business is shaky.
The key to Tatts fortunes will be the ability of the three codes in Queensland to improve their products. All have been in decline over the last decade as horse and dog numbers dwindle and field quality suffers. Short fields and low standard races are now the norm at major Albion Park meetings. Tatts management itself is frequently under fire in local media for sloppy handling ofoffers, where online bookies are making big gains.
The Tatts group is fortunate to be able to rely on growth in its non-racing sectors but that will be of no help to greyhound punters looking for better deals. Clearly, their only hope is that eventually the creation of a national betting pool will make all the troubles go away.
THE MONEY TRAIL (1)
We mentioned the Cup heats at Horsham a couple of days ago, and the risks involved in punting on them. Of the dogs that had raced in the previous few days, only one was a winner ‚Äď Innocent Til, which got a bit of a belting in the Australian Cup final on Saturday from Hallelujah Henry. Two others were scratched, which contributed to all heats running with empty boxes because there were no reserves.
But there are more oddities.
Horsham‚Äôs usual Win pool on the NSW TAB is about $10,000 but sometimes more. Two weeks ago it averaged $9,983. First Four takings are also quite good. Its Tuesday twilight slot is reasonably popular, considering it is not known as a prime time of the week.
Last week was different. In its wisdom (it may well have had reasons that are not obvious) GRV shifted the graded meeting away from the normal slot to Wednesday evening. In its place, Horsham ran an all-maiden meeting containing the usual lot of triers and never-rans.
Guess what. The maiden meeting averaged only $6,940, indicating punters were not amused and maybe went across to the trots or the gallops.
How about the new Wednesday time? No better. It averaged $6,972 for a fairly useful graded program, which is a bit worse than attracted by whatever club normally occupies that slot. Anyone used to the Tuesday timing would have been put out by the change ‚Äď or maybe they just don‚Äôt like later starts.
Then this week‚Äôs Cup heats meeting got shifted from twilight to night, but still on Tuesday. How did that go? Not too well, considering the high quality of the dogs and the $5,000 first prizes for the Cup heats. It averaged only $9,020, or below what the run of the mill twilight meetings pull in. And next Saturday, three of the finalists will be having their third race in eight days. Dunno about that.
Going back to the Cup heats, they averaged $9,887 on the Win tote whereas the other eight races averaged $8,309. However, the latter group included two post 10pm races which drew poorly, and five of the eight were maidens. Much of a muchness?
Of course, another challenge was that there were four other clubs running at night, but only three in the twilight zone. Aside from late night issues, the revised time put Horsham into heavier traffic.
Why does GRV keep playing musical chairs with race dates and times? It never pays off, regardless of whether they get more locals to turn up to the meeting. People like consistency, both from their dogs and from meeting programmers.
(Of course, Victorian TAB takings were about 70% larger than those above but the picture is much the same. In any case, under current arrangements, the home state also benefits from what happens on their meeting in other states).
THE MONEY TRAIL (2)
Last weekend NSW punters spent 17% more on the Win pool at Friday‚Äôs Wentworth Park meeting than at the higher quality meeting on Saturday. No doubt some would have been attracted to the three big races at The Meadows on Saturday night. Even so, the downturn was not noticeable in First Four pools which were quite high at Wenty. The short fields might have had an influence ‚Äď six on Saturday versus only two on Friday ‚Äď but that was not reflected in those First Four pools. Who knows? It‚Äôs all a mystery.
More obvious were the wild variations from race to race, no doubt in sympathy with delayed trotting starts and race clashes generally. More proof that it is a turning into a mug‚Äôs game – literally.
GRNSW has claimed big increases in turnover during the July-December period but the more important information would be a rundown on where all this money came from. How is the punter profile changing?
And why are more punters taking extortionate Fixed Odds prices rather than demanding better offers from their betting operators? That would never happen in a robust on course ring. Unfortunately, they are pretty much a distant memory. All the more reason for racing authorities to keep track of who is betting what and where.
GRNSW is about to come up with a new strategic plan, but how can they do that properly if they don‚Äôt know their customers? It will be no good asking trainers, as the chairman has just announced she will be doing, because they won‚Äôt know either. It will also be no good asking betting operators because they all have different policies, different products and different client bases. The answers will come only from proper research programs ‚Äď of both the public and the punters.
Hopefully, that task will be better organised than the last GRNSW survey ‚Äď conducted for it by a consultant ‚Äď which was tasked with working out a new formguide design. Since that turned out to be too elaborate, too flowery, too cumbersome and too hard to read, let‚Äôs hope they can do better in the future.
And, no, I am not impressed with readership figures which GRNSW occasionally trots out. They measure only who opened a particular section of the website. They tell you nothing about how the information was used.
If this was in Queensland they might get upset. Only good news is allowed there under the current management. But it‚Äôs in Victoria, so that‚Äôs alright.
Beware. Tonight‚Äôs Horsham Cup heats involve 32 dogs, some of which will then go on to the final only four days later.
Of these starters, five raced six days ago, seven raced five days ago at Sandown and three raced three days ago at The Meadows. On the other hand, a couple have been off the scene for over a month.
The 480m is always a tough but fair trip. Even dogs coming off 500s in town can find it hard to finish off there.
How will they stand up to the task? Which dogs have the greatest endurance? And will the lucky eight finalists be fully fit on Saturday night?
Horsham‚Äôs usual fans might also be concerned about the shift from twilight to night timing. They have tried that before and, while oncourse takings were good, offcourse business was relatively poor.
That‚Äôs a lot of negatives, yet GRV keeps doing things like this.
According to Greek philosopher Aristotle long, long ago, ‚Äúnature abhors a vacuum‚ÄĚ and tries to fill it up. As it happens, a bloke named Einstein and a few others have since disproved it. In fact, they claim that a vacuum never really exists.
Well, I know one. I would suggest that the state of the art in track design is as near as you can get to a vacuum ‚Äď or a nothingness, as scientists might like to term it. Arguably, never in the history of mankind has so much been spent by so many to create outcomes where no-one knows what factors cause which results.
Yes, there has been a small amount of work done by vets on the effect of various turn cambers on injury rates (work that is apparently continuing in studies commenced in WA and SA and being carried on within GRV). As a result, various numbers are sometimes adopted when specifying banking angles.
But even if track builders happened on the perfect turn shape, that goes nowhere near the need to mesh those numbers with many other factors that go into the end design package. For example, where does the ‚Äúturn‚ÄĚ start and finish, what are the transition gradients and what effect does the turn radius have on the outcome? Is the turn a small or large part of the arc? Where should boxes be placed and how should they be constructed? Do different lures have any impact? What about hard or soft track surfaces, which have attracted studies in America but not here?
And, to take some specific examples, why do we see cleaner racing at Hobart and Mandurah than anywhere else in the country? Why do we not see that on all the expensive rebuilds of one-turn tracks in Victoria, where interference is common on turns, especially for the 400m bracket of races? Is that avoidable or not?
This subject came to the fore three times in NSW, first when the 413m boxes at The Gardens had to be shifted after the new track had been designed by ‚Äúexperts‚ÄĚ (as NCA claimed), then when the GBOTA modified the 400m start at Gosford some months after receiving advice (which it rejected) to move it to a more favourable position, and again in 2010 when GRNSW authorised another $50,000 to be spent on cutting away the first turn at Maitland on the ground that it had been a successful move elsewhere. No it hadn‚Äôt. This sort of change had failed at Wentworth Park, Bulli, Launceston and Cannington where it confused dogs, increased interference and biased the tracks. It did the very opposite of what was intended ‚Äď it created less fair races. Why give the box one dog a greater advantage than it already has?
Strangely, Maitland‚Äôs remedial work paid no attention to its home turn where dogs are regularly thrown to the outside. And that was on a recently re-built track.
In other words, whether GRNSW was guessing or telling porkies, or both, it failed the practical tests. The Maitland change increased the proportion of winners coming from boxes one, two and eight.
Similarly, why would Victorian authorities have spent (in today‚Äôs money) over $20 million on The Meadows to build one of the most heavily biased tracks in the country, and also forget to put in a grandstand? (For those who have not visited, it has no grandstand at all, only a small balcony which is restricted to people who rent out the upstairs dining area).
WA people were advised not to cut away the first turn at Cannington, yet went ahead anyway and so created a huge bias in favour of the rails box, and also some for box two. That change has decided major Group races. Much the same thing occurred at the new Mandurah track but, happily, they identified the problem and fixed it.
Anyway, now is the time to do what this column has been rabbitting on about for years. The industry must invest in an expert panel to study current practices and all the options in order to come up with reliable track design parameters.
That panel would consist of three people: a veterinarian, an engineer and a biomechanical expert, all preferably with some greyhound exposure but independent of racing authorities. They would be charged with taking a year to study the subject and given, say, $1 million to do the job.
They would look at box styles and their positioning, lure types, surface quality, gradients and turn radii and establish the relationship between each. The aim would be to achieve a result which maximises the chances of each runner and minimises the level of interference.
At its simplest, this is what your local golf pro does when he videos your swing. It is what experts at the Australian Institute of Sport do for a multitude of different activities. It is why swimming coaches get up at four o‚Äôclock every morning to videotape how the kids do it. It is why football clubs attach GPS stickers to the jerseys of their players to see where and how they run, and what causes injuries. The technology is highly sophisticated and widely available.
Indeed, attaching the GPS marker to a dog‚Äôs vest would bring into play the second of the two major aspects of racing. One is the physical structure of the track and its equipment, the other is the nature of the dogs using it. Without jockeys or drivers, greyhounds just do their normal thing, perhaps coloured a little by their past experiences. Those habits must be defined in the context of the race before them.
There are crazy dogs, neat dogs, unlucky dogs, big and small dogs, good and bad beginners, frightened dogs, railers and wide runners. Like people, every one of them is different. Catering for all that is not an easy job and it would take months to gather evidence, analyse it and come up with optimal solutions. That‚Äôs why we need some highly qualified people and plenty of time to do the job. The ‚Äúshe‚Äôll be right‚ÄĚ attitude has never worked, and never will.
