A Way To Bigger Profits

Many years ago, so old-timers would relate, a five pound note pressed into the hand of a local club official would assure you of a good box for that afternoon’s race. Since the common practice then was to gradually build up a dog’s capability in the hope of making a killing in the ring on a given day, that was pretty important. TABs did not exist and your wages had to come out of the bookmaker’s bag.

At the time, the box draw did not take place until kennelling time, sometimes with a steward around, sometimes not.

With better supervision, things improved a lot as the years rolled on. The draw would be made much earlier, usually after the club secretary (as they were called then) sorted through the nominations and made up the fields.

In fact, there was, and is, a good argument that those secretaries could put together more attractive programs, with full fields, and so keep the hundreds or even thousands of patrons happy, nearly all of them from the local area. The dogs were more localised, too, which meant the secretary could always round up a few extras when needed because he was always in touch with trainers. And he knew the dogs.

For 95% of the time that worked pretty well. Unfortunately, the occasional shenanigan gave the system a bad name and eventually “central grading” became the norm. State authorities took over, which meant that producing a quality program took second place to doing the job “fairly” – ie by the numbers. Local initiatives were lost at the same time as the nearby customers were replaced by unknown gamblers from far and wide, doubly so after SKY pictures arrived.

Yet, like laws in every walk of life, those grading systems just grew and grew. Nothing was deleted but new concepts kept being added. “It would be a good idea if … (we did such and such)”. And, since they were all just “ideas” each state had its own preferences and so the current complex and convoluted systems evolved. A tiny handful of national guidelines are overwhelmed by hundreds of pages of grading rules in various state bibles. Now, reading them makes your head hurt.

Often the reasons for the additions are lost in antiquity – a classic example being the use of “Non Penalty” races in Victoria. Why are they there? What purpose do they serve? Is the grading system no good? What are the costs and benefits? No-one knows, it seems, but there are lots of them and they are increasing in number.

Elsewhere, NSW has belatedly introduced a new range of “Masters” events to cater for aging greyhounds. Yet to do that it did not seek common ground with the longstanding Veterans system in Victoria but selected different age brackets and added three Masters Grades, rather than one. More complexity. Not even the same title.

All this came to mind while reading the latest (8 Aug 2014) summary of Grading Guidelines on the Victorian website. Point scores, race times, interstate conversions and lots more get a run when trying to work out where your dog can compete. Words like “algorithms” pop up, suggesting that a lone grader would have no hope of putting a race together. Indeed, only a carefully programmed computer could do the job, and then it needs constant checking and revision as well as periodic audits by an outside consultant to check that all is above board.

This is not to say that there are not some good points about all these changes. But the question that must be asked is “do we need it all?” Nationwide, capital outlays and ongoing costs of labour, equipment and computer programs must be in the millions of dollars now, simply to get eight dogs and two reserves onto the program. That is cash that cannot be allocated to more deserving causes, whether prize money or better tracks or whatever.

There is no evidence that the “product” is better as a result of the long line of changes. Arguably, the average field is less attractive to the customer, probably because the system is less attuned to their needs than to the owner/trainer’s. There are more empty boxes, more slow dogs, more short course squibs, declining numbers of stayers and more mug gamblers to supply the prize money.

Those outcomes are not due just to grading issues but it is a major contributor. The industry has lost sight of its objectives, or maybe it had the wrong ones in the first place. Excellence is present in a few aspects of greyhound racing but not in the way it puts races together. We can do better. How about going back to scratch and rebuilding the system to cater for today’s customers? Nationally, of course. And simpler.

All this is one of those areas where participants keep finding reason to question what their authorities do and why they spend scarce funds on efforts that may or may not produce dividends. The management efficiency of those authorities is never audited. The figures may add up but not the success rate of what they do.

Let me repeat myself. The squillions of dollars that have gone into Ozchase – the be-all and end-all data handling system devised by NSW and WA – may (or may not) have produced lower unit costs for some parts of the work done by state authorities. But it has also resulted in the worst and most unfriendly set of race form and results services seen in the last 50 years. A 1950s formguide from deFax gave you much more readable information more easily. What is the nett benefit, if any?

Consider 2,100 Years Of Experience

It’s noteworthy, and very topical, that today’s headlines are dominated by the world’s two biggest religions, Christianity and Islam, which both got their start from words that came down from on high – with the help of Moses and the angel Gabriel respectively. Hence the preparation and wide publication of the Bible and the Koran.

The trouble is that no-one is sure exactly what they mean to say. Different interpretations are argued, different branches have developed, and battles are ruinous and ongoing. Over time, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation and the Jihads have confused the public mightily, and done considerable damage to millions of people. More recently, even Sir Humphrey Appleby, talking about the appointment of a bishop, advised Jim Hacker that a solid belief in God was an optional extra. Such is the world we live in.

But is greyhound racing any different?

The word arrived from state governments about 60 years ago that this was the way to run things. Privateers were cast out of the temple and honest amateurs picked to control operations. And it has been so ever since, virtually according to the same book.

Over the past couple of years, the word came down from administrators in NSW, with some help from WA, that Ozchase would provide all things good and wonderful. In reality, that meant that it would be cheaper for everyone to keep their books, and so you should join in.

Of course, the principles are marvellous – greater efficiency, easy references, more consistency, fewer errors in transmission and less need to go to the money lenders. Consequently, bean counters in Tasmania, SA, the ACT and Queensland have joined with NSW and WA in applauding the idea.

Ozchase is now working everywhere except in Victoria, where the local heathens decided they liked what they already had and said no thanks.

The problem now is that while bottom lines may be improved, Ozchase threw the baby out with the bathwater. With the cheaper costs came a disregard for the people who supply the means to fix those bottom lines – the customers. For real racing information – mainly form and race results – Ozchase stinks. Information is restricted and/or laborious to access and is never supplied in data-friendly formats. It deliberately makes life harder for punters, apparently because Ozchase (which means GRNSW) wants to keep secret as much as possible.

This is a major, although not the only, factor which has caused those same customers to either disappear or be downgraded to mug believers. Accept the word or be excommunicated is today’s mantra. Do not query the good book lest you be censored out of existence. All of which makes progress and innovation hard to bring about.

It is also a reason why the infidels in Victoria will continue to thrive (relatively) as they have been doing for the last decade or more. It is extraordinary that the old-timer thinkers in NSW and elsewhere cannot see what they have done and where they are heading – the downturns are everywhere to be seen.

For a few pieces of silver (temporary only) they are risking the industry’s future by throwing the customers to the lions.

In any case, according to census figures, the biggest growth in the West today is not in believer numbers but in the number of atheists.

QUEENSLAND – HELP FROM ABOVE

Christmas will arrive early this year for Queensland greyhounds. Following the new agreement with Tattsbet standard prize money at Albion Park’s main meeting on Thursdays will rise by 54% to $7,500. This now compares favourably with Wentworth Park in Sydney ($6,750) and Melbourne ($7,180). Prize money at other venues will also be increasing nicely.

So far, so good.

What we don’t know yet is how Queensland has set up its budget and what other improvements it has in mind. There are pressing needs.

1. The government has provided capital to create the new Logan complex to the south of Brisbane but
not up-to-date detail about the design of the track. For example, previous drafts showed it included a bend start for middle distance races. (Despite no official announcement, rumours abound that work has already started. Why the secret?)
2. The fate of Albion Park and Ipswich operations is unknown. Both those tracks are sub-standard for purely technical reasons which need attention. Bend starts and poor turns badly need fixing.
3. Never mind the new agreement; will TattsBet – which is currently unable to maintain its tote turnover – continue to provide the cash from year to year?
4. How will Racing Queensland encourage more local patronage in future years when better alternatives are available in other states with bigger betting pools, all easily accessed via a phone or the internet? So far the new administration has done nothing to promote fresh business.
5. The increased prize money will certainly help but will it be enough to attract more and better quality dogs? Possibly, but it might need serious promotion.

In short, it’s not just the cash but the package to be offered to customers that will be the key to prosperity. That package has to include better fields, better tracks and better betting options. Leave out any one of those and progress will be limited.

By the way, all this information is being put out by the chairman of Racing Queensland, Kevin Dixon. Not a word has been heard from the greyhound board – on this or any other subject. Such is the pecking order.

GREYHOUNDS AUSTRALASIA, PLEASE NOTE

Never short of a word, former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, at a function in Melbourne, called for a revamp of the Australian Racing Board, which he described as “useless”. He says it is “imperative that the national racing board comprises people who are independent of racing”.

“I would like to see people who are genuinely independent and not have a background in racing,” he said.
“You need a small, independent board that can bring best practices together to understand that this industry is just not about racing, but it is about setting standard. It’s about ensuring people are fairly treated.”

Nor was he complimentary about online bookmakers, titling them as “a cancer” on the industry.

“And, Kennett admitted that if he could have foreseen what he says is the damage corporate bookmakers are causing then he would not have privatised the Victorian TAB more than 20 years ago. Kennett said if corporate bookmakers were allowed to exercise their will as they currently do, the racing industry would not exist in five years.”

A bit extreme, perhaps, but understandable. However, Kennett might have pondered more about the way in which online bookmakers are allowed to operate, rather than their very existence. After all, the betting sector was nearly moribund before their injection into the system. And their formation was prompted only by the negative way in which the ARB and the major clubs treated traditional bookmakers, and for no other reason.

The Sacrifices Of The Greyhound Opposition

I have little doubt the majority of those virulently opposed to greyhound racing are genuine in that opposition. After all, it must be extremely difficult to never eat any kind of meat, or seafood, or partake of any form of dairy product, or indulge in any alcohol. Ever.

Given the eating and drinking restrictions, I can’t really say much against them. I imagine the opponents of greyhound racing are a rather healthy crew, and that’s a good thing, both for themselves and the country as a whole. These are people who are far less likely to be a burden on the health-care system, having embraced such a healthy lifestyle.

Of course, it almost goes without saying, that gambling in any form is abhorred and avoided. Never a chance that any amount of money should ever be spent on backing a greyhound, a horse, a football match, or invested in a lottery ticket, Lotto, or even a Scratchie. After all, once you’ve taken up the moral cudgels, you’ve got to be certain of being absolutely committed to the cause. Any hint of hypocrisy must be avoided at all costs.

It must be tough making sure that they, and their families, only associate with persons who share the same values. Then again, a restricted circle of friends is not necessarily a bad thing either. Of course, it’s impossible in the workplace to avoid those who don’t share your set of values, but employment may well offer the opportunity to proselytize.

While I am being somewhat facetious, I find it amazing there are people who really believe some of the absolute rubbish written about greyhound racing and its adherents.

Yes, it is not a perfect sport/industry. Name me one that is. In fact, can anyone name anything that is truly perfect? The reality is the absolute majority of people within the greyhound racing industry have a deep care and love for the breed. Indeed, if opponents actually took the time to read many of the stories written in the racing literature about the lesser lights, you would see a constant theme running through them. They are not in the greyhound game for the money. Sure, if they managed to breed or race a champion, that would be the icing on the cake. The majority know the chances of that happening are pretty limited. So, they enjoy the racing. They enjoy the camaraderie of the track. They enjoy the lifelong friendships that often result, especially in the country towns and smaller cities. Most of all, they enjoy and care for their animals.

Greyhounds do get injured. Some are even killed on a racetrack. No one with any sense of feeling can fail to be saddened when such an event occurs. The fact is the world is never going to be Utopia. Even Thomas More, the author of that tome, was executed for being dogmatic (if you’ll pardon the unintentional pun) instead of pragmatic.

I quite understand the good intentions of those opposed to a sport I have loved since I was a teenager. Yet, rather than simply be determined to wipe it out, would it not be better to engage in sensible, reasoned dialogue? By any reasonable measure the administration of the sport has improved in leaps and bounds when it comes to the welfare of the breed.

Imagine talking with greyhound people in a calm and sensible fashion. You might find that not all of those involved in the sport are the many-headed Hydra in disguise. Who knows, you might find yourself making new friends.

Wars are fought because people on both sides of an argument refuse to compromise; they refuse to make any effort to ‘see’ the other side. Reasoned dialogue, without resorting to hyperbole, or abuse, can lead to outcomes which benefit both sides of an argument.

Report Delayed Again And Trainers Unhappy

The troops are grumbling in both NSW and Queensland. Following a private meeting of several NSW club and industry advisory groups a week ago, it seems a presentation to the Racing Minister is being drafted in the hope of achieving improvements in the way GRNSW is running things.

Fine details are not available but apparently a major beef is that costs are up and prize money has not kept pace. That’s hardly news and the subject was well explored in the parliamentary Inquiry earlier in the year. Since the Inquiry’s basic report has been out for some time and is being considered by the Minister you have to wonder about the purpose of the fresh push. In any event, this is one subject that GRNSW has frequently mentioned in its own publications, although it has been very short on suitable solutions.

Whatever the merits of the case, to try to influence the Minister at this stage is pointless. He will simply advise people to wait until the final report is available and he has had a chance to review it.

What is a pity is that the final report – to follow on from an internal financial investigation by the NSW Treasury – is delayed again until mid-October, three months after it was promised.

We have no idea what that will say but I am always doubtful about the competence of the Treasury to come up with useful recommendations in respect to business matters. Their history includes a forced increase in taxes on Win bets, which then caused truckloads of turnover to disappear down the Hume Highway to Melbourne. It was scrapped a few weeks later.

We should also note that Professor Percy Allen, who had a lengthy stint as chairman of GRNSW, himself came from a career as the big cheese in that same Treasury. Yet he was one of the leading objectors to the arrival and legalisation of Betfair and the online bookies from the Northern Territory. At one stage he made an impassioned speech to greyhound followers at the Social Club, calling on them to boycott the newcomers. Bean counting and obsolete traditions outweighed good business sense, and he was far from alone.

To add salt to the wound, the various state Ministers convened a high level group of racing department officials (the Betting Exchange Task Force) to consider submissions and report on the worth of betting exchanges. It seems they came with riding instructions because the group (NT excepted) concluded they would be a fate worth than death and should be banned.

Submissions to that study embraced each state’s own racing department as well as TABs and major racing authorities, all of whom were either emotionally opposed to the newcomers (viz Percy Allen) or had vested interests (viz the TABs).

They did not bother to check the facts and investigate the betting exchange history in the UK, where both The Jockey Club (which controls UK gallops) and various police bodies had found that Betfair was not only useful but had been able to uncover systematic race fixing scandals which had previously gone unnoticed. Rather than constituting a risk, Betfair had proved to be a boon to racing.

The same ignorance was evident in Queensland, where the GRA was then chaired by a prominent local accountant. All these organisations ignored the fact that thousands of customers were deserting the monopoly TABs at the time, never mind whether the newcomers were “legal” or not.

Not to forget the misguided action by the WA Minister to outlaw Betfair’s operation in that state, only to be shot down in flames when the High Court over-ruled his decision.

Or the action of the Tasmanian government to sell off its tote to the smaller and less competitive Tatts organisation, thereby ensuring that much local business would switch (or continue) to the larger Tabcorp system based in Melbourne.

No organised revolution is present in Queensland today but there is a constant barrage of criticism from participants and commentators about the way Racing Queensland operates and how it is structured – “jobs for the boys” is a typical complaint and two members of the initial RQ board have now resigned, apparently in disgust. Greyhound racing in the state is in relentless decline, and has been for the last 20 years, but remedial action is absent.

The fact that some of these incompetent business decisions have now been reversed serves only to underscore the inability of the industry, including those in government, to act appropriately and in the best interests of the various codes and their participants.

In such a climate, what can we expect the two state governments to do? Queensland is clearly hopeless as the motives behind its new governance set-up are peculiar, to say the least, and the individual code boards are effectively powerless where it counts most. In NSW the new Racing Minister is an unknown but nothing has happened since the new government took over, save a recent decision to donate a few million to the gallops to help with their staging of the “Championships” next year. In any event, historically Racing Ministers are low on the political totem pole and may not get to see their preferences satisfied (Victoria is an exception, at least until the next election).

Going back to the NSW Treasury, all we can hope for is a recommendation to reduce government racing taxes on greyhounds, bringing them more into line with those applying in Victoria, for example. The Inquiry will then take a while to consider its position. What the politicians do after that is in the lap of the gods. Whatever, it is hard to see much benefit coming from an attack on the Minister right now. Later, perhaps.

All of which bypasses the real problem with racing organisations – their bureaucratic and unresponsive nature and their lack of business acumen. As one of the current NSW campaigners correctly pointed out – there is no real accountability for the job they do.

FEWER WORDS, MORE FACTS, PLEASE

The great Richie Benaud advised newcomers to the commentary game that “if you can’t add something to the picture then say nothing”. At the same time a group of us used to have bets on how many mistakes Tony Greig would make in each turn with the microphone – two to four was the usual range. Sometimes I think Victorian stewards should have been picking up these clues, too.

After race 11 at The Meadows last Saturday they advised, “My Kinda Music (4) crossed to the rail approaching the first turn checking Velocemente and Sapporo. Velocemente and Dyna Fulcrum collided on the first turn causing Dyna Fulcrum to race wide”.

The first bit was only half right. It did chop off Sapporo (2) but Velocemente (1), a moderate beginner, was well behind and not involved. Then Velocemente ran off on the first turn – of its own volition – something which was unusual since it is a railer. That warranted a comment but it did not get one. Far better to have said nothing so viewers would not be misled. Alternatively, they could point out to those in charge that the turn is too sharp and needs remodelling – perhaps at the same time as they re-position the wham-bang-thank-you-ma’am start for 600m races.

Tabcorp Hedging Its Bets

Following falls in normal TAB business in 2013/14 Tabcorp is looking to increase the proportion of betting done via smartphones and the like, particularly in respect to in-play bets which are currently available only through phone or personal contact. Overall, digital betting rose 18.2% to $2.9 billion during the year.

CEO David Attenborough wants to see punters wandering around ClubTabs and PubTabs furiously thumbing their I-Pads and the like as the field heads up the back straight. TAB licensees would be pleased as the extra business (assuming they get the credit) would help with the economics of running their facilities, and also make their venues more valuable in the long term.

Last year retail betting volumes fell 4.9% in Victoria and 1.2% in NSW, which would have been offset by the increasing Fixed Odds business where the company saw a 37% rise in revenue (the turnover figure was not stated).

The benefits of in-play betting for greyhound races are dubious due to the short time frames involved. In fact, how Tabcorp’s price assessors might operate is also a mystery given the huge advantages accruing to leaders. It would be practical only for longer galloping and harness races.

It would be far more helpful to see TABs set up decent “bookmaking” facilities under their Fixed Odds banner, where punitive books of 130% or so are now the norm. More so as genuine bookmaking is almost a lost art in greyhound racing, certainly at most TAB tracks.

A breakdown of Tabcorp’s racing turnover shows NSW with $3,819 million and Victoria with $2,762 million. Its Luxbet “bookmaking” subsidiary in the Northern Territory showed almost no increase.

However, the declining importance of tote betting places even more pressure on the need to create a national betting pool, particularly for greyhound racing which suffers from too many tiny and unworkable local pools. Both state Treasurers (in taxes) and racing authorities (in commissions) have much to gain due to their higher takes from traditional betting forms.

Added to that is the relatively poor performance of the betting exchange Betfair, which is struggling to maintain a level. So much so that James Packer’s interests have now bought out the British parent’s half of the action. His future strategies are unknown but he has shown a long term preference for gaming rather than wagering, unlike his late father.

This is a pity as the concept of a betting exchange provides a significant alternative to traditional means of betting. That’s worth its weight in gold at a time when genuine bookmakers are becoming thin on the ground.

A CHANGING MEDIA LANDSCAPE

If you get one bad apple, how can you be sure there are not more in the bag?

Readers may be amazed to learn that reporter Natalie O’Brien from Fairfax has just won a media award for environmental investigations (not related to racing this time). O’Brien was responsible for a series of heavily biased reports on greyhound racing around the time of the establishment of the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry. Some of those reports extensively quoted dissenting comments by Inquiry deputy chairman Dr John Kaye MLC (Greens) who has himself been side-lined by his fellow members for his lopsided views.

Both these people have clearly indicated they just don’t like greyhound racing. No special reason, they just don’t like it. Well, that’s their right.