Athletes run in lanes or risk disqualification. Tennis players and cricketers have to watch the lines, too. Competitors in any sport must abide by the rules or suffer the consequences. Yet, aside from fighting, greyhounds can get away with blue murder, probably harming themselves as well as their fellow competitors in the process, and have it all put down to the luck of the game. So it is, but man controls much of that luck, or can if he wants to.
The end rewards are big – less interference, fewer injuries and some encouragement for the punters to invest more and more often. Spending a million to do that is peanuts by comparison with the amount thrown away in building crook tracks ‚Äď and then sometimes re-building them with the same faults.
It would be a bonus that the effort would counter many of the objections of the anti-racing lobbies, which can be expected to rise and rise in years to come. That makes it a win-win program.
It would be the best investment greyhound racing has ever made. In fact, we might even be able to sell the secrets to other countries.
WHAT WAS THAT AGAIN?
‚ÄúBuckle Up Wes crossed to the rail soon after the start checking Innocent Til, Hallelujah Henry and Musquin Bale‚ÄĚ. That was the advice in the steward‚Äôs report on the Australian Cup.
Not in my eyes. If Buckle Up Wes (7) brushed with Musquin Bale (6) at the start it was very minor and, in any event, the latter had come out awkwardly and slowly. But Wes had nothing to do with the other two dogs as it roared to the front, perhaps brushing Kiss Me Ketut (1) as they rounded the turn. The other dogs all did their own damage in an otherwise messy race. ‚ÄĚMessy‚ÄĚ is quite normal at The Meadows, of course.
Why do Victorian stewards make up these stories?
So far, the NSW parliamentary hearings have heard a stack of evidence from a range of racing authorities, animal welfare types, bookies and lawyers. All of them naturally pushed their own wares but very little of that touched on who the industry‚Äôs customers were and what their preferences might be.
Yet, together with willing owners, they are the only people bringing in fresh funds to pay for wages and prizes and keep the industry on the go. Everybody else, including the government, is taking cash out or shifting the same stuff round and round the same old circle. But although punters are ‚Äútaxed‚ÄĚ, they have no representation. They get little attention from racing authorities, whose major resources go into counting money and regulating trainers. Even their advisory groups don‚Äôt always contain a punter‚Äôs nominee.
Bookies are keen to see commission rates kept down and offshore operators discouraged, all of which is understandable. Lower rates will help then promote more and build the market, they point out. True enough, but they still fail to tell us how that market is made up, or how it is changing.
For example, in recent times both bookies and TABs have introduced a fresh gimmick ‚Äď‚Äď which has proved quite popular and is taking business away from the normal tote. That‚Äôs good for the betting operators because they price them well above the rates on the tote, using books of 130% compared with 114.5% for Win bets. That‚Äôs like selling petrol at $1.70 a litre when everyone else is charging $1.50. Since they all do the same thing, competition is minimal and they get away with it.
Conversely, it is not much help for punters. At those rates they would find it impossible to make profits over a period. Put another way, those using Fixed Odds are either not aware or not concerned about the rip-off prices. Yet it threatens the first law of punting ‚Äď both sides should have a chance of winning.
This gives us a lead into the punter or gambler profile. Many are clearly not sophisticated enough to look for the value which might give them a chance of making profits. There are plenty of other indicators as well.
Over two decades there has been a gradual decline in the proportion of punters betting to win on the tote. At the dogs, consistent overbetting on favourites has made that product less rewarding. Instead, high-return multiples such as Big Six and First Four have grown in importance.
Mystery bets are popular and are pushed by TABs in advertising and in the way betting tickets are prominently displayed. Mathematically, these are guaranteed losers due to (a) boxing runners which have different chances of winning and (b) a higher takeout by the TAB. Yet they still sell.
The strength of the Mystery market is emphasised by the fact that Quinella and Trifecta dividends are distorted and normally pay well below true market odds. (Mystery bets typically offer a package split between Win, Quinella and Trifecta bets).
of formguides have fallen away and the free ones produced by GRNSW (the majority) are impractical, often incomplete, and their usage is doubtful, while gamblers are turning to tipsters of varying quality and who frequently suggest boxed bets. As above, these are all winners for the house, even before the race starts. Serious punters would not go that way but mug gamblers would.
NSW wall sheet formguides in TAB outlets were never great, but are now being replaced by touch screen versions which are more cumbersome to use and contain only half the information. Similarly, personal attention at ticket counters is being replaced by touch screen betting machines which are fine for those familiar with them but messy and error-prone for newcomers. They give no change, only vouchers which have to be cashed in later (if the office is open).
There is a concerted push towards arming hand-held devices with racing information and betting facilities. That‚Äôs good as far as it goes. However, the physical limits of this fast-growing sector means investors will have less comprehensive information to deal with, probably less time to consider it, and will tend to rely on tipsters of variable quality.
Continuing increases in race frequency, often resulting in overlapping starts, have reduced the amount of cash bet per race, thereby making them very difficult for serious punters to assess. Win pools of $10,000 and below are normal, except at popular weekend meetings. However, only about half that amount will be visible to punters before they need to make a bet.
The last trend is exacerbated by greyhound authorities‚Äô actions to schedule more racing, despite a static dog population, thereby promoting more low standard dogs to compete in TAB races. Any success in improving total turnover is then countered by a decline in average field quality and therefore more erratic outcomes. Another deterrent to serious punters.
These events can be summed up only by concluding that the industry is now being energised by the mug gambler, unable or uninterested in studying the pros and cons of a race, or in working out what sort of dogs do well, and in what circumstances. Such people come and go, probably not bothering to become genuine fans. There is nothing wrong with this business in isolation, but not when they heavily influence tote prices.
Allowing the code‚Äôs fortunes to rest on such a customer mix should surely be at the top of the inquiry‚Äôs worry list. If the trends continue it means racing bosses will lose even more control over its destiny, and all the other stuff will matter little.
There are many things that can improve the outlook but by far the most important is a concerted national program to better educate the public about the greyhound‚Äôs life and history and what makes it tick.
WHO IS TO JUDGE?
The legal news is messy. In an extraordinary merry-go-round, Gai Waterhouse was successively found guilty by Sydney stewards of failing to notify them of a favoured horse‚Äôs soreness (More Joyous), then exonerated by the Racing Appeals Tribunal, but is now subject to a Racing NSW appeal to the Supreme Court for a reversal of that decision.
It revolves around the question of whether Racing NSW and its stewards are entitled to rely on the Rules of Racing, which require trainers to notify them of any problems in the lead-up to a race. Similar requirements exist in greyhound rules.
The first judge has ruled that Racing NSW processes were not up to the required legal standard in demanding such reporting. Previously, owner John Singleton had agreed with the stewards and withdrew his horses from the Waterhouse stable, making a lot of noise en route.
So, are the thoroughbred rules reasonable, or are they adequately worded? The next judge will presumably throw some more light on that. Lawyers will then be off to bank their winnings.
Either way, the average punter would hardly support trainers getting away with secrecy about a competitor‚Äôs lack of fitness. Sadly, in the greyhound field, the availability of such information is the exception rather than the rule.
Let‚Äôs hope greyhound authorities watch developments closely and review their own positions.
ON THE OTHER HAND …
What were they on about?
From GRV stewards following the running of race 9 at The Meadows last Saturday: ‚ÄúStewards issued a warning to Ms. L. Britton, the trainer of the greyhound Star Recall regarding the greyhound’s racing manners approaching the home turn‚ÄĚ.
After examining the video three times it is clear that Star Recall and another dog bumped heavily trying to get around the first turn (common at this track), but there was no evidence that its manners posed any problem there or on the home turn, where it was racing in the centre of the track and only one other dog was within coooee of it. Anyway, it had faded and run wide by that time.
On top of that, Star Recall was found to be injured and was put out for seven days.
Something for everybody was the pattern at last Thursday‚Äôs parliamentary hearings into greyhound racing.
A GREAT¬†idea emerged from the Australian Wagering Council (a grouping of online bookmakers), which is concerned that overseas-based betting operators are horning in on local business without paying an entry fee ‚Äď that is, the racefields fee on turnover or profits. On-course bookmakers supported their concern.
Pop-ups will help, according to Ben Sleep, an AWC director. These are the annoying little advertising windows that appear from nowhere on your internet screen. When punters attempt to access an offshore operator, this one would show ‚ÄúYou are now leaving Australian shores and you do not have the protection of Australian laws‚ÄĚ, and would hopefully cause customers to return to a local outlet. Fair enough.
Other more direct measures to control money movement have not been effective in America, says Sleep.
The AWC is less convincing in calling for racing authorities to avoid any increase in fees on the ground that lower charges will encourage bookies to promote more effectively, thereby increasing the size of the pie. In practice, the online people have a huge cost advantage to play with (relative to TABs, with whom they compete) and could easily afford to increase their contribution. It also does not sit well with their normal practice of running 130% books forand then cancelling accounts for successful punters. The combination of all the above is not fair dinkum.
To be sure, any fee increase may well affect their existing widespread sponsorship of races and clubs, but a decision to go one way or the other should rest with racing authorities, not service providers. Meanwhile, GRNSW and others are seeking to have the government remove the cap of 1.5% of turnover, or its equivalent.
LATER, lawyer David Landa, who was briefly the Integrity Commissioner until he resigned in 2012, asked the committee to recommend significant changes to the way the office was structured. Landa pointed out that it had proved impossible to carry out his tasks due to a lack of resources ‚Äď mainly finance ‚Äď and the need to rely on support from the GRNSW CEO, which was not easy to obtain. Financial and management independence was essential, he claimed.
Currently, the Commissioner can act only if he gets complaints or has a matter referred to him by GRNSW. He cannot initiate his own investigations or inquiries.
Greyhound racing has been without an effective audit process since 2009, according to Mr Landa.
MICHAEL¬†Eberand from the Greyhound Action Group highlighted the need to introduce a fresh stimulus to the code‚Äôs income base, citing the beneficial effect arising out of the entry of online bookmakers in past years. That boost has now disappeared and growth has flattened out again.
In preferring to see government intervene in the RDA squabble, Eberand pointed out that the original agreement included a clause requiring the parties to conduct reviews ‚Äúin good faith‚ÄĚ and to meet regularly (quarterly) to discuss topical matters. Advice to him from the GBOTA indicates that has never happened. (There have been some meetings but apparently not in good faith).
LENGTHY¬†but often defensive evidence from Brent Hogan, GRNSW CEO, covered animal welfare, expenditure on the failed project at The Gardens, reasons for the rise in authority costs and changes for country tracks. Chairman Eve McGregor was also present but spoke rarely.
A current joint initiative by GRNSW and GRV to upgrade welfare issues and trainer education had been announced the day prior to this hearing. Other steps taken in this area had commenced last November, or well after the establishment of the inquiry, something the committee seemed to regard as a happy coincidence.
Mr Hogan was at pains to reject any validity in submissions that GRNSW was not responsive to complaints from participants. Committee deputy chair, Dr Kaye, had asked him to respond to ‚Äúissues raised by greyhound industry participants that are not necessarily directly related to money.¬† The issues relate to the behaviour of your organisation and the stewards, and particularly their behaviour towards people who have spoken out against decisions you have made.‚ÄĚ
Hogan responded that this was all prompted by the lack of sufficient increases in prize money in the last few years.
THE RSPCA¬†and other animal welfare organisations spent much time lambasting the industry for its lack of attention to welfare matters, including the use of drugs, but generally lacked definitive evidence of abuses and were short on figures. By one measure, it turned out that of 5,562 shortcomings referred to RSPCA, only half related to dogs of any sort and only 35 related to greyhounds, which is 0.62% of the total. Separately, the RSPCA said of 15,000 complaints, half involved dogs but only 79 of those were greyhounds. That‚Äôs 0.5% of the total.
Note that these percentages relate to complaints and the like. When compared with the total number of dogs bred or racing, the proportions are miniscule. Consequently, the committee was not impressed by claims that these problems were ‚Äúsystemic‚ÄĚ, as claimed.
The RSPCA was not able to advise of any figures for other breeds of dogs or for horses, which weakens their arguments and poses some serious questions about how the organisation is run. Curiously, it made no comments about poor track designs, which would be a major factor in greyhound injuries.
The RSPCA‚Äôs main thrust was to adopt the Chinese solution – a reduction in breeding numbers so as to also reduce euthanasia rates. It would do that by issuing permits to intending breeders. Who would assess the numbers? Not sure. Who would pay for the clerical work? Not sure. Would other breeds be targeted as well? Not stated. Who would police the breeders? Not sure either, but perhaps extra RSPCA inspectors?
MORE¬†interesting was evidence from Dr Karen Cunnington, a vet who runs a rehoming centre and also works for the Racing Science Centre in Brisbane. Her own experience and testing revealed that many greyhounds offered for rehoming were found unsuitable because they were unable to adjust to new environments. Dr Cunnington‚Äôs work suggests that this is due to a lack of socialisation amongst dogs as they are growing up. The inability to regularly relate to other dogs at this time, due to kennelling practices, led to emotional barriers that were hard to overcome in later life.¬† This offers food for thought.
MANY¬†discussions at the hearing were inconclusive as witnesses concentrated more on making speeches than giving the committee the hard information they needed and asked for. Dozens of items were parked as witnesses disappeared down a ‚Äútake under notice‚ÄĚ escape route.
Still, the committee appears to be relentlessly unearthing the facts and should end up with a fairly good appreciation of what makes greyhound racing tick. How it will weigh up conflicting evidence remains to be seen.
The popular Victorian Greyhound Owners Breeders Incentive Scheme (GOBIS) is set to receive a boost, with news the State Government is injecting extra funds, via the Racing Industry Fund, into the Victorian Greyhound Industry.
Premier of Victoria and Minister for Racing Dennis Napthine announced at the 40th Greyhound Industry Awards Night an additional $775,000 in funding would be provided to Greyhound Racing Victoria, to extend the Victorian Governments commitment to Greyhound Racing and to the GOBIS structure.
Dr Napthine said some of the enhancements to GOBIS for the next two years included all the Greyhounds that qualified for a start in a Group Race would now receive a $1000 Breeders Bonus and an additional 132 GOBIS-only races will be run throughout the year in Country Victoria, with the 11 Country Greyhound Racing Clubs running 12 races each.
The funding is provided through the Victorian Racing Industry Fund, which has been established using unclaimed dividends.
The increase in GOBIS funding is a welcome boost to greyhound racing in Victoria, with the incentive to breed, buy and race a Victorian Bred Greyhound now very attractive.
‚ÄúVictoria is a world leader in Greyhound Racing and this scheme encourages the breeding, ownership and racing of locally bred Greyhounds‚ÄĚ, Dr Napthine said.
GRV Chairman Peter Cailard said the Victorian Greyhound Industry has been reinvigorated by enhancements to GOBIS and the support of the Premier and State Government has been vital in the Scheme‚Äôs ongoing success.
‚ÄúGRV is committed to promoting the highest breeding standards.¬† This is achieved by rewarding star performers on the track through GOBIS, which stimulates the growth of the Victorian Breeding Industry‚ÄĚ, Mr Cailard said.
‚ÄúThese new breeder‚Äôs bonuses will be welcome.¬† Importantly, they will be additional to the $10,000 bonus that is awarded to any GOBIS Greyhound that wins a Group Race, a bonus that was won 8 times in the past financial year.‚ÄĚ
The Victorian GOBIS scheme has been the envy of other States in Australia and has continued to prove very popular with participants.¬† However, while any extra funding is always most welcome, some participants are still critical and look to improve the way the funds are distributed, citing not enough of the money is returned to grass roots owners and breeders.
I personally know of a greyhound which recorded in excess of 20 races wins on the provincial circuit, however did not win a GOBIS event, despite being registered under the scheme.¬† This was due to the fact the maiden the greyhound won was not a GOBIS event, despite the race being a maiden Final at Shepparton.
Should a Greyhounds maiden victory not carry a GOBIS bonus, many provincial or country chasers may not get another opportunity to compete for a GOBIS bonus for the remainder of their racing life.
Possibly all Maiden events in Victoria should carry a GOBIS Bonus to the winner.¬† In this way, so long as your Greyhound is a race winner in Victoria, you would receive at least one GOBIS payment.¬† This would certainly be a strong incentive for all to register for the GOBIS Scheme and ensure the pool of money gets spread to all in the industry, not just those competing at the elite level.
While we always look for improvement in any facet of Greyhound Racing at ARG, for mine, to criticise the GOBIS scheme is splitting hairs, as overall it has been wonderful for the industry in Victoria.
It never rains but it pours. While the NSW inquiry continues, the Queensland Racing Commission of Inquiry, run by the Hon Margaret White and a team of lawyers, has come down like a tonne of bricks on the actions of the previous Racing Queensland board and management in bypassing proper tender procedures and providing golden handshakes to staff.
Eight board members and staff, including former chairman Bob Bentley, have been referred to the Australian Securities Investment Commission for examination of their conduct, which was ‚Äúnot in accordance with good governance principles‚ÄĚ, according to the Inquiry. Bentley has issued a media release objecting to the findings, claiming that more people should have been called and that ‚Äúmany of the wild accusations have now been shown to be without substance.‚ÄĚ (The report ran to 496 pages).
Separately, the Inquiry has tip-toed through the tulips in its recommendations to the government about the way Racing Queensland is structured.
Reading between the lines, the Inquiry is critical of the very structure of the new Racing Queensland makeup. It wants the chairman of RQ to be independent of the three codes (current chairman Dixon comes from the Brisbane Racing Club) and doubts the value in having the Integrity Commissioner as part of that organisation. It prefers more independence.
The last point would attract applause from David Landa, since resigned from a comparable position at GRNSW, citing (at the parliamentary hearing) a lack of resources and an inability to delve into controversial matters without the agreement of the CEO.
The Inquiry also noted that Queensland racing ‚Äúis unlikely to be self-sustaining‚ÄĚ and called on government to ‚Äúinitiate a consultative review … to identify a sustainable financial model to support the three codes of racing.‚ÄĚ Note that it assigned this job to government rather than to Racing Queensland, whose role it should be to do just that.
While that may seem quite a logical measure to take, the inquiry treads lightly in respect to the ingredients of that financial model ‚Äď ie the reasons why the three codes are failing to offer a quality and quantity of racing which is sufficient to attract more patronage. Perhaps the recently announced call for ‚Äúinnovative‚ÄĚ tenders for the TAB rights in Queensland will throw more light on that.
To digress for a moment, it is noteworthy that the Queensland Inquiry and, so far, the NSW parliamentary inquiry have both bypassed a fundamental aspect of racing, or of any other industry, for that matter. They have ignored the customers. They have no representation and no supporting insiders who might speak up for them. Effectively, the industry is treated as a closed shop ‚Äď insiders only.
More than that, there is no evidence, here or elsewhere, that greyhound racing authorities have taken the trouble to investigate or conduct research into the nature of its customers and how that might have changed over the years. Nor do we know how the general public regard the racing industry. If there has been any inside work done on this subject it has certainly not been made available to the rest of the industry or to the public to which the industry is responsible through the Minister of the day.
Alternatively, if such investigations have been conducted the public are entitled to know why it has been kept a secret.
The concept of running a multi-million dollar business without knowing who your customers are is a terrible reflection on the abilities of authorities to do their job. This is a failing equal in importance to the action 16 years ago by the old NSW GRA to leave what it called ‚Äúcommercial‚ÄĚ decision-making to a couple of raceclubs (as reported yesterday, see Sad and Sadder).
We are now looking at a situation where over the course of a year or so, serious shortcomings have emerged in the operation of Queensland and Victorian authorities, possibly soon to be followed by NSW, while there has also been an unexplained ruckus in the board of Greyhounds WA, and Tasmanian parliamentarians are regularly asking questions about the losses being sustained by its (government-owned) racing administration.