O’Brien’s articles occurred around the time of the strongly slanted and poorly researched ABC TV program about greyhound “abuses” on the 7:30 Report. And, while O’Brien’s articles purported to be “reporting”, in practice their limited views should have placed them under an “Opinion” heading. Clearly the paper’s management is not very observant. Or perhaps they just don’t understand racing.

All have since been discredited by the Inquiry, which reported favourably on the care and dedication of greyhound participants. However, it was critical of the code’s administration. A final report on the financial outlook for greyhound racing is due very soon.

In my view, the lack of balanced reporting in the (now) left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC means consumers should take anything they say with a grain of salt. I don’t trust either, and nor do many learned observers far more competent than me. For the moment, I am continuing with my SMH subscription only to keep track of what is going on and because I like to get their crosswords and football commentary.

Meantime, although it is a year since this kerfuffle emerged, no action has been seen from racing authorities to better inform the general public about the industry or the greyhound breed. Our leaders seem to think that if they keep punching out media releases which are read only by industry insiders that all will be well. That will not happen. The public will never come to us – we have to go to them.

Let’s take the words out of Hilary Clinton’s mouth. In an interview on America’s future, reported by the Wall Street Journal and The Australian she advised, “We should take pride in ourselves and make our case to the world. We don’t even tell our story very well.” Exactly.

As for awards, many of these appear to be insiders applauding other insiders. All very nice but hardly objective.

DESIGN TO ELIMINATE CROWDING

At Sandown in race 10 yesterday stewards thought fit to mention that “Sky Fighter crossed to the rail soon after the start checking Yakamov Bale, Kerrigan Bale, Eliza Blanche, Sisco Good, Zipping Snoopy, Dr. Don”.

Well, technically, there is a grain of truth in that, but not much more. Sky Fighter is not a crasher and did not crash on this occasion. It simply moved gradually across to the rail, leading by the time it got to the judge.

What really generated all the interference, and there was plenty, was Kerrigan Bale (1) moving out immediately after the jump, thereby inconveniencing favourite Eliza Blanche (2) and generally squeezing up the field. Therefore it appeared that Sky Fighter did more damage than it was really responsible for.

The point about this is not just to pin-prick the stewards’ words (although they could have done better) but to emphasise how important it is to devise ways of designing tracks so that dogs are encouraged to stay further apart. That may not change anything either of these two dogs did but it may help the rest of them.

As a further illustration, in two other races the inside squeezing led to two very good gallopers but moderate beginners from box 8 being able to whizz around the field on the first turn to record really smart times (Allen Deed, R8 and Shot To Bits, R12). Both deserved to win but other runners were denied a similar chance. The fix? Not entirely sure but Hobart may offer a few clues.

Eyes Bigger Than The Stomach?

When it comes to productivity and profits, more may not be better. Consider how racing programs are put together.

Half way through this calendar year it seems the number of dogs actually racing in Australia is still creeping upwards. Between 2010 and 2013 that figure was actually rising by an average of about 1% a year. The first two quarters of 2014 continued that trend. The average annual figure is now 13,900.

We obtain that figure by identifying every dog starting in a race, and then deleting duplicate names.

What we don’t know is where they are coming from. The latest breeding data from Greyhounds Australasia are for 2011. However, we know that there was a small decline over the previous 10 years while snippets from some state reports indicate breeding activity is still flat at best.

Since there are more races being run, it follows that the extra dogs are from the bottom of the barrel, probably encouraged by the addition of low class races to the program (T3, Class C, etc).

The next step is that some of those slow dogs tend to filter through to normal provincial meetings, thereby lowering standards there and making predictions more difficult.

The positive aspect is that a higher percentage of dogs are enjoying a useful racing life. Even so, the actual numbers involved would be tiny – probably a miniscule percentage of the 15,000 or so whelped annually.

Move along to another aspect of this subject – one that was highlighted recently when the gallops in Victoria decided to add a ninth race to the standard 8-race Saturday city meeting, but offered only 50% of normal prize money. Nominations may not be a problem but quality will be.

This copies steps the greyhound code took many years ago to turn traditional 10-race meetings into 12-race meetings, mainly because the TAB system could cope with the higher number and clubs wanted some extra cash. It’s still working in Victoria and WA and to a lesser extent in SA. But elsewhere they are flat out getting numbers for 10-race meetings. Even in Victoria, one in five races starts with an empty box, while in WA it is noteworthy that one race on the customary Cannington program has been turned in to a country standard 297m event – also due to a shortage of nominations. And Mandurah programs are splattered with 302m events, which are jumping contests rather than true races. In fact, in every state shorter races are making up a bigger proportion of the total. That suits lower quality dogs but generally punters prefer longer races.

The question that arises is whether the gallops or the greyhounds are doing better under the expanded regime.

Short fields are a negative to start off with as they discourage exotic bets. But equally as critical is whether programmers are robbing Peter to pay Paul. The constant overlap in starting times, exacerbated by delayed harness races as well as clashes between SKY1 and SKY2, results in gamblers jumping from one to the other and back again. Even if they wanted to, customers are physically unable to bet on both and will certainly not be able to sort out the prices in time.

There is every indication that the industry supply has already exceeded the demand from customers. Hence the terrible pools for some provincial events – $4,000 or so in a Win pool is certainly unworkable and would turn off serious punters. Remember also that not only are the three racing codes competing with one another but on several days each week with football matches in their four codes, all of which attract gamblers.

Racing authorities may claim they are getting higher overall incomes from all the extra races but that is an assertion, not a proven fact. For example, I watched a delayed dog race the other day increase its Win pool from $10,000 to $15,000 purely because it was sitting up there on the screen for a few minutes longer. People had a few dollars in their pocket and intended to invest in something, no matter what. And what they put on the dog race could not go on another race.

There will be an ideal middle ground somewhere but all the evidence suggests that we have gone past it into an area of diminishing returns. Meantime, the whole process has reduced the quality of the average race and turned off many serious punters. What is the cost of that, and was it worth it?

And will the Melbourne gallops come up against the same barrier?

Only a serious independent study would have any hope of uncovering the real truth and establishing whether the costs exceed the benefits. Meantime, media releases will contain the usual waffle.

SOME VETERINARY ECONOMICS

This information should be seen in the light of the recent Commonwealth change of policy to deregulate university fees. It comes from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling and AVA, reported by Fairfax Media.

Direct cost of six-year veterinary degree – $57,568 (under current conditions)
Starting salary for graduates – $47,300 (assumed to rise at 3% pa)
Expected HECs debt – $101,470 (with interest at long term bond rate of 5.21%)
Payback period – 22 years.

If universities were to increase course fees by 20% under new conditions, then …

Total debt – $250,330
Repayment period – 31 years.

80% of veterinary graduates are now women.

Note that any fee increases are now in the control of the universities, not the government. Effectively, repayments would rise if the student ends up staying out of the workforce for any reason including – for women in particular – starting a family. Nevertheless, a statement attributed to AVA president Julia Nicholls that “fee deregulation would have a disastrous impact” is quite misleading. It’s the cry of an organisation that wants more taxpayer support at a time when the nation cannot afford it. Anyway, it may not be justified.

It is not the concept of deregulation that is the key, but what universities do under that deregulated regime.
Fees could go up or down and by varying amounts from one to the other. If they charge too much then students will go elsewhere. They must also be considered in the light of future changes in salaries paid to veterinarians.

It’s certainly a field that racing administrators should be watching closely.

The Dogs Website Seems Determined To Maintain The Errors

Sometimes you just want to scream. Regular readers might recall that in early May I wrote an article about discovering the two fastest greyhounds to have raced in the history of the sport anywhere on the planet.

The claim, of course, was completely spurious. Just to recap, what I wrote back then chiefly centred on The Dogs website. As I noted, ‘This is actually quite a comprehensive and useful website, but under the track information for Broken Hill I found the 375 metre track record is supposedly held by a greyhound named Booma Herbie. The time: a sensational 7.19 seconds. Just in case you think I’ve hit the wrong set of numbers on the keyboard, that’s seven point one nine seconds. This superstar ran this time on 11 November 2010, 42 months ago…It gets worse. The track record at Lismore was supposedly obliterated on 6 May this year by Rush Of Power, who ran 6.71 seconds (yes, six point seven one) for the 520 metres. Of course this makes Rush Of Power even faster than Booma Herbie.’

One might venture to think that someone within the Greyhound Racing NSW setup would have been made aware of the errors on their website and made efforts to correct them. After all, we are talking three months since I wrote that article. Sadly, both Booma Herbie and Rush Of Power are still listed as the record holders for their respective distances.

You can also add Never Early over the 453 metres at Cowra and Salford Precinct over 346 metres at Forbes to the above pair. According to The Dogs website, Never Early ran 19.13 seconds for the trip back on 31 July 2010. So, the incorrect information has been on the site now for longer than 48 months. Maybe if I write four years it doesn’t sound as bad.

Salford Precinct is supposed to have run 14.28 seconds for 343 metres on 27 March 2011. Just under that information you can read the average times by distance and grade and the 343-metre trip tends to average about 20 seconds.

What I find simply amazing is that greyhound racing is a multi-million dollar business and while great improvements have been made in the collection and retention of data, there really are far too many simple errors being made. The argument that unpaid or poorly remunerated ‘amateurs’ are keying in the information in the first place (if that is indeed the case) doesn’t wash. Someone should be checking the information at head office to make sure the information being transmitted is as free from error as possible.

The solution is simple. All it is going to take is for somebody at the managerial level to assign someone dedicated and competent to trawl through the various facts and figures and update and correct the information available.

Don’t let the pimply-faced, 16-year-old work experience kid who still thinks a greyhound is some kind of a long-distance bus do it. Don’t let the octogenarian spinster whose sum total of knowledge of the greyhound is that it is the only canine mentioned in the Bible do it. Find someone whose eyesight is reasonable and who is capable of stringing a sentence longer than six words together and understanding the meaning of words with three or more syllables. Maybe, more important, give the task to someone who likes to have a bet, at least then there might be a chance of getting some genuinely useful and, more importantly, correct information put up on what is one of the primary racing websites in the country.

What Can Winning Boxes Tell You?

Many years ago I wrote that “A well laid out track should produce a set of winning box percentages where no one box delivers less than 10% of all winners and where box 6 is the worst of the lot. If that does not apply, look for some peculiarity in track design which might be causing the problem”.

That principle still holds true today. In fact, you could enlarge on it. Three guidelines will quickly identify odd ones out:

1. Box 1 should be at or below 18%.
2. Box 6 (the worst) should not be less than 10%.
3. Box 8 should be around 12%.

All those rules hold good for one country – New Zealand – but not for the USA and not for Australia, where outcomes are erratic.

A survey of the seven main NZ tracks, using long term data, confirms that winners are more evenly spread with perhaps just one exception at Forbury in Otago, where 1 and 8 do better than expected over its 545m distance (which is worth checking).

Considering box 1, six of the nine sample tracks we looked at in Australia produce well over 18% of winners – Albion Park (20.1), Launceston (20.7), Sandown (18.4), Meadows (19.4), Wentworth Park (19.3), and Cannington (18.8). Most of those also had either many more or many fewer winners from box 8 than the expected average. In four of the nine, the worst box was not 6 but either 5 or 7. In total, that’s a disease.

Our underlying principles do not just apply in Australia and New Zealand. 10 year figures for English tracks, where only six runners take part, show the same thing. Here is an 8,000 race sample taken from a U.K. publication (Win at Greyhound Racing, Oldcastle Books, 1977):

Box 1 2 3 4 5 6
Winning % 19 16.6 15.3 14.9 16.7 17.1

 

Certainly, the English track managers seed dogs according to their railing ability. Even so, the wins are nicely spread, indicating a low interference level, and the saucer-shaped set of figures conforms to the basic principles of good design. Irish data is probably similar but their authority does not publish any figures.

So what’s wrong with Australia?

The first clue is obvious – cutaway first turns (the turn within the turn) at Wentworth Park, Bulli, The Meadows, Launceston and Cannington always do two things; they give the inside dog an additional advantage, one that it does not really need; and some dogs cannot handle the more complex turn, thereby causing interference as they move off.

The next clue is that some turns bring dogs together, rather than keeping them apart. That causes an unholy mess: The Meadows and Albion Park seem to be the worst there. Allied to that is the Sandown experience, which does all sorts of funny things, such as causing dogs to bump on the way to the turn and then prompting some inside dogs to dance to the right when they get there.

Horsham and Angle Park are better than most, although some mixing is present on the turn. Both have relatively low but still dominant box 1 figures.

Flat first turns at Richmond and Ipswich cause no end of trouble while Dapto’s boxes are jammed in against the line of the running rail. All generate interference.

In other cases, notably Bulli, a flat home turn throws dogs off and significantly changes the running order.

Generally, Australian track designs display a suck-it-and-see syndrome. In other words, the designs have no backing in engineering or any other discipline. They have just happened.

The foundation of New Zealand track designs is unknown, although their relative young age suggests that they may have learnt from experience elsewhere. Observations suggest turn banking is kinder than in Australia while the big swinger is the use of the follow-on-lure system which appears to offer dogs a wider and higher view.

Indeed, lengthy FOL trials in Brisbane and Adelaide produced lower levels of failing to chase convictions and lower injury rates as well. That outcome is consistent with obtaining a good sight of the lure and also with keeping dogs further apart. It is more than a shame that such experience has been wasted.

So, are winning boxes the answer to good track designs? No, not by themselves, but they are the prime evidence that tells you to look further. They are the red flags.

The trick is to find a solution that meshes the desires of a random and changing mix of dogs with a man-made collection of steel, loam and fluff. That’s not a simple task. To do it well demands some thousands of hours of study. However, we do have some basic principles to work with.

1. Never put boxes on a bend.
2. Make turns simple, even and well banked.
3. Switch to the follow-on-lure. There is nothing to lose.
4. Don’t guess – get the evidence first.
5. And listen to the dogs – they know best.

The above comments all refer to performances over the track’s main distance, where a good run to the first turn is available. Winning boxes for other distances will be more erratic as they are located on or near a turn.

Good data on winning boxes is not as easy to find as it should be. A major problem is that Victoria and Queensland some time ago shifted from long term data to providing it only for the previous 12 months. That means the majority of trips offer too few samples to justify statistical accuracy. A minimum of 400 is needed, but preferably 1,000 or more. In any case, current data for Queensland disappeared when it switched over to the NSW Ozchase system. The same thing happened when Tasmanian data was inserted.

In terms of racing information generally, the switch to the Ozchase system has put the industry back by 20 years.

The only reliable box information comes from National Tab form although even there the odd trip is doubtful as it does always not re-start data collection when the track undergoes a physical change but continues to use the same distance. Such changes always produce different winning box numbers. One example of that is the Maitland 400m trip.

Small But Perfectly Formed

The news that Tabcorp has bought up the ACTTAB – aside from local bookmakers, the sole betting operator in the nation’s capital – is hardly earth shattering in itself but it could be crucial to the eventual makeup of Australia’s wagering system.

The $115 million purchase of a 50-year license includes a guarantee to sponsor local racing by at least $300,000 a year as well as $400,000 to go to local community and sporting groups.

A key point is that the annual license fee will be only $1 million and there will be no betting tax on the tote turnover. That gives Tabcorp a low cost base and a possible weapon to use in negotiations with the Victorian government when that license comes up in 2024.

Meantime, one analyst has pointed out that “the company could effectively shift accounts to the low-cost ACTTAB without any change in experience for phone and internet customers”. Shades of the Northern Territory where Tabcorp already has a subsidiary – Luxbet – but does not run the TAB.

WA now remains the only government-owned TAB in the country but is tied to Tabcorp’s Victorian Supertab for pool purposes.

Tabcorp may well devote more time now to convincing the NSW government to allow it to combine NSW and Victorian pools. A previous application was denied by the NSW Racing Minister on the (unproven) ground that it would disadvantage NSW. That was a big loss for greyhound racing which continues to lose traction because of its small pools.

How that decision was justified is a mystery but more light might be thrown on the subject when the state Treasury finalises its report to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the greyhound industry. That is due by the end of the month.

SMALL IS NOT HELPFUL

Patrick Smith in The Australian has pointed out an interesting contrast between the smaller sports such as athletics and swimming on the one hand and the big time operations such as football, cricket (and, we would add, horse racing) on the other. The former lot have little opportunity to grab headlines other than when events like the Olympics, the Commonwealth games and World championships come up.

By comparison, the big sports get massive daily coverage from all the media, thereby providing the heavy publicity that encourages the public to take an interest.

Smith notes that in between Games, the small sports “make many decisions that are not scrutinised by the media”. In contrast, in the big sports “everybody is critiqued from the AFL Commission chairman to commentators and reporters. It happens every day of the year. It is (this) feedback that educates the officials”.

The corollary of this argument is that those smaller sports can get away with less efficient and less relevant administrations, hence the regular blow-ups in swimming and athletics, the latest being the sacking of Australia’s head athletics coach.

Greyhound racing gets no significant publicity unless something really nasty happens. Of course, when it does the media is free to make up its own versions of the facts because the industry offers no fall-back store of information, no regular spokesman, little general support and no authoritative national body to speak for it. Effectively, it has a non-image at best, and a poor one when one-eyed critics appear.

This alone is justification for some major organisational reforms.

SMALL BUMPS WILL DECIDE OUTCOMES

On display in state heats at the moment are most of the better stayers, en route to the National Championships. So far, here is what we have.

Queensland.
Favourite Wag Tail managed only 2nd spot after some battering while Hougenie bolted away with the race in a career best performance of 41.95. Previously it has not run out the distance well. In the other heat, honest plugger and favourite Mullaway could not pull in relative newcomer Rain Stream which ran a moderate 42.29. Only Wag Tail is a potential placegetter in the big one in Perth.

South Australia.
The only two reasonable stayers in the state took out the heats, Psychotic Gold in a fair 43.13, Token Mclaren in a poor 43.58. Hard to have.

Victoria.
The usual suspects greeted the judge in the four heats (all but one with short fields), leaving behind mostly ordinary competitors.
Mepunga Tiara ran a career-best 41.95, leading most of the way, but that will not be competitive in stronger races.
Zipping Rory ran one of its best races with a 41.70 win – only the second time it has bettered the 42 sec mark. Needs more consistency. Dyna Willow finished a handy second to Zipping Rory but it is hard to see much further improvement on its 41.81 run.
Sweet It Is showed it customary blinding finish but 42.12 is as good as it can do, so it cannot figure in the big ones, barring interference.
Xylia Allen did the right thing yet its 41.70 time is generally its peak over the long trip. It cannot afford any interference. The bitch has had far better performances over shorter trips. That pattern suggests it is a bit flat at the moment. Looby Lu had every chance but that was only it fourth distance race and it continues to improve. No chance on that form but you never know what the future will hold.

Some of the above assessments ignore form from last April at Wentworth Park when Xylia Allen smashed the 720m track record in a heat but petered out in the final. Dyna Willow had also done well there. I am inclined to treat those performances and times as an aberration as they have never been repeated and are better forgotten when considering upcoming races.

State finals are unlikely to throw further light on prospects as form is already very well declared. However, the final at Cannington will certainly be affected by the box draw. Inside is a big advantage over all distances at that track.

From Country Roads To Three Lane Highways

Whoops – readers pointed out an important error in Monday’s comment about Xylia Allen. She did not lead in her heat of the state Distance Championship at The Meadows but came from behind, much as happened in the final.

Even so, the main point of that article was that we are asking too many dogs to do too much, particularly when stayers have to back-up after a seven day break. That practice reduced the integrity of Xylia Allen’s race, not just for her but for all runners and the thousands of punters who wanted to cheer them home.

Readers also commented on the effect of interference in those races. There are two main variables there – what dogs do and what tracks force them to do. Ideally, all races would be run without any one dog clashing with another, meaning that speed and strength would decide the winner.

Well, there are no perfect races, of course, but a few get close. We do know that most 461m races at Hobart run with a minimum of interference, especially (and unusually) in the first 100m, so there is an example to study. The WA tracks of Mandurah and Northam are not bad either.

Three things generate interference:

1. Clumsy or inexperienced dogs.
2. Poor track layouts.
3. Dogs boxed upside down or those tiring.

There is not a huge amount we can do about the first group, although early education may well play a big part. Perhaps that’s worth more study as there are many different approaches in play. Some dogs also learn from experience, as when a wide runner progressively turns into a centre runner after it realises it can get closer to the bunny that way, and probably avoid getting smashed as well.