In three of those cases the problems have had to be dealt with formally by state parliaments, or their appointed Inquiries. Victoria has since put a broom through the place but there can be no guarantee that will solve the long term problem. Nor in NSW, where a fresh batch of board members appear to be continuing in the same old fashion (that board has no fully independent members as all have past involvements with racing organisations).
It indicates that there is a systemic fault in the way racing is governed. And it may well continue in Queensland where the individual codes are now being governed by insiders who were put forward by other insiders on instructions from the Minister. Queensland has had variations on that theme for decades now, all the while losing ground consistently.
The facts are increasingly clear but it appears no-one want to acknowledge them. It‚Äôs not the people, mate, it‚Äôs the system!
(We hope to have more information on the NSW inquiry once hearing transcripts from last Thursday are available)
It was a bit sad, really. The demonstration from an anti-racing group outside Sydney‚Äôs Mitchell Library last Thursday included a loud speaker, lots of banners and similar gadgetry, several retired greyhounds and numerous signs calling for an end to greyhound racing.
About 30 people were listening to the speeches, virtually all of them carrying the same paraphernalia and wearing the same T-shirts (later discarded to enable some of them to enter the hearing room). The public, as such, were nowhere to be seen, so the only other viewers were a few media types and an occasional greyhound trainer walking by on his way into the parliamentary hearing. Basically, they were preaching to the converted.
One particular sign protested that taxpayers‚Äô money should not be used to support greyhound racing. Where do these guys get their facts from? In truth, in 2012/13 TAB betting alone on NSW greyhounds realised over $21 million for the NSW government. That one unscrupulous sign tells a story.
As in any field of human or animal activity, abuses will occur and errors will be made. The fact that they are minimal and attracting constant attention from authorities is lost in the confusion of these emotionally-based protests. Let‚Äôs hope the parliamentary committee adds it all up correctly, and with balance.
The rest of this report has been delayed because it was near impossible to absorb what was happening during the hearings. The acoustics in the room were appalling and the microphone techniques of most speakers were sub-standard. Consequently we have had to wait for the publication of the transcripts.
AMAZING BUT TRUE
Even sadder, and more extraordinary, was the evidence provided the day before in Newcastle by Ross Magin, GRA chairman from 1995 to 2003, about the goings on during negotiations on what ended up as a 99 year agreement on commission splits – The Racing Distribution Agreement or RDA.
The first point of interest concerns the professional advice GRA obtained.
According to Mr Magin, ‚ÄúThe point is that the thoroughbreds originally appointed Clayton Utz because we had to consider that and the GRA and, I assume the trotting, considered that, rather than get another lot of lawyers in, we would also engage them to act on our behalf.”
The Hon. Trevor Khan (for the inquiry): “You got no independent legal advice with regard to the implications of the inter-code agreement on greyhound racing. Is that a fair summary of the position?”
Mr Magin: “The position is that, as far as I recall and know, Clayton Utz were acting on behalf of the three codes and I would have thought that legal obligations would be upon them to love the three of them and not just one.”
Considering that the code‚Äôs financial future was at stake, the fact that GRA had no independent legal advice is almost unbelievable. But that‚Äôs not all.
The negotiations took place just before the government sold the TAB to the most attractive bidder (ie the one that provided the biggest single lump of cash). This led to Mr Magin explaining the GRA‚Äôs relaxed attitude in this way: ‚ÄúWe always knew that the Government was selling the business to the TAB and that the question of the distribution would be reviewed in 15 years time. In my mind I thought that was some sort of comfort into what might happen in the future.”
In fact, that 15 year review had nothing to do with the distribution arrangement. It was simply a condition of the sale and therefore involved only the government and the license it handed to the successful buyer ‚Äď ie TAB Ltd (now Tabcorp).
However, a third point is even more shattering. Here is the process Mr Magin went through prior to signing the agreement: ‚ÄúThe reason I signed it was that it was not my decision. It was put to them (the GBOTA and NCA representatives) that they were the industry, they were the people that shared the money, and we were an authority that was charged only with responsible greyhound racing. We were the policemen. We had nothing to do with the commercial side.‚ÄĚ
Nothing? As it happens, I had some dealings with the GRA board just prior to this time ‚Äď all concerning commercial matters. So did deFax, then a private company, which won several extensions of its contract with GRA to produce racebooks, after what were said to be competitive tenders. Anyway, the GRA‚Äôs very charter called for it to ensure ‚Äúthe development and progress‚ÄĚ of the industry. How this could be interpreted as handing over power to two raceclubs beggars belief.
Even so, those two clubs obviously exercised powerful influences, both in their own right and as ex officio members of the GRA board from that time until very recently. Of course, that then leads to the question of how they could act simultaneously in the interests of both their club and the state authority. Some conflict would be normal, surely?
Let‚Äôs note that, amongst other things, the GRA was responsible for receiving money from the TAB and then parcelling it out to individual clubs for prize money, for club administration costs, and for assessing need and allocating funds for major maintenance items. As the largest clubs, naturally GBOTA and NCA got the largest shares. But how would that process be seen to be fair and equitable, or even desirable, in the interests of the state at large? It‚Äôs an impossible question, of course, but one which has largely disappeared now that clubs no longer have direct representation on the current GRNSW board.
We can also note that at a later time, the NCA nominee on the board, Mike Ahrens, abruptly resigned, advising the Greyhound Recorder that he could no longer accept the way it did business. Subsequently, two new appointments to the board, Paul Wheeler and Paul England, also resigned not long after they took on the job. Their reasons were never published.
The same organisation was strongly criticised by ICAC for its poor supervision following the investigation into abuses committed by the chief steward Rodney Potter, who was later jailed.
Historically, it all points to a bumbling approach to running an industry. But is it any better now? Many submissions to the parliamentary inquiry suggest not. It is also worth thinking about a year-old proposal by GRNSW to remove Border Park at Tweed Heads from the state and consign it to Queensland jurisdiction for future racing. An item in the 2012/13 annual report also emphasised the plan. The mind boggles at how a relatively lowly body like GRNSW could overcome a swathe of legal barriers and contractual obligations (to Tabcorp, amongst others) to do that. The change might also be a surprise to the NSW treasurer who would be faced with a loss of tax income from Border Park‚Äôs busy operation (not from its greyhound racing but from the packed houses in its betting auditorium every Saturday and public holiday). And neither TattsBet nor Racing Queensland is legally entitled to operate outside the state. Bringing this about ‚Äď were it ever to be seriously considered ‚Äď would require a busload of expensive lawyers just to think about it. Oh dear! Is this a repeat of the RDA exercise?
Greyhound racing generally, not just in NSW, tends to use outmoded organisational structures which militate against timely and efficient management. They particularly lack any efficiency oversight. Auditors check the sums but not the effectiveness of investments made by the board. The same applies to other racing codes, which must be a major reason that racing has been losing its punch and its market share over the last two decades. That greyhounds are doing a little better than others is no more than a reflection of stuffing more and more races into the overcrowded TAB calendar at the same time as the gallops and trots are losing their way, rather like putting more machines into an already busy poker machine palace.
So will the parliamentary inquiry see it in that light? Time will tell, but they are asking a lot of good questions.
A side note: during his former association with the Newcastle Jockey Club, Ross Magin was always a strong supporter of greyhound racing at Beaumont Park, then owned by the NJC. However, in the end, the NJC refused to take the necessary action to change its pattern of operation and the track closed down and the land was sold off. The wounds were deep and the Hunter region was never the same again.
In the old days the threatened sackings at SPC in Shepparton would have been a disaster, not just for local farmers and the town, but also for patrons of the dog track. Similar impacts have occurred in the past at Warrnambool or Ballarat with Fletcher Jones downturns, at Geelong where half the town is in strife, and when steel mills closed at Newcastle and Port Kembla, affecting half a dozen dog tracks in those areas.
Fortunately, customers now come from far and wide, courtesy of SKY and the TABs, so the impact is minimal.
The national approach has a lot going for it, even though at times there are many clashing races and the kitty is split up into chunks that are too small for serious punting ‚Äď which are matters racing bosses could bring under control if they wished. .
But it does bring up the question of why racing management is not also a candidate for the national approach. The current pattern of differing conditions and rules in each state cannot possibly optimise the welfare of the industry. Grading, stewards‚Äô policies and penalties, track standards, betting pools, commission arrangements and just sheer political influence are all matters that would benefit from a heftier and more consistent approach. The entire would be much better than the parts.
Indeed, the fact that regular national meetings of both stewards and administrators have failed to achieve more consistency is a blight on the industry. There is not much point in getting together if everyone goes home and does something different ‚Äď the voluminous local rules applying in each state is evidence of bureaucracy at its worst. So, for that matter, is the lack of industry statistics for 2012 and 2013.
Think for a moment what might happen if cricket, tennis and the football codes all changed rules as they moved from one state to another. Bedlam, surely.
There are other parts of this country which have seen the light ‚Äď aviation, for example, could not possibly work if state-by-state rules applied. Planes would start running in to each other. Yet dogs in their hundreds fly and drive over state borders every day. Customers could not care less and probably often don‚Äôt even know what state the track is in. It makes no sense.
Indeed, a national initiative is possibly the only way that the industry would be able to mount serious public relations and marketing programs, thereby telling the real greyhound story to more and more Australians. Doing that piecemeal is just not a goer. Worse, it means episodes like the current parliamentary inquiry in NSW will lead ‚Äď and has led ‚Äď to literally hundreds of people throwing rocks at the sport, regardless of their accuracy or balance.
YOU WERE WARNED
More topical is the fact that Shepparton was able to stage its Monday meeting at all. Maximum temperatures then, and on several previous days, had exceeded 40 degrees, cooling down only at night.
That may have contributed to an extraordinary event. Its 650m race was reduced to three starters, including the highly talented Phenomenal. Despite warnings from this column about odds-on pops, punters sent it out at $1.10, not much more than bank interest. Yet Sisco Rage jumped in front and led all the way in a sparkling 37.28, only a length outside Nellie Noodles track record, after an equally quick sectional of 17.12. Although it got close on the line, Phenomenal never really looked the winner.
Sisco Rage has displayed ability previously, winning at The Meadows in 30.24, Ballarat in 31.11 and Geelong in 25.82.¬† Still, its time at Shepparton easily bettered any of its career runs. Actually, it is amazing how often some in this kennel are able to jump well and lead the field a merry dance, as was the case here.
BEWITCHED AND BEFUDDLED
GRNSW has just told us that takings boomed in the first half of the financial year, yet only a short while ago it told the parliamentary greyhound inquiry that the code faced the prospect of scrubbing some clubs due to a dismal financial outlook. So which is it?¬†¬† .
The current ‚Äúvibrant betting market‚ÄĚ, according to CEO, Brent Hogan, is reflected in a national rise of over 5% at TABs and much more for online bookmakers and Betfair. Turnover in NSW was up 11.2% on the same period in 2012 which included some weeks of the trainers strike.
Tabcorp has already recorded a fall in traditional tote business but a rise in, albeit from a low base. Somewhat similarly, TattsBet figures are up but mainly because it took over the Tasmanian business from the state government. Its prospects in Queensland and Tasmania are not looking bright as customers are indicating a preference for betting outlets which offer more reliable dividend potential.
NSW racing codes are currently calling on the government to remove the 1.5% cap on racefield fees, thereby allowing market forces to set the rates. This is a good move. Governments are best left out of commercial matters.
However, note that GRNSW still charges fees on the basis of a percentage of bookmaker‚Äôs surpluses, rather than on a commission on turnover basis. Since the latter system has proved far more lucrative for all the major players, including Racing NSW, it indicates that something odd is occurring at the dogs.¬† Clearly, either the bookies are making excessive profits or NSW punters are very bad at what they do. Can that continue in the long term?
The Victorian Parliament has just enacted a law which allows the Racing Integrity Commission and racing stewards to haul in to their inquiries any, ‚Äúpeople of interest.‚ÄĚ No longer does this apply only to licensed persons.
Failure to attend would render them liable to fines and even jail terms
Commissioner Sal Perna told the Herald Sun he will not, ‚Äúgo out all guns blazing and ask questions of all sorts of people. You must use your judgement.‚ÄĚ
Likewise, stewards, ‚Äúmust show reasons they have good grounds for asking a person to attend an inquiry.‚ÄĚ
The change follows a number of hassles in Victoria, notably the Damien Oliver case, where the jockey declined to attend the Commission‚Äôs inquiry and where his ultimate penalty (by the stewards) was heavily criticised for being too late and too lenient. Oliver got 10 months for betting on another horse in a race he was riding in, something which must surely be the ultimate racing sin.
NSW gallops stewards must also be looking on enviously after they were frustrated by the refusal of big punter, Eddie Hayson, to attend hearings on the Waterhouse-Singleton case involving the fitness of More Joyous. Hayson has greyhound form after being responsible, amongst other incidents, for the Lucy‚Äôs Light scam at the Gold Coast greyhounds. However, there was no evidence of any illegality there. He simply beat the bookies by manipulating market prices with legal bets, after which their betting rules were adjusted big-time.
However, the change to the law in Victoria brings into question just how the Commission or the stewards will exercise their new powers. How do you define ‚Äúgood grounds‚ÄĚ, for example? Will the practice spread to other states? And how big does a punter have to be to attract attention?¬† A few hundred dollars will distort most greyhound pools these days.
I have no trouble with stewards implementing a ‚Äúwarning off‚ÄĚ providing it is for good reason, and is subject to appeal (although whether it is policed properly is open to question). Anyway, for betting purposes, a warning-off means not a great deal in this electronic age. Racing NSW effectively ‚Äúwarned off‚ÄĚ all the NT bookmakers at one stage, but it didn‚Äôt get far with that, did it? The Northern Territory Racing Commission found serious problems with First Four betting at Ipswich in the Brunker v Bet365 case, but, in the end, Queensland stewards failed to act in any way ‚Äď no suspensions, no warning off.
However, giving stewards the same power as a court of law is another matter altogether. They have no particular legal training, only past experience in similar matters. Further, most appeals from stewards‚Äô decisions can be made only to their employers ‚Äď racing boards or committees set up for that purpose ‚Äď which is a bit too circular in some minds. Only in a limited number of cases can offenders utilise independent tribunals staffed by qualified people. And it is an expensive process.
More to the point, there is reason to claim that greyhound stewards are often not up to the task in general. We have instanced on these pages many cases of irregular penalties for the same offense, stewards‚Äô decisions being overturned for inconsistency, poor assessment of form, and a lack of attention to dogs racing with injuries. In some of these cases, they compare poorly with stewards in other codes. That hardly inspires confidence in their ability to deal with even more complex matters.
But we do need them. For the last 150 years, crooks have never been far away from the racing scene, and will continue to be for the next 150. I would even like to see stewards armed with greater skills and more sophisticated systems, and to pay them more, providing only that they improve their performance.¬† After all, in essence they are the industry‚Äôs managers-on-the-spot, so we need them to do more than just take swabs and thump fighters. However, like the dogs they supervise, they need to pass a stricter test before they qualify.
So, could stewards do more?
Here‚Äôs an example (there would be many like it). The four semi-finals of the NSW Futurity and Derby at Newcastle last Friday featured substantial disruptions around the first turn*. Only one of four favourites won and many dogs were thrown off the track. Stewards saw fit to mention 23 of the 31 runners in their report as having suffered some sort of interference in that area alone.
There was nothing unusual about that as it happens routinely at The Gardens. Allegedly, the track was designed by ‚Äúexperts‚ÄĚ, according to advice from NCA management at the time, yet none of those involved had any significant greyhound experience. That showed in the original bend-siting of the 411m boxes, which later had to be shifted at great expense to the current 400m position. Unfortunately, the 600m bend start; the poor 515m first turn and a flattish home turn remain unchanged. These are basic design issues.
Given that stewards have independently noted the poor outcomes, why would they not also look at cause and effect and make recommendations about needed improvements to the layout?¬† After all, they are watching all this three times a week and are responsible for the integrity of greyhound racing. In fact, the word integrity is usually worked into the titles of steward managers these days.
One definition of integrity comes from Macquarie dictionary: ‚Äúsound, unimpaired or perfect condition‚ÄĚ.¬† That hardly seems to apply here, does it?
Nor does it apply to Wentworth Park, Gosford, Richmond, Dapto or Maitland where GRNSW has, at huge expense, approved tracks works over the last decade, all of which have proved disruptive to one extent or another. Or at other tracks such as Casino, Lismore, Bulli and Nowra, where similar problems occur but no attempt has been made to rectify them. Nor have stewards commented, so far as we know.
That leaves us with the question of whether we can place enough trust in the integrity of racing stewards to support any future action they might take. This is especially critical as stewards are not independent of state authorities, although there is a strong case that they should be.
* (Note: In general terms, the above hassles at The Gardens are readily viewed on race videos, but it will be impossible to make out exactly which dog suffered what because the sunlight and inadequate camera work prevent viewers from identifying the individual dogs. They are all black blurs).
How would you like to own a dog that has won more than half its 103 races, including six of its last eight and earned $194,000 in prize money? Is there another dog racing that can equal that performance? Black Magic Opal, perhaps, and one or two others. But they are rare.
Stagger has done that and is still going strong at 4 years and 5 months of age. He is off again at Traralgon tomorrow. Just last Sunday he bolted in at Sale in a smart 24.69 in a Veterans field, but most of his starts have been against all comers, including an unplaced finish in Walk Hard‚Äôs roughly run heat of the Warragul Cup. Note that, going into the six heats, only three starters had earned more cash than Stagger ‚Äď Black Magic Opal, Paw Licking and Spud Regis ‚Äď and all three had the advantage of picking up big prizes in town. Stagger had done it the hard way.
Leading up to that race, he had also won in 16.75 at Traralgon and 21.85 at Shepparton, both really quick runs.
By Primo Uno out of Instructed First, Stagger was bred, owned and is trained by Garry Selkrig of Devon Meadows. Both trainer and dog deserve credit for maintaining its form over such a long period, with only one break of any consequence in mid-2013. The dog won five races in succession in mid-2012, four in a row later that year, and four times since then has won three in a row.
Stagger has started at fifteen different tracks over varying distances from 298m to 535m, winning at every one, bar a single start at Bulli. He is a reliable beginner, rather than a brilliant one, but quickly runs to the lead before the turn. That‚Äôs a big contrast to his dad, a wonderful galloper, but one which could not get out of a box to save his life (but has still sired many top performers).
No doubt his best performances have been over the tough Horsham 480m trip, where he has broken the 27 seconds mark three times. That‚Äôs the mark of a hard chaser and this dog certainly fills the bill.
But are there more such veterans around? Not long ago I instanced a similar, although not quite so brilliant career by Burnt Fuse, but others are not easy to find. Victoria programs regular Veterans races, but they have almost disappeared in NSW and Queensland, and are not common in SA. Why is this so? Almost invariably, these runners put up consistent performances, their form is well known to punters and they can often run top times ‚Äď Stagger’s run at Sale was easily the best of the meeting.
Injuries or loss of interest can be a barrier for many but is there enough encouragement for owners and trainers to support a bigger Veterans circuit? Such dogs can often lose a fraction of their early dash but more often than not they can still run good overall times, no matter their age (Stagger‚Äôs sectional at Sale was a modest 5.34). It seems the industry may be losing an opportunity to widen public interest as well as improve the economics of dog ownership.
After all, half the Aussie Test team is over 30 years old, while Li Na is rising 32 years of age and has just picked up a cool $2.6 million in winning the Australian Open. Many promising youngsters fell by the wayside
Speaking of tennis, it is remarkable the similarities between sports. Stanislas Wawrinka, up against a better credentialled opponent in the men‚Äôs singles, got stuck into him early and quickly dominated the way the match was conducted. His running numbers would have been 1121. Rafa never really got back into the race, despite picking up a set when Stan missed a few forehands. Rafa‚Äôs injury was unfortunate but the stage had already been set by then.