However, experience shows that, by and large, dogs which suffer interference in this way are prone to do it again and again. Why else would they keep running into the backside of the dog in front? Neatness does count.

The boxing question is problematical but could be helped a little by earlier suggestions like the one about building boxes with more space between each runner. However, a runner’s preferred course is also affected by the immediate layout of the track – ie the dog’s position relative to the rail, the lure, the banking and the interaction between all of those. And finally, there is the great unknown – how will the field attack the upcoming turn? It’s a tricky issue and one that can be fully explained only by detailed study of all the variables. Opinions don’t count for much there, although we do know a fair bit about what does not work.

One example is available from the old Wollongong track in NSW where an outside lure demanded some experience at the track. Newcomers usually started chasing the lure directly, thereby losing ground, while the local dogs knew they would be better off staying near the rail because they would eventually get closer that way.

Then there is always the option of taking the English path, where dogs are boxed according to their (claimed) running habits, and they also have outside lures. This is nice in theory but it may produce as many problems as it solves, especially with eight-dog fields rather than six.

Considering all that, it is a reasonable contention that far more than half of all interference is a function of the way the track is laid out and the equipment in use.

We already know that race falls and greater displacements occur more often over certain trips, primarily those where the start is poorly located on a bend, or too close to the rail, or where the first turn is too flat. We have Australia-wide stats and videos to show that. And I believe the great Paul Ambrosoli first coined his signature phrase – “a band of wild indians” – at the bend start for the old 608m trip at Bulli.

Currently, every major circle track in the country sees some dogs running off at the first turn. Yet that does not happen at Mandurah or Northam. Why so? It also seldom happens at Hobart which is a one-turn track, yet a turn is still a turn is a turn. At other one-turn tracks – Maitland, Bulli, Geelong, Shepparton, etc – some dogs commonly lose the turn into the home straight yet that does not happen at Hobart. Why? The camber is an obvious suspect. (At Maitland it’s been suspect for 50 years – on grass, loam and re-built loam).

Going back to the race at The Meadows, Xylia Allen was disappointed for a run on the first turn because Dyna Willow (7) had already cut to the rail in front of her. Xylia Allen had the option of holding up a bit but chose to continue on the rails perhaps hoping that the other bitch would disappear. It didn’t and a check occurred.

Yet a major characteristic of The Meadows is that on the first turn (both main distances) dogs see the bunny disappearing around the corner quite early and quite quickly and it is normal for an outside runner to try to cut across and make up some ground. This is due to the extent of that turn, and its radius. Seldom will they succeed which is why very low numbers of dogs win from wide boxes at that track. Even when they jump with the field, they are progressively pushed further and further back in the running order. It’s all in the geometry.

In any event, the track excessively favours railers and is far less suited to wide runners. So, too, are Albion Park and Angle Park, for example. Sandown, while it has its own problems, does not do that which is why powerful champions like Whisky Assassin and Awesome Assassin did much better there than at The Meadows. = At Wentworth Park, it is all smash and grab – always has been. So some dogs like one, some the other, but it is all due to how the track is shaped – ie most problems are man-made, and therefore man-fixable

A LANGUAGE PROBLEM

GRNSW is currently asking people to complete an online survey to help it better design its website. It is titled CUSTOMER SERVICE VISION. So far, so good.

It is directed to Owners, Trainers, Punters and Others (tick the box) yet the survey is totally concentrated on clerical work that is relevant only to someone nominating a dog for a race. Why would you ask Punters and Others about that?

As indicated in an earlier column here, classifying Trainers as customers is a nonsense, although it does tell you where the focus of racing authorities lies. Trainers are industry participants, not customers. To say otherwise is to mis-use the English language.

Genuine customers – ie members of the public who patronise greyhound racing and bet on races – would no doubt have lots of points to make were they asked about the website. Bad luck, GRNSW is not interested in you.

By way of illustration, meeting results in Victoria can be downloaded in data-ready files or printed out simply in one or two pages, depending on how much detail you want. By comparison, the same information for NSW races (and now for four other states as well, including Queensland) takes up six pages, reducible to five if you spend lots of time editing out some of the repetitive bumpf. No data download is available.

Essentially, the NSW information is for lookers, not real users. Not much “VISION” in that, is there?

We Will Tell You What’s Good For You

As the financial year draws to a close it’s time to look again to our national body, Greyhounds Australasia, to see how we are doing. Sadly, no luck. The latest stats on people, dogs and cash are for 2011 – still. That makes it really hard to assess the industry. We then have to rely on state annual reports which are sometimes informative, often not. Good news stories can outrank facts. And you cannot put them together and add them up as they all approach the subject differently.

Fortunately, the thoroughbred’s Fact Book will be out later in the year and will provide lots of current data about all Australian betting, including greyhound betting. But it will not include Betfair turnover because the company says it is not relevant and refuses to supply it. Can you believe it?

Another option might be to take the various Racing Ministers’ words of wisdom and cut them in half or, in Queensland’s case, by two thirds.

How on earth can you run an organisation properly without good information about the whole country? Or even parts of it. States might think they are islands unto themselves but the dogs don’t know that. Neither do the punters.

And, sad to say, all Queensland’s form and results are going into the NSW Ozchase system this weekend, which will make them extremely difficult to use. Ozchase continues to be a poor relation to other formguides and the like, notably those from Victoria. Since Victoria is the only state doing reasonably at the moment, you would think the other states would be pulling out all the stops to catch up. Not so. They just don’t get it. Maybe a course on customer relations would be a help.

WHO’S ON FIRST BASE?

Talking about Racing Ministers, since they are responsible for appointing board members of state authorities it is interesting to note a pattern emerging.

Do you know that the chairmen of five major greyhound authorities are lawyers? They are Queensland, NSW, Victoria, SA and Greyhounds Australasia. One of those is a QC.

So was the guy who conducted the last statutory review of NSW greyhound and harness boards. Well, actually he was a barrister which is a bit of a worry. Their brief in life is to nit-pick about words and argue that black is really white, mainly on behalf of wealthy firms. Vision, progress and corporate objectives do not get much of a look-in, certainly not in his case. Maybe he had the wrong brief?

Lawyers are paid to get things right, which makes it odd to see that GRNSW is trying to shift a commercial enterprise (Tweed Heads dogs) from NSW to Queensland. Since that could shatter long term contractual obligations, as well as pose a massive constitutional challenge, you have to wonder how they would bring that about. Or why? What does it achieve? More jobs for lawyers, perhaps?

They might pick up some secrets from Prince Leonard of Hutt River Principality, 595km north of Perth. Having seceded from Australia, he seems to be doing well by charging incoming tourists a fee for stamping visas in their passports. And on special at the moment is a commemorative watch for only $45. A coin in honour of the late Princess Shirley is also available

Elsewhere, I can recall a proposal of mine going to the board of a company I once worked for. Later I got a response from one director – a prominent QC and good bloke – that he recognised the way it was written and therefore knew where it came from. No word about the worth of the proposal, though, only about the writing.

It all reminds you of the example of airline captains, finely trained, highly skilled, well paid members of the community. Yet the first duty of a pilot is to assess the risks and not take them. The duty of a businessman is to assess the risks and take one of the options; otherwise he will go out backwards. Who would you rather have running your company?

(This, incidentally, is why the old habit of putting pilots in charge of airlines – and there were many – is a relic of the ages. They have all done it at one time or another, but not anymore. See Ansett, Qantas (twice), Butler, Hazleton, Kendall, Pan Am (also twice), Cathay (launched by Australian pilot Syd de Kantzhow), TWA (Howard Hughes was a dedicated pilot), Eastern (Eddie Rickenbacker, a pioneer), and so on. It is also interesting that only two of those airlines are still operating, one of them somewhat shakily).

All these folk are no doubt well-regarded, upstanding people but our question remains: are lawyers the best people to take an industry into the modern age? Since breeding is down, betting is generally declining, field numbers are falling, as is their quality, and the industry is now reliant on mug gamblers, there is a big doubt about that.

It is sensible to have a lawyer on the board, for obvious reasons. But not in charge.

What we desperately need is a national body, led by someone who is prepared to mount his white charger and roar into battle, brandishing his sword and encouraging the troops to follow.

THE UNDERLYING ISSUES

The whole question of who to put in charge is argumentative, of course. We hear about hotshot “independent” advisors being used to come up with possible names for board membership yet you can judge only on results and they are mixed at best. Too often the motive seems to be to pick people who are “sound”, as Sir Humphrey might say. Ministers never like the boat being rocked, yet how else can you achieve progress?

The greyhound industry lacks real leadership, partly because of its fragmented nature, partly because it has shown no inclination to adapt to modern standards of governance, partly because it has been concerned only with process and not outcomes, and partly because it has always been low man on the totem pole.

Therefore it must look to why this is happening and correct its direction and its corporate strategies. Put simply, it has worthwhile assets but they are not being utilised well. That shortcoming means the buck has to stop with the various boards and to the people who put them there.

Whether our leaders are lawyers, accountants, doctors or vets is perhaps not so much the point as whether those folk can achieve results. Demonstrably, the present lot are not doing that, hence my query about the current dominance of lawyers – circumstantial evidence, you might say.

Out Of The Frying Pan, Into …. Where?

Australian wagering has moved on to yet another stage following Racing NSW’ negotiations with online bookmakers and others to ensure they take all reasonable bets. Or so we are assured.

CEO Peter V’Landys has announced the terms of a new deal requiring the online bookies to accept a minimum bet to lose $2,000 on city gallops, or $1,000 on country races, from September 1, 2014. An operator turning over less than $5 million can halve those figures. It applies to Fixed Odds bets and apparently will bind Tabcorp as well.

Under the new agreement bookies will not be able to cancel accounts for successful punters unless there is an integrity issue involved (which introduces a disputable area right away).

Punters who feel hard done by can appeal to Racing NSW, much as occurs with traditional oncourse bookies.

We will await announcements by other jurisdictions and other codes. Racing Victoria has already said it will be watching with interest to see what happens.

The big question is what will happen when the crunch comes if the Darwin bookies are found to be in breach of the agreement.

In the matter of racefield fees Racing NSW theoretically had some leverage in that it could deny access to the primary information – ie a list of runners – using copyright legislation. That was never really tested. From the beginning, the bookies had always agreed to pay a fee and, in fact had appealed to the NSW Racing Minister to allow that to happen. At the time, Racing NSW (and others) did not want a bar of them at any cost. It tried all sorts of avenues to prevent them from starting up, including an appeal to the Commonwealth to declare it illegal. That was denied.

The subsequent High Court argument was never about paying fees, only about how it was calculated. Racing NSW won there, too, as it should. After all, it is the principal and bookies are simply agents or service providers.

The irony of all these goings-on is that racing authorities are now rubbing their hands with glee as the money flows in. Enemies are now best of friends and a once moribund wagering sector was revitalised.

But only for a time. As online bookies gained ground, tote volumes fell away, suggesting amongst other things that the market had been fully exploited under the existing conditions, which included substantial increases in the number of races on offer and the confusion caused by clashing races. In turn, that meant that cracks were appearing in the foundations, particularly for smaller meetings (like greyhound meetings), and the reliability of the tote prices came under pressure. Yet they have been, and still will be, the guiding force for all wagering. The recent boost to Fixed Odds Betting is still based on likely tote prices, erratic or not.

So the online bookies have actually had a mixed influence, varying from good to now questionable.

The pity of it all is that it might be argued that online bookies are now looking at the possibility that they will move from being highly profitable to just normally profitable. Their bet acceptance policies, coupled with high Fixed Odds prices (up to 130% books), form a base for them to achieve very large surpluses, especially when much of their clientele is in the “mug gambler” category. This is clearly why overseas organisations have been paying hundreds of millions of dollar to buy out the local firms.

That last trend has been clearly indicated by GRNSW when it demonstrated that its agreement with online bookies is proving more lucrative under the “share of profits” model than under a commission on turnover. That is the exact opposite of the experience of the big players such as Racing NSW and Racing Victoria, both of which are now tens of millions better off using a turnover base. Obviously, NSW dog punters are not much good at what they do, so bookies are now able to buy a second Roller for the wife.

Perhaps you can take that a bit further. The rapidly increasing use of hand-held devices for wagering can only encourage quickie bets by people without serious racing knowledge. On the run, they would obviously not be able or inclined to study form and odds to any depth, no matter how many apps are made available. The only possible result is a loss over time, and a nice win for the bookies.

And the outcome of gambling on Swedish trots or whatever is a no-brainer. Bookies 1, gamblers 0.

As indicated in earlier columns here, the entire wagering caper has got completely out of hand. The concept of providing useful services to the racing industry is long forgotten, to be replaced by a bank of gambling options similar in shape to the long line of poker machines in your local club and pub. At the same time all power has switched from racing authorities to the wagering sector

An even greater problem is the loss of appreciation of the worth of the greyhound breed. The artificial images on Trackside machines are now little different to the real thing on SKY. Education is light on and so genuine knowledge is scant.

Both trends are manageable but only if governments and racing authorities can see where the failures are and take action to fix them.

As for V’Landys and Racing NSW – good luck to them, but can they make it stick legally? I doubt it. What will happen then? Rafferty’s rules?

(A note. The NT firms have become known as “corporate bookmakers”. In a sense that is correct but it is also confusing as some conventional oncourse bookmakers in the south are also incorporated, but they can do that only between family members because of restrictions imposed by racing authorities. Together with such things as high stand fees and taxes, earlier bans on mobile phones (or any phones) and the inability to set up shop outside a racecourse, these arbitrary policies were the prime causes of the establishment of operations in the NT in the first place. Had the industry been more attuned to the modern world and also less inclined to discriminate in favour of TABs, none of this mess would have come about and the NT would have been left to the crocodiles. Racing has been the loser).

Lessons From The Farm

“If we don’t tell people how carrots are grown they will make up their own stories”. So says the owner of KALFRESH, a southeast Queensland grower, after looking for ways of improving profitability and deciding to launch the farm’s first open day. Expecting just a handful, the first event attracted 100 people, then grew to a thousand or more in later episodes, all related on the ABC’s Landline program.

The farm now charges $5 for a help-yourself barbeque, a tour of the automated processing factory and free access to the fields to pick carrots. The kids love it and families are thronging in from Brisbane and the Gold Coast, tourists and locals alike.

It brings to mind an open day conducted for charity a few years ago at Rocky Ridge stud farm near Gosford in NSW, where some 2,000 visitors turned up to marvel at all the fancy gear as well as the greyhound breeding stock. People love to learn about something new or unusual. The greyhound industry was the winner.

More generally, this sort of marketing theme usually has win-win overtones as it not only advances knowledge of the greyhound but also does wonders for the farm or the attraction itself.

Anyway, carrots are well within its grasp as the Mugavin-Brown combine near Warrnambool has long been famous for both dogs and carrots. There will be other examples if we look for them.

More of this and biased programs like the ABC’s anti-racing segment on its 7:30 Report and the one-sided reporting by the Sydney Morning Herald would not get off the ground. They would be put in proper perspective.

ROOM TO MOVE

So many of our tipsters’ comments about dogs are headed “given early room to move” that it is a wonder that the industry has not done more to allow that to happen. In fact, it often does the reverse.

In the last decade, NSW spent over $500k supposedly to rebuild the Dapto track. In practice, they did little more than change the loam. What they did retain was a set of 520m boxes jammed up against the line of the running rail, thereby forcing inside dogs to veer to the right after the jump, creating more confusion. That and a poor first turn contribute its position as one of the two most disruptive tracks in Australia. The recent rebuild of the Goulbourn track did much the same thing. Inside runners have to follow a snake-shaped course after the jump, while many dogs cannot hold the home turn. Another half a million or so poorly spent.

Queensland trainers have consistently called for improvements to the bend starts at both Albion Park and Ipswich, noting that the dangers were forcing them to take youngsters to northern NSW tracks to avoid bad experiences (a bit of frying pan and fire there?). Over 15 years or so, partly as an employee of the old QGRA at the time, I wrote formally on several occasions to the authority pointing out the problems and possible solutions at those tracks. To date I have yet to receive an acknowledgement of that correspondence, let alone an answer. (Disclaimer: QGRA later sacked me because I wrote that the state should get used to Betfair being around because that was what customers wanted. Apparently, the board did not like Betfair. Remember those days?).

Victoria not long ago finished a statewide program of replacing most middle distance trips at provincial tracks with 650m events (Sandown had also installed one). In every case these produced diabolical bend starts, mostly worse than the ones they replaced. All these increased the bias against outside dogs and promoted more interference. In essence, they became 4-dog races.

Then, to cap it all, WA has just announced it has firmed up the layout for the Cannington replacement (due in mid-2015) but it includes a bend start for the 600m trip – “across the apex” as RWWA termed it. In other words, they are doing specifically what works badly at almost every other track in the country. Some sort of mysterious mind blockage must exist in the industry for this to continue to happen. It runs against the interests of all involved – dogs, trainers, punters, the club and the industry’s image – and enhances the case being put by small but noisy numbers of anti-racing campaigners. It’s madness, sheer madness, especially as alternatives exist.

Anyway, let’s start another ball rolling. One possible aid to any start, not just those on bends, would be to re-engineer all the boxes so that more room is available to all in that vital first few metres. Why not put more space between each box, or perhaps at least between 3 and 4, as well as between 6 and 7, and make the overall box structure a good 1m to 2m wider. By doing that at least some of the interference would be reduced, allowing more dogs to do what they like to do.

Yes, it would cost a lot of money but it would be worth every cent if it succeeded in doing a better job. At the very least an experiment would be worthwhile running at one selected track.

It would also constitute a valuable start to a nationwide study of the art of track design. Why not write in with your suggestions?

Oh, I said Dapto was the second worst track in the country. The worst? By some margin, Ipswich. It has a horrible bend start for the 431m trip and a flat first turn for 520m dogs – the former contributing to the latter. Both faults are easily fixed, and for a modest amount of money. Just shift the 431m boxes and re-shape the turn. Fixing Dapto is different. You would first need to bulldoze the entire site, on and off the track. But if it helps the industry, why not?

PS: A side note. I would be happy to turn the first sod in rebuilding Dapto. Many years ago, as a kid, Dapto was the first provincial track I ever attended. First, you would ring the club to see if the meeting was still on or rained out. Then, after buying a deFax guide near Central station, you would catch the 5pm steam train out of Sydney, arriving comfortably prior to the first race. After the last, the club organised a charter bus to take us back to Sutherland station in Sydney’s south, where we could connect with the city’s electric train service to our desired destination. You would be lucky to get home by 1am. There was no TAB then, of course, but if you squint a bit those AWA tote windows look exactly the same now as they did then. Ditto for the track, save that loam has replaced the grass.

PS2: Val Anglim’s dog shop in Devonshire St where you bought that deFax guide (a roneoed set of pages stapled in the top left hand corner) later turned into a newspaper shop selling Melbourne’s Gold Guides as well. It has changed hands a couple of times since and is now run by a Korean family. Sadly, hard copy formguides are no longer there, outranked by SKY and the internet. The steam train has gone, as has the charter bus, but from the track you can catch sight of the freeway which now delivers fans and dogs from the Sydney region. The racetrack is still much the same, a memorial to the past, and the “Dapto Dogs” is still part of the lexicon.

Good Information Can Promote Success

Stewardship matters never seem to go away. At Sandown last Thursday, here is what stewards said about Race 9. “Al Moran (7) crossed to the inside soon after the start checking Peloton Bale (6), All One Size (5) and Ready To Riot (4)”. (Box numbers added).

In fact, Al Moran never got close to Peloton Bale or All One Size and, if it brushed Ready To Riot, the impact was minute and not relevant. In particular, Peloton Bale walked out of the box, as it is prone to do at times, and there was no chance at all for it to get checked by Al Moran, which jumped smartly and went almost straight ahead until reaching the turn.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if we are all on the same planet. Why would stewards write such stuff?

Fortunately, the GRV race results pages and videos are otherwise very informative and easy to view, print or download. But the stewards’ reports can be grossly misleading. We are better off without them, except where they concern injuries and matters which warrant penalties. Even then, sometimes you are better off seeing for yourself.