For all his abilities, Rafa‚Äôs main strength is really his defence. He will get the ball back from anywhere and just waits for the opportunity to unleash his magic forehand. But Stan would not let him do it, or not often enough. He took the initiative and that decided the race.
How often is the greyhound race run the same way? Put up a flighty performer against a hard chaser and you would want to be on the chaser most of the time. Given a chance, he is the one that dominates the running of the race, especially at the finish. A classic example was Walk Hard v Paw Licking in the Warragul Cup final.
Of course, experience also counts, which is also why there should be more Veterans races.
FIELDS FALLING AWAY?
A couple of readers expressed sorrow at the shift from locally graded fields to the current computer-dominated system, reasoning that the club grader always had the opportunity to ring around and get extras to fill up the program. (See previous article, IS ANYBODY WORRIED ABOUT THE PRODUCT, 27 January).
There is some validity in that thought, and also in the ability of some managers to initiate more interesting races.
Unfortunately, history will not be re-visited, if for no other reason than that some may not have done the right thing in the past. Besides, what sort of dog are you going to get when you twist a trainer‚Äôs arm to get more nominations?
In any event, that still does not solve the problem of the lack of numbers. The supply and demand formula has got out of whack. We either breed more dogs, cut the number of races, or run short fields. They are the only options.
Just when you thought you had seen it all in the Sunshine State, they have done it again. Racing Queensland has just announced that TattBet‚Äôs stranglehold over the local tote licence is up for grabs when it’s current license expires in July.
RQ says it is looking for proposals from wagering operators to ‚Äúsubmit their vision for wagering growth … through innovation, customer development and greater promotion‚ÄĚ by the end of February. That‚Äôs all very well, but consider some related points.
1.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†RQ does not issue betting licenses. That‚Äôs the government‚Äôs responsibility. Why has RQ made the announcement? And why did it come from the CEO, not the much-criticised Chairman?
2.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†It implies that the tote can supply the necessary impetus to an industry that has numerous internal problems that are holding back development. The cart seems located before the horse.
3.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†RQ itself makes almost no effort to¬†stimulate growth, other than its peculiar ‚ÄúWerunasone‚ÄĚ campaign which tells participants to be nice to each other. That‚Äôs unlikely to help much.
4.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†Field sizes and quality are getting worse in all codes, but certainly in greyhounds, which now almost never fill all the boxes in its major Thursday night slot.
5.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†TattsBet turnover is consistently declining, with Queensland and Tasmania contributions trending worst. Its tote product is therefore noncompetitive in an era when punters can easily access a range of other operators.
6.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†All codes, including greyhounds, are being managed by industry insiders, a policy which has failed miserably over the last two decades, and which has generally been discarded elsewhere.
7.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†The mind boggles at what might happen if TattsBet were to lose its Queensland licence but still had to persevere with its NT, SA and Tasmania business. In that event, the end product would be virtually unusable.
To its credit, RQ has apparently realised that the current modus operandi is a dead duck and needs revitalisation, but only so far as the tote is concerned. Still, that‚Äôs a good start and also may serve to shake up incumbent operators elsewhere, even though they all have long term tenure.
However, the concept of someone else taking over from TattsBet is barely realistic, given its wide spread of betting shops and the like across the state, and elsewhere. Possession is virtually nine points of the law, even though monopolies like the TABs produce many negatives. Anyway, given TattsBet‚Äôs, Queensland‚Äôs and Tasmania‚Äôs parlous financial positions, it is almost a national emergency.
There is only one possible saviour for Queensland and its sister states and that is the prospect of creating a national betting pool, after which the size of local pools will no longer be so critical.
So let‚Äôs hope some interesting ideas emerge.
<h3>MONEY THROWN AWAY – AGAIN</h3>
It was a funny night at Warragul last Sunday for the Cup heats. Three favourites won well, including Black Magic Opal and new record-holder Walk Hard, and three lost. Every winner either jumped in front or got a saloon passage along the rails when others got tangled up.
Actually, that‚Äôs the reason it is difficult to bet on Warragul‚Äôs 460m trip ‚Äď there is just too much interference going into the first turn. Something about the track‚Äôs configuration has never been right. It‚Äôs something GRV and others need to study more carefully in order to achieve cleaner running.
But that‚Äôs not the big thing. The staging of the Cup heats at an oddball time, like other Cup series before it in Victoria (eg Horsham, Cranbourne), invariably costs the industry big money. Shifting away from a club‚Äôs standard slot is always risky. People get used to patronising their favourite tracks and can get lost in the backwash when a different time is chosen. Of course, Warragul‚Äôs main Tuesday night slot is not a bed of roses from a turnover viewpoint, but Sunday night has to be the pits. People have knocked off mentally by that time of the week and obviously prefer to spend time with the family, go to church, or whatever.
If you compare the takings with the previous average-fair meeting at Warragul on its normal Tuesday night, here‚Äôs what you would find in the average Win pools.
Previously¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Cup Heats¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Change
VicTAB¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† $14,662¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† $12,336¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† -15.9%
NSWTAB¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† $6,265¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† $4,626¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† -35.4%
In other words, including the exotics, Australian turnover was down by well over $100,000, compared with what might have been expected if Warragul had stayed on Tuesday. That‚Äôs money lost forever, and without real justification.
Race schedulers might have considered the need to put a five day gap between heats and final (on the following Friday) but, even then, there are two further points to consider; first, five days is a bare minimum between major races, especially if any of the finalists need work done on them and, second, in the normal course of events any extra Warragul meetings are typically scheduled all over the week, not necessarily Friday ‚Äď indeed, almost never Friday. Any number of combinations would have been better than what was chosen. Whatever the idea was, it failed on every count.
Aside from that, promotion of one of the better nights of the year ‚Äď many top sprinters were engaged ‚Äď was almost non-existent, as evidenced by the appalling ratings given the meeting in NSW. Moreover, the night of the heats is usually going to be more attractive financially than the night of the final ‚Äď ie six good races versus one ‚Äď so the heats should have been given at least equal pride of place.
It was no way to run a business.
The GRNSW pleas to the parliamentary inquiry are probably logical enough, considering the state of its finances today (see a summary of proceedings so far by Clarinda Campbell on 27 November). Future viability of many tracks is in doubt, according to CEO Brent Hogan, because of the bleed of cash to the other two racing codes under the terms of the 1998 commission sharing agreement.
It all casts black marks on the earlier administration‚Äôs decision to sign a fixed 99 year agreement on the split. It beggars belief that any commercial operation would make such a commitment, knowing that the future century could see world wars, famine, pestilence, sea level changes and ‚Äď most important of all ‚Äď growth throughout the Australian community. Yet it was done, and even today one person intimately involved in the decision has told me it seemed a good idea at the time.
But are greyhound administrations generally capable of good decision-making anyway? And do they learn?
Since that era, NSW has strongly opposed the arrival of Betfair and NT bookies, notably in a speech by the then-chairman, Professor Percy Allen, who implored participants to avoid the newcomers at all costs. (At least four other states did likewise ‚Äď WA, SA, Queensland and, for a while, Tasmania). That attitude was magically reversed a few years later and all now live happily together. Which is just as well as NSW gets to keep all that commission, unlike the stuff coming in through the TAB. But what an emotional and slapdash way it was to handle a fresh challenge. Allen was a public servant and part-time academic, not a businessman.
NSW has also spent millions over the last decade on developing tracks at Wentworth Park, Newcastle, Gosford, Bathurst, Richmond, Dapto and, more recently, Goulbourn and Maitland. All of that was poorly researched, resulting in old faults re-appearing or new ones created. The entire Dapto track, for example, needed a move of some metres to the north to get it away from track infrastructure, thereby allowing a more sensible start for 520m races (box 1 is now hard up against the line of the running rail), as well as an uninterrupted view for SKY watchers. At the re-built Goulbourn track, flat turns affect the running while inside dogs in 457m races must first turn right then left to avoid going straight into the rail
Earlier this year, GRNSW announced a plan to move the Border Park track at Tweed Heads to Queensland jurisdiction. This revolutionary prospect was accompanied by not a shred of justification but got applause from Racing Queensland, which immediately made a slot available in its TAB calendar. Yet how could it happen? The process would involve huge changes to laws and contractual obligations in both states, to say nothing about the constitutionality of effectively altering state borders. And this came from an administration that has previously cut back the Border Park dates ‚Äď amazingly, at a time when the nearby Gold Coast track had just closed down. Perhaps it hoped that two wrongs would make a right.
But it all begs the question of why GRNSW decided to forge ahead over the last few years by adding more races and upgrading clubs to TAB status in the face of declining fortunes. Any greyhound expansion could only contribute more to the other two codes (as it did during the equine influenza epidemic), and dilute average revenue per race. And why has it failed to cut costs by combining adjacent clubs? That did happen with Orange and Bathurst, but that was largely due to local initiatives rather than those of GRNSW. Other opportunities to repeat the exercise have been ignored. Cowra/Young, Gunnedah/Tamworth and Casino/Lismore are classic opportunities, for example. Financially, the high prize money for premium races, such as the Golden Easter Egg, must also come into play. If the state is in strife, why is the budget not attacked?
Queensland itself has been dithering for years about the replacements options for the flood-prone Albion Park site and the Gold Coast track, which was lost to the neighbouring hospital. Several have been put up but both the industry and two different governments have been unable to settle on a desirable location, never mind where the money is coming from. But it is doing that in an environment where the state is continually running short of dogs and also running at a loss. None of that is new, it‚Äôs been trending that way for years yet remedial action is absent. On top of it all are a series of ongoing arguments and judicial inquiries about the use of funds by Racing Queensland.
Tasmania is also losing money, frequently generating questions in its parliament, none of which seem to address the oddity that local racing is run by what is effectively a government department. It was not doing too well beforehand, but the sale of its tote to TattsBet has sharply reduced turnover and made things worse. That drop would have been an obvious outcome to anyone versed in the habits of punters, so the bleed over to Melbourne and Tabcorp‚Äôs bigger pools should have been readily forecast.
WA is not without its challenges, notably that it cannot fund the second half of its enforced move to a new site to replace Cannington and is waiting for government to bail it out.
SA is managing reasonably, but turnover is rising mostly on the back of added races, not internal growth (a fact that the last annual report failed to identify). However, it has been able to negotiate its way towards better splits of TAB commissions. Even so, it has two strategic risks: it is part of a declining TattsBet portfolio and the state is massively dependent on the supply of racing stock by the Wheeler organisation.
Better deals are also the key in Victoria where, relatively, it is awash with money. Frequent government handouts ‚Äď for track development and breeding incentives, for example ‚Äď and much improved commission splits have paved with way for regular prize money increases, including the almost obscene $350,000 for the Melbourne Cup winner. Even then, one of those handouts ‚Äď an increased subsidy for local breeding activity ‚Äď was not accompanied by any economic justification and is highly unlikely to achieve what the Minister claimed it would do. Suppose breeding were to increase by, say, 10%, would that result in higher employment in the industry? Hands up all the breeders who will be putting on more staff in that event.
Even were the increase justified, the basic theme of providing subsidies for local breeding is a fraud in its own way. There is no evidence that they produce any real benefit to the industry, especially as every state does it. They are no more than handouts to an already profitable sector of the industry. If anything, they might do the opposite if they encourage owners to send bitches to a less than ideal sire.
All told, the common threads amongst all states are a reliance on governments to bail them out when things get tough, a thinning out of both the number and quality of dogs, and a drop in average turnover per race. That includes the flourishing state of Victoria. All this prompts, or coincides with, the obvious outcome of a drop in serious punters numbers and a rise in the proportion of business coming from mug gamblers, both of which pose strategic risks.
But looking at the even wider picture, where is greyhound racing headed and what are we doing about it? Despite the presence of so-called Strategic Plans there are little vision, long term planning, or meaningful objectives, hence administrations are getting into strife they might have avoided. The customary short term outlook of politicians does not help, of course, but it remains a prime responsibility of managements to build and maintain profitable businesses anyway.
The short answers to the problem are that (a) the industry is run by administrators and not managers, (b) the profit motive is absent, and (c) also absent is any system to call management to account. Short of a march down main street to parliament there is no real method of getting the effectiveness of state boards checked out (the current NSW inquiry is unlikely to achieve a lot, mostly because the government is not running it). Racing Ministers take little notice of complaints or refer anything back to the racing board to comment on. Very circular!
Yet the evidence is everywhere that normal commercial decision-making processes are bypassed. At best, the focus is on breaking even during the current year, not on achieving development and a ‚Äúprofitable‚ÄĚ outcome in the long term.
The blame for that position is due squarely, not so much to the individuals, but to the system under which they operate. That system is broken, if it ever were valid. A structure which assigns all responsibility to a committee is always destined to be inefficient and unresponsive, irrespective of how much or how little authority is vested in the CEO. If the CEO is strong it means the board will be weak. If the board is strong, it means the CEO will show less initiative, which is a big problem for a sport/business which is desperately trying to catch up with the outside world (or should be).
Historically, the big cry was ‚Äúget more dog men on the board‚ÄĚ. That has already proved a disaster, although Queensland has not read the message yet. Perhaps what we need in the exact opposite. Objective outsiders might then call for a re-examination of the way we are doing business.
It‚Äôs happened before and it will happen again. The selective nonsense pumped out by the ABC 7:30 program on greyhound practices does nobody any good, including the ABC and its shoddy journalism. Unfortunately, the subject will rear its head once again when the inquiry by the Greens/Shooters alliance in the NSW parliament gets up a head of steam later in the year.
But it‚Äôs not much good protesting now. The milk has been spilt. However, note that virtually none of the mainstream media bothered to pick it up, as they did for the announcement of the equally poorly-based political inquiry nearly two months ago. Clearly, they regarded the program as half-baked and old hat. Even so, the anti-greyhound groups jumped at the chance to push their biased and often inaccurate viewpoints. They don‚Äôt seem to realise that greyhounds actually like to race ‚Äď it‚Äôs in their DNA ‚Äď just as humans like to compete on the golf course or the football field.
Indeed, the RSPCA, supposedly experts in the field, should be pointing that out.
But why did it occur in the first place? It seems some bright spark in the ABC hit upon the idea on a slow news day, perhaps prompted by some personal feelings about the greyhound. It‚Äôs not unusual for the ABC to create its own agenda and then look for the means to support it ‚Äď any means will do.
But that is always going to be a possibility. The real key is that the idea, and the TV presentation, fell on poorly prepared ground. Poorly prepared, that is, by the state racing authorities as well as Greyhounds Australasia, which tend to concentrate on insiders rather than the public.
While the ABC is notorious for its slanted views, it would have had little background information to guide it in this case. What it did get from officials was after the event and largely put to one side because it did not fit its theme. Sadly, public support for the greyhound breed and greyhound racing is minimal, largely because they do not understand what it is all about. Too many industry insiders ‚Äď many of whom were rightly offended by the program ‚Äď fail to realise that this is how the real world works.
The vast majority of publicity about greyhounds always has been nasty ‚Äď dating from the days of live hare coursing and later re-inforced by periodic stories about drugs, injuries and the like. Ironically, the code‚Äôs attack on drug use has been arguably its greatest single advance over the years, and its biggest success, even by comparison with other sports. Yet the general public does not know that.
The good news is that this is fixable. Not by pumping out media releases after the damage has been done but by educating and informing the public beforehand. Not with a quickie effort but with a continuing program to establish and maintain a positive image of the breed, its long history, its unique purity and its athletic prowess.
That is the responsibility of greyhound boards and managements everywhere. It‚Äôs their first responsibility, really. But they are not carrying it out. They are clearly not able to bring to bear the commercial, marketing and PR skills required. Besides that, they operate as individual fiefdoms and the only national body ‚Äď Greyhounds Australasia ‚Äď it noted more for what it does not do than what it does. Too often, greyhound authorities are hired or appointed as administrators, not modern business managers. Bureaucracies are all very fine and necessary things ‚Äď and we need them,too – but they are no good at flogging stuff. They do not move with the times but simply react to them ‚Äď as we have seen again here (which also explains why greyhound organisational structures have not changed over the past 50 years or so).
If that capacity is lacking then the industry must go outside to employ it. What is needed is an ongoing contract with a skilled PR/Marketing organisation to develop and push a national campaign to provide all that missing information, to demonstrate to the public all the positive aspects of the business, and to ensure that media people have easy access to data, ideas, concepts and contacts should they need it.
The code is now paying out around $100 million a year in stake money. To fund the contract it needs to take out 1% of that cash and invest it in the future. That‚Äôs about $15 out of the average prize. That would not only ensure the code is seen in a better light but it would undoubtedly return serious dividends over time as more people see greyhound racing as an attractive recreation ‚Äď whether as owners, trainers or punters, or even as workers. That sort of outcome will never be achieved by accident. It has to be built.
All states must put their shoulder to the wheel. Assign responsibility for the project to somebody with commercial nous and let them get on with it. Authorities need only to set it up, fund it and support it.
Something the ABC Missed
Marvellous to see old stager Burnt Fuse – 4 years 8 months – rack up its 37th¬†win from 97 starts at Ballarat, running a best-of-night 22.27 in doing it. And an equally smart 30.43 at Cranbourne by Rockadore at 4 years 2 months.
There should be more Veterans races in other states. They are all win-win, especially for owners. They would also do no harm to the industry image, given the nonsense being pushed at the moment by the ABC and so-called animal lovers, who come out of the woodwork on these occasions.
With an energetic national program organised, the opportunity would be there to tie it in with Masters series in other sports, just as the Miata-Black Caviar association returned huge dividends. The stories would be endless.
Go for it!
It’s taken the best part of 6 months, but the statutory body that controls greyhound racing in New South Wales has finally formally acknowledged the worst kept secret in the industry – GRNSW has a massive positive swab issue.
Even the Newcastle Herald managed to put the point in print before GRNSW even hinted there was a growing dilemma. This is even more condemning when you consider that GRNSW are habitual “tweeters”, have a borderline addiction to sharing on ; and employ a growing list of journalists/media and marketing types. The channels of communication for them are many and varied.
The silence from those bestowed with the integrity and governance of the industry surrounding the issue has been deafening. Jason Mackay had to publicly “give up” his colleagues to emphasise the fact that he isn’t the only leading trainer waiting on their regulatory body to drag itself up by the bootstraps and deal with the issue.
Even Mackay wasn’t sure of the numbers involved citing “maybe 30 or 40 trainers” waiting for authorities to get their integrity “house in order”. But those numbers, as devastating as they are; could be even larger given there is currently a national epidemic of positive swabs – (an issue we will deal with in another analysis).
A few months ago, when Australian Racing Greyhound ran the numbers across Greyhound Racing in New South Wales, there were over 42 outstanding swabs that had not been reported as clear in New South Wales alone- some of them went right back to late 2012. Some may have been administration or “clerical” errors, but it was safe to say that there was more going on than “the new girl” not knowing how to do her job.
In GRNSW’s defence, the only reason we were able to run that analysis was that GRNSW do report when swab results “clear”. Somewhat obliquely though, they fail to report a swab anomaly. It is left to the user to “assume” an unreported clear swab has an irregularity. Surely commonsense and good governance dictates that it would cause less innuendo and “betting ring gossip” to be upfront and report the issue? But this is the modern reality of greyhounds racing’s version of “transparency”.
As dark as this would appear to be for those in New South Wales, GRNSW are light years ahead of Greyhound Racing Victoria (GRV).