In contrast to Victoria, race results offered by GRNSW, which now cover four states, are a pain in the butt. Downloading is impossible in practice and printouts are not available as the site serves up only one race at a time. (Experiences may vary slightly, depending on your equipment). Formguides are equally impracticable as they require excessive amounts of paper to print out, contain lots of secondary pieces of information which should be made available elsewhere, and are missing numerous sectional times. Oddly, both SA and WA joined the NSW camp (in Ozchase) when they had far superior formguides in their own systems, particularly in WA.

In Queensland, slated to join the NSW brigade later on, basic results are fairly handy. However, while their videos are probably the best in the business, you have to cover more ground than the early explorers to find them, and then only one race at a time, which is time-consuming. Queensland formguides are rudimentary at best. Apart from missing all interstate sectionals (why?) they have adopted a habit long used by the old deFax guide and the current Recorder to insert an ancient run on the track if no current one is relevant. I have yet to find a six months old formline of any use in predicting a dog’s chances.

Clearly, none of the people responsible for these services have bothered to audit the effectiveness of their work or check how they are viewed by the public. Often we hear claims about the number of hits on their website but nothing about how those inspections are put to use. You could go further – the last time a state authority published any information about public or customer views and attitudes was 20 years ago in Queensland when the then-QGRA had a consultant do such a job for them. Are they all working in the dark?

It does seem so. That is exactly the point I made the other day when discussing the attitude of authorities to their customers, and how they define that group of people. The entire industry has always concentrated the vast majority of its resources on trainers and very little on the needs of the people who pay their wages – the customers. More administration than management.

Totes are no better, which is why they still run a ridiculous product – the Duet – which hardly anyone ever buys, other than a few foolish gamblers. Or why they tell lies about First Four dividends. Or why they have destroyed the integrity of betting pools by jamming too many races into an already overcrowded calendar, hoping to drag more cash out of the same old customers (it’s not working).

In total, it’s like a manufacturer supplying its customers with a fancy piece of equipment and no instructions to go with it. Or a cookbook with a recipe containing no information on amounts or how long to cook it. Or running an election with the names of candidates but nothing on which party they belong to or what their policies are. And so it goes on.

Surely somebody must soon realise that these are some of the reasons that racing is losing its edge and why it has experienced negative growth in breeding and betting over the last 20 years. Greyhounds have been an exception for betting as it has been able to stick more four-legged poker machines into the mix, but that fix has now run out of steam. There is no more room left. Where to now?

THE GREAT UNKNOWN

Never mind that the world’s leaders are coming to Australia to discuss what the future holds. Isn’t it about time that greyhound bosses took a serious look at why greyhound racing is struggling to get its act together?

Yesterday’s premium Wentworth Park meeting had not a single reserve to start with, and so ended up with six short fields for what has historically been the code’s biggest betting venue. That’s money down the drain. The Meadows had a few more starters but still had three short fields (with two 725m runners carrying with them false times ex handicap races but no note about what advantage they had or about misleading sectional times). Sandown on Thursday started off with a race full of Novice dogs, masquerading as a Grade 5 event. Albion Park’s main meeting of the week led off with the usual two Novice races and four of ten races short of a full field.

There can be no argument that the industry has over-reached. Too many races, too few dogs. Too many short course dogs, too few stayers. Too many mug gamblers, too few punters. Too many unusable betting pools. Too much secrecy. Too many rip-off products. The list goes on. Rumours are around that someone wants to put some research into better track designs, but I want to see the hard cash first. Meantime, $30 million is being invested into new tracks in Perth and Brisbane, both with obvious design faults before they get started. That’s hardly a good way to attract future customers.

Is anyone minding the shop? A stocktake would be a good way to start a program of reform.

Cart Before The Horse

It may become part of the folklore of greyhound racing in Australia. The following statement by the appeal judge refers to an incident when a trainer failed to report to stewards an injury to Keybow, then favourite for the final of the Queensland Derby. It was summarised on the Racing Queensland website.

Judge Carter said, ‘’It appears that there exists a very significant level of ignorance about this rule. The records do not contain any precedence of a like case and there are no previous recorded penalties.’’

In the end, the judge replaced a steward’s fine with a warning, implicitly allowing the offender to get away with “ignorance of the law”.

In fact, national rule 75(2) has been there for yonks. And for the gallops, too. The Gai Waterhouse/John Singleton case at Randwick received national publicity over a long period for exactly the same offence. Who could have missed it? That experience alone demonstrates the farcical nature of greyhound administration when the RQ statement calls it just a “rarely used rule”, and notes the “apparent … confusion among many trainers”.

Hello, what confusion? It is surely the first duty of any licensed person to read the rule book, whether training a dog or speeding on the way home. It is plain as a pikestaff anyway.

This column has mentioned the subject several times over the years, and separately written to some state authorities quoting, for example, apparent offences in respect to a Golden Egg winner (Slater) which the trainer later said had been suffering from both injuries and illness, and to a prominent Queensland stayer (Miss Grub) which the trainer retired with words to the effect that he had been trying to patch it up but that was no longer possible. That was a bit late for all the people who had invested many thousands of dollars on it while it was racing poorly.

OK, there is a fine point about the nature and extent of what constitutes a reportable injury. Any athlete in a competitive, physical sport must necessarily suffer knocks and bruises. Where the sport is subject to substantial media coverage – the gallops and football, for example – information provided to the public is normally full and prompt. Yet greyhound racing seems to have allowed itself to go its own way, effectively disregarding the public interest.

Indeed, greyhound stewarding has often been seen to be deficient in respect to failing to chase convictions or form assessment. A recent example was when we pointed out that a steward’s warning to the trainer of Sweet It Is was inaccurate and poorly based. It had won at a long price yet its performance was no better or worse than in its previous runs. The rest of the field had mucked around to allow that to happen.

In an even more recent case, stewards suspended a dog for failing to chase at Shepparton when it jumped moderately, got checked through no fault of its own, and then chased hard all the way home. At the same meeting an experienced dog barely chased for the bulk of the trip yet attracted not even a question. And I would argue both cases till the cows come home (details available if you want them).

All that aside, there is a bad taste in the mouth for two reasons.

First, the underlying implication is that industry culture says that trainers are entitled to keep secret the finer details of their dogs’ condition and also, for example, of private trials. But by doing that they forget that their wages are provided solely by the industry’s customers. Just saying “trust me” is simply not good enough, which is why Rule 75 was put there in the first place. Punters are entitled to the facts.

Second, the extraordinary non-use of the Rule calls to account not only the deficiency of the stewardship function but also the failure of management – ie state racing authorities – to ensure that justice is done and rules are obeyed. If it is not a good rule, get rid of it. If it needs amendment, do so. If it is a good rule, then police it.

In this case the rule is not an optional one but a fundamental requirement for good, clean racing.

Incidentally, it is noteworthy that the chief steward who brought the Keybow case up has had long experience in the galloping code. That tells you something.

BUT THE CART IS RICKETTY

A little more background to the question of the responsibilities of stewards and racing bosses is warranted.

The other day, and not for the first time, an authority was heard to repeatedly classify trainers and other licensed persons as its “customers”. Indeed, I had a lengthy dialogue with one CEO a few years ago on the same subject. (He eventually conceded that both licensed persons and punters were his “customers”).

This is wrong-headed and throws up serious questions as to the ability of boards and CEOs to understand their purpose in life – not just from my viewpoint but from their official brief under their enabling acts of parliament. Invariably, they include as an authority’s prime task the need “to ensure the progress and development of the code” or words to that effect. They also note that the purpose of such authorities, and particularly its stewards, is to look after the interests of the citizens of the state

They do not talk about keeping trainers happy or modifying the product to suit trainers, in fact rather the opposite. That is not to say that trainers should not be handled well and fairly but to put that aim at the top of the list is to put the cart before the horse, or even potentially to harm the industry by applying lopsided policies.

There is only one set of customers and that is the group which buys the product. Everyone else in the industry is there to generate that product, especially trainers. All the rules of racing are there to govern how that is done, not to tell customers what to do.

This divergence may be partly due to the latter-day habit of government departments and instrumentalities being told to treat the people at the counter as “clients”, “customers” – call them what you will. That habit has migrated to racing authorities and so the people on the other side of their counters are being mis-named as customers. The reverse of that coin suggests that those same authorities either don’t know or don’t care much about their real customers.

At best, they have downgraded the importance of the customer group – a conclusion which is supported by the fact that racing has largely left it to betting operators to define and service the industry’s customers.

In other words, racing bosses have lost the plot, and with it sufficient power to control what happens in the industry. Perhaps that helps to explain why trainers are “ignorant of the law”

Victoria Admits To A Rocky Future

A while back we pointed out that Greyhound Racing Victoria’s future income was looking a bit questionable, notwithstanding all the publicity about increases in prize money and millions being spent on new tracks and related facilities. The bottom line can be difficult to sort out as the major trend – an easing of tote betting – does not cover online bookmaker activity (which offers smaller commissions) or actions by the state government (grants and changes in taxes and commission sharing amongst codes).

We already know that GRV had done well out of the previous government-inspired alterations to commission shares, which followed the removal of racing income derived from poker machine taxes. However, it seems racing lost more on the swings than it gained on the roundabouts.

That swing appears to be statewide. Racing Victoria chairman Robert Roulston told the Herald Sun “it was looking at a $7 million reduction in its budget for the next racing season”. RV is trying to negotiate a better deal with the government “so that Victoria would remain the No 1 racing state”.

NSW greyhounds are also going down that path since it has had no luck in getting rid of the subsidies it pays to the other two codes under the fixed commission sharing agreement, signed off years ago by a short sighted administration. Balancing that loss by more favourable tax rates is its only hope.

Victoria is also watching closely to see how Racing NSW progresses its effort to force online bookmakers (and presumably Tabcorp) to accept any reasonable bets, particularly Fixed Odds bets, that they have been prone to knock back. However, whether that would make the state more profitable is open to question.

The Victorian issues follow on from the Queensland government’s published claim that its new deal with TattsBet will return perhaps $20 million more to the three codes. But the Minister is under fire because he has not yet said how much each code will get. Apparently, a by-election is in the offing and bad news is therefore deferred. But the troops are not happy.

In any event, a few more dollars in prize money are not likely to outweigh Queensland’s two main problems – a shortage of good dogs (or any dogs), and an uncompetitive tote. The small TattsBet pools are not about to stop fans favouring bigger southern pools or offers from online bookies. It’s not the cream that is the problem but the bread and butter.