It should come as no surprise that the regulatory body that runs greyhound racing in Victoria don’t even report the swabs they take in a format anyone could digest. The same group who were the subject of an Racing Integrity Ombudsman inquiry in to their lack of governance and gambling employees, will only make mention of a swab being taken in a stewards report of a race meeting. Nothing is ever mentioned of the swab again. Its value as information for the public just evaporates in to the ether.
Unless the swab is positive, and then the job of joining the dots falls at the feet of the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board (RADB). The RADB will report a positive swab inquiry outcome, although often months after the initial incident. Apparently nothing noteworthy occurs in the intervening period between a swab being taken, and inquiry report being finalised.
It wasn’t that long ago that GRV did not even report its integrity issues online. Believe it or not, GRV sought to hide integrity issues from wider public scrutiny until 2010. It’s only the last few years that these results can be found online. GRNSW through its predecessor, GHRRA; had been publishing these results online since the early 2000′s. A fact that is hard to reconcile when the GRV once trumpeted itself as the leading greyhound body in Australia with regard to Information Technology (IT).
Disappointingly, Racing Queensland and Racing Tasmania both follow the Victorian trend of only reporting swab issues after the outcome of the inquiry.
Greyhound Racing South Australia (GRSA) and Racing And Wagering West Australia (RWWA) who are often maligned in industry circles, actually lead the industry in integrity and transparency with regard to stewards inquiries and positive swabs. They both publish and release notifications when swab irregularities arise, and then keep the interested public informed as the process evolves.
If you’re waiting for the same from GRNSW – they sometimes report a swab anomaly, sometimes they don’t. The mere fact some are reported and others not only serves to further industry speculation and fuels a perception of “rules for some”. When GRNSW do choose to report swab irregularities, it is usually only days before the inquiry is set to take place; a date which is often months after the fact.
And what of Victoria? Well you might as well be living in a world before the pre-industrial age. It’s as if an information vacuum the equivalent of Steven King’s dome has descended over the greyhound racing headquarters. There will be no information forthcoming at all until after the RADB hearing is held; and then it can take weeks to months for that information to be relayed to the public. Presumably the pigeon struggles under the weight of the message it is delivering.
Given the constant spiel from the million dollar marketing machines of our regulatory bodies, morphing modest achievements and occasional complete fails into stunningly digestible and palatable media “bites”, there will always be a need for commentary and analysis uninfluenced by the spell of our statutory bodies.
From time to time Australian Racing Greyhound and its writers have themselves been maligned for not providing a “sugar & candy” analysis and coverage of Australian Greyhound Racing. The bare facts, the potential pitfalls, and the reality of some unsavoury incidents and issues has the capacity to become too much to bear for some.
While our regulatory bodies seek to hide from the transparency the industry deserves; and while they continue to put marketing concerns ahead of integrity issues; there will always be a need for an independent coverage of greyhound racing.
“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth” – Albert Einstein.
In 2012 the Victorian Ombudsman produced a report in relation to the integrity of Greyhound Racing Victoria. The report, titled Victorian Ombudsman ‚Äď Own Motion Investigation into Greyhound Racing Victoria June 2012 ‚Äď is available in full on-line and makes for interesting reading. Unfortunately most participants probably have never heard of the report. Most won‚Äôt have read it. Everybody needs to : Ombudsman’s Integrity Report.
The report highlighted the actions of those entrusted to run our great sport ‚Äď their unprofessionalism and their actions that boarded on corruption.
The 7 main points are highlighted below ‚Äď the report identified:
1. GRV staff were betting on greyhound races during work hours including those in integrity-related positions.
- One employee, a senior manager was found to have placed 4,409 bets over a three year period totalling $508,705 dollars during WORK TIME. Remarkably, when identified by the ombudsman, this employee‚Äôs contract was not torn up nor were they marched out of the building in disgrace. They were issued with a first and final warning and in the months that followed they were given a $10,000 bonus and a pay rise. Eventually this employee left the GRV in March 2012.
- Then CEO John Stephens admitted to betting on greyhound races during work time
- 11 GRV staff were found to have been involved in betting during work hours including stewards: of these 11 people – 3 stewards were terminated, 1 received a first and final warning, 1 form analyst resigned, 1 form analyst was given a first and final warning, 2 graders were terminated, 2 senior managers given first and final warnings, and 1 data operator given a first and final warning.
2. GRV staff owned greyhounds ‚Äď this presents integrity issues
- How can GRV staff assure participants that they are acting in a professional manner and with integrity to everyone? They have their own interests to consider.
- GRV would continually award contracts without the correct procedures being followed ‚Äď staff including then CEO would use the same contractors for personal developments. This presents further integrity issues ‚Äď we need to ensure that tenders are being awarded fairly ‚Äď and in align with what the industry expects.
- The ombudsman‚Äôs report highlighted that GRV staff failed to correctly record gifts and benefits. Whilst receiving gifts and benefits is not necessarily illegal ‚Äď what is received needs to be recorded and be transparent ‚Äď which is wasn‚Äôt. This leads to allegations of corruption and other concerns regarding integrity.
- GRV would use corporate credit cards and funds to pay for a number of non-core business related expenses such as alcohol. Public servants have faced criminal prosecution for this type of activity.
- Staff found in breach of GRV policy by betting on greyhound races during work time were given a ‚Äėgolden handshake.‚Äô GRV informed the industry that their positions where terminated. This again raises integrity issues.
- Staff employment conditions stipulated the use of work email and internet based programs. Staff were able to access betting sites during their shifts to place bets on races including greyhound racing. Emails sent to one another also contained content of a pornographic and explicit nature ‚Äď again in breach of policy.
3. The Tender Processes and Practices of GRV
4. GRV lack of gift and hospitality declarations
5. Hospitality Expenditure
6. Staff were given termination payments
7. Staff use of email system
The ombudsman report identified a number of issues involving greyhound racing in Victoria ‚Äď some of which are still on-going and have not been adequately addressed. The report has identified a number of issues that affect all state authorities. Changes have occurred in Victoria and they needed to. We need to ensure that this keeps occurring ‚Äď both here and throughout Australia. Everybody needs to read the ombudsman‚Äôs report ‚Äď changes needs to occur and integrity needs to be maintained.
The Australian Greyhound industry and the punting public need to have complete trust in those entrusted with the role of overseeing it. State authorities need to show that they are doing all they can to ensure integrity and transparency. Continuing on from our swabbing story last week ‚Äď let‚Äôs take a further look at some other issues. There are countless others and everyone needs to raise their concerns.
GRV staff identified by the ombudsman are still employed by GRV. One questions how this can ensure integrity if some of these persons are still in charge of overseeing the greyhound racing industry? If they have been found responsible of breaching GRV policies, then they were responsible for unethical behaviour. How can they still be employed in these positions?
One concern is the seeding of greyhounds into races. In blatant terms one could consider this a true example of race fixing. By seeding greyhounds, stewards are attempting to shape the fields and influence the outcome of a race. Of course in greyhound racing, things happen during a race, so why do we need greyhounds to be seeded? This is a quick fix that would improve transparency and integrity. No more greyhounds seeded into races, concerns addressed. Allegations that race fixing occurs disappears.
Box draws are a unique issues. It is all well and good to say that they are conducted by a computer. However computers can be programed to produce particular results under given circumstances. The fairest way to draw a race, and box draws is by the banjo system ‚Äď which should be recorded or displayed online to ensure transparency and fairness to all.
The ombudsman report touched on the surface of an organisation failing to be managed in a manner that was expected of it by the industry that supported it. It was an unethical organisation.
Furthermore ‚Äď the ombudsman report touched on the surface where the industry needs to dig deeper. The investigation needed to delve into the phone records of GRV staff and stewards identified in the investigation. Confidence and transparency needs to be built. When people entrusted with the administration of this industry are placing substantial bets of races it begs the question, ‚ÄėTo what extent are these people prepared to go to ensure they reap a benefit (reward) from their investment?‚Äô Let‚Äôs remember, it was these same people who were responsible for grading dogs into the races, seeding dogs into field and the box draw. They were also responsible for deciding which dogs were subjected to the swabbing process during a meeting.
By comparing betting records with telephone checks, investigators may be able to identify a particular pattern of bets between GRV staff and trainers. Was there any communication that would help identify a particular pattern? Can we conduct this inquiry to negate the risk that any trainers were involved?
Investigations need to be made to ensure that these issues didn‚Äôt occur and indeed are not currently occurring. A formal inquiry should be conducted by experience investigators with sufficient experience and knowledge within the racing industry to ensure that these issues and more are completely investigated. This may require commission of inquiry powers to ensure such an investigation is successful. The persons identified in this report oversee the integrity of the industry, they are judge jury and executioner.
Similarly the process of determining which dogs are swabbed at a meeting needs to be overhauled. If officials have placed substantial bets on a particular dog and the trainer is made aware that the dog will not be subject of a swab, than the officials bet had a greater likelihood of success. The ombudsman‚Äôs investigation did not delve deeply enough into the activities of those persons involved. Similarly, where were the offenders managers in this process, what role did they play and why did their supervision not detect this activity?
How do we stop this? While not saying that it does occur, let‚Äôs prove that it doesn‚Äôt. Dogs that are to be swabbed on race night should be drawn randomly and in the public spectrum for all to see. All race winners should be swabbed. All swab results need to be published.
These are just five issues of many that need to be urgently addressed. The industry needs leadership and governance by corporate business professionals. Integrity needs to be built and participants need confidence that those in charge are doing everything they can to level the playing field. Victoria in particular would benefit from a Commission of Inquiry, and those that do the wrong thing are in turn held suitably accountable for their actions. These small few can‚Äôt be allowed to damage the industry for all involved. Queensland has begun its Commission of Inquiry and industry participants are eagerly anticipating the findings.
The ombudsman‚Äôs report touched on the surface concerns about GRV ‚Äď but the findings relate to each state authority. We raised some issues ‚Äď a few of many – and you are encouraged to raise your issues and concerns. Again, there is no proof that this has happened ‚Äď but let‚Äôs eliminate any suggestion that it has, or it is currently occurring.