When you add in TattsBet’s two other key states (SA and Tasmania), we are now looking at almost every jurisdiction in the country, perhaps except WA, facing challenges to their basic income. Even WA is still living in hope that the government will fund the rest of the new Cannington complex. So far, it has money only for the track itself.

There is no evidence that these trends will not continue, or even worsen. Apart from government belt-tightening, the country’s wagering system is arguably in a mess and is looking at an unknown future. I would defy anyone to describe a likely structure in five years from now. The dominant players are the shareholders of the two totes and the owners of online bookies and Betfair, all of which are strenuously trying to maximise their profits, regardless of the effect on the industry or its main source of income, the punters. What a curious policy! The goose and the golden egg come to mind.

Ideally, all racing authorities would get together to bring pressure to bear on Racing Ministers to introduce major reforms and perhaps to create some consistencies throughout the country. Sadly greyhounds cannot do that as its only national body, Greyhounds Australasia, does not deal with “commercial matters”. Indeed, it cannot even get the states to agree on racing rules. The other codes are not much better off.

Even the Productivity Commission recommended a national approach to the subject of racefield commissions (in its Problem Gambling Report). Yet state versus state jealousies seem to be an impossible barrier.

Racing is therefore in a precarious position as the two main influences on its fortunes are the policies of state governments and those of betting operators. Racing is in charge of not much more than lining up starters. Even then, it is flat out filling fields to suitable levels. At least one in five greyhound races start with empty boxes and a lack of reserves, thereby reducing incentive for exotic betting.

Some commentators claim it would take at least five years to bring about a national betting pool. That’s much too long, given the present state of the art and an unknown future. But that’s just the start. Love them or hate them, it’s the responsibility of state governments to take control of all betting, perhaps via a National Wagering Commission reporting to the Racing Ministers Council. Yes, that’s more bureaucracy but what other options are there?

The system is broken. Now is the time to fix it – and it is urgent.

OH DEAR!

Last week I suggested that punters should not take less than 4/1 about distance dogs in Melbourne. Alas, they still backed Lunar Jinx into $3.10 and Zipping Rory into $2.80 at Sandown on Thursday. Both lost. The race went to a rank outsider, which plodded home in a pathetic 42.54, nearly 20 lengths outside the record. There was no unusual interference, just inconsistent dogs. Or maybe they were just browned off? Would a long holiday help?

Still in Melbourne (but often elsewhere), the incidence of under-priced favourites is reaching worrying proportions. For example, at The Meadows several tipsters, including the Watchdog, pushed the wares of Bottom Dollar in a Maturity heat and it started at $3.10 or $4.10, depending where you lived. It ran nowhere after an average start but its recent form had been very ordinary, including a win at Wentworth Park in a moderate 30.27. In a smart field like this the numbers suggested it was a 100/1 chance. Its early-year form over shorter trips had been very good but it is futile to bet on what happened six months ago. Warrior King and All Strung Out were also well under the odds. Even My Bro Fabio ($2.50, box 6), which won really well after a slow start, would give you heart failure until it found its way thru the field, and then only because most of the field drifted off on the first turn, leaving the rails open.

No doubt the lack of serious analysis of likely chances is one reason the Fixed Odds people get away with their 130% books.

“This Is The Way Of The Future”

What’s more, “It doesn’t make sense to have a number of little pools around the world, which don’t give punters the confidence to bet”, according to Hong Kong Jockey Club executive director, Bill Nader.

The occasion was the announcement that Tabcorp (and later TattsBet) will be hosted in the huge HKJC pari-mutuel wagering pool from early September, subject to some regulatory approvals.

These quotes came from Fairfax (7 and 8 July), which also commented that competition from online bookmakers and Betfair “makes Australia the best country in the world for punters”. Presumable they mean except for Hong Kong and possibly a few other places. Tabcorp and TattsBet have tote monopolies in their respective areas while the leading growth area of Fixed Odds is competitive only in a marketing sense as their prices are generally at rip-off levels, they are pretty much the same from one to the other, and you might not be able to get on anyway.

Tabcorp already hosts or co-mingles with pools in seven other countries – but, critically, not much with itself. It was not able to convince the NSW Racing Minister (at the time, McBride) to allow it to combine its own pools in NSW and Victoria. The fact that modest activity in WA and the ACT is already part of Victoria’s SuperTab is nice for the small states but hardly counts for much in the overall scheme of things.

The question now becomes whether all these ventures will improve TabCorp’s bottom line. Probably so, especially given the size of the Hong Kong pools and the urges of a few professional punters. International races which run out of normal hours would also be helpful. However, many of them are within our normal time zones and compete directly with local greyhound and harness races in the peak 7 pm to 11 pm slot.

Day to day evidence suggest that they all suffer as one picks off the other, while delayed trot races clog up the system as well. One of the primary determinants of pool sizes is the closeness of race scheduling. Just to take one example, on the NSW TAB last week the Sandown win pool on race 6 (at 8:52 pm) did not manage to get past $6,000 yet its first seven races averaged $14,000 and later declined to about an $9,000 average as the night wore on and fans went home. (Victorian pools would have been much higher, of course).

The related point is that the vast majority of these international races would be a venture into the unknown for 99% of punters – they would know virtually nothing about the tracks, the jockeys, the trainers or the runners – so they are effectively no more than different versions of the mechanical Trackside, designed for mug gamblers alone. The contrast with local races is therefore extreme.

Incidentally, just to put things into perspective, on the day those Sandown figures were recorded, Tabcorp covered 35 meetings in total in the three codes, of which 15 or 43% were in overseas countries. It is not easily possible to work out the end effect of crowding on various pools but obviously it must be significant. The trick is for someone to calculate just how much the extra meetings attracted, over and above what would have been achieved without them. That is not a straight exercise as many gamblers simply bet on what’s up next. However, to the extent that clashes occur, there would have been a cost to local races.

There is an even bigger cost to greyhounds as many clubs are relegated to SKY 2, which is not available at all in some outlets, and which frequently clashes with SKY 1 when both are on offer. That’s a death sentence, pushing many pools down below the $5,000 mark, and providing stark evidence that the number of races on offer is greater than the ability of punters to fund them.

The actual amounts are going to vary from day to day and state to state, of course. And it is not possible to keep everyone happy, yet clearly there is a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul going on. That’s why Hong Kong will be a mixed blessing. It may not interfere much with local gallops (in the afternoon) but it will certainly do no good to prime greyhound pools. It doesn’t do any good now, and neither do races in Singapore, South Africa, France and Sweden which are located in the evening slot.

At the least, greyhound authorities should be demanding a bigger slice of the international action to compensate for the inevitable losses they cause. If Tabcorp makes bigger profits, so should local greyhounds.

The key issue is that Tabcorp and TattsBet were formed to provide a service to the local racing industry. Even now, witness all the brave words accompanying the recent announcement of TattsBet’s renewed rights to Queensland wagering. Australian operations gave them the base from which to attack the international events. Having done that, they are now hell-bent on feathering their own nests via even more international expansion. That’s fair enough in one sense, but is it at the expense of local racing?

There is strong evidence that both tote companies have run out of puff in trying to generate growth in traditional areas – partly but not only due to the arrival of competing online bookmakers. Even so, the long term decline in betting on the gallops and the trots suggests they are losing the confidence of their customers. Greyhounds are in much the same boat, but have been saved momentarily by simply running more races. But is that the last rabbit that can be pulled out of the hat? There is no more room in the calendar and there are no more dollars in the pockets of existing customers.

This leaves the Australian racing industry with three options for growth (or even survival):

1. Build more attractive products.
2. Find new customers.
3. Insist on a piece of the international action.

Two ways to do that are to reform racing management and to demand that state governments create a national betting pool – just as Hong Kong is doing internationally. Paradoxically, despite China’s broad opposition to horse and dog racing, they know a fair bit about gambling. It’s in the genes. The massive exceptions to the rule – in Hong Kong and Macau – prove the point.

Coonabarabran Secretary Speaks Out Regarding The Club’s Suspension

GRNSW provided the following media release yesterday in regards to the suspension of the Coonabarabran Coursing Club licence for three months.

The Board of Greyhound Racing NSW (GRNSW) has suspended the licence of the Coonabarabran Coursing Club for three months after it conducted a race meeting in March this year without a veterinarian in attendance.

The suspension will take effect from 7 July 2014 and conclude on 7 October 2014. During the term of the suspension, the Coonabarabran Coursing Club will not be allowed to conduct race meetings or trials.

GRNSW requires race clubs to have a veterinarian present at all race meetings to guarantee the welfare of racing greyhounds.

GRNSW Chairman Eve McGregor said the decision to suspend the Coonabarabran club sent a clear message to the greyhound racing industry that GRNSW will not tolerate anything that puts the welfare of greyhounds in jeopardy.

“The requirement to have a veterinarian present at race meetings is a basic standard imposed on all clubs in NSW and there can be no excuse for such a basic requirement not being met,” Ms McGregor said.

“The Board of GRNSW hopes that the Coonabarabran club understands the seriousness of its breach and take measures to ensure it does not happen again.”

ARG approached club Secretary/Treasurer Merle Clarke for comment and received the following statement.

“The Coonabarabran Committee will be appealing the severity of the penalty issued by GRNSW. Board stewards and club stewards are empowered by GRNSW to be in complete control of meetings. It is unfair to penalise clubs, owners/trainers and sponsors when they had no input into the decision made on the 15th of March.”

“To use our club as GRNSW has done as an example to others in extremely unfair. They have created the assumption and inferred that the club was totally responsible for the decision, which is beyond comprehension.”

“I have received calls from many participants expressing their absolute dismay at this imposed penalty.”

Merle went further to explain that in her 14 years of involvement at the club she was only aware of one GRNSW board member to have ever visited the Coonabarabran track, current GRV CEO Adam Wallish.

This raises an obvious question. In the current environment where animal welfare is paramount, as mentioned in the GRNSW media release above, how can regular track inspections not be on the agenda?

If we are going to see Coonabarabran hammered with a three month suspension for not having a vet on track due to animal welfare concerns, surely the safety of tracks around the state should also be of paramount importance.

Only last week we published a story in regards to the track upgrade at Wagga due to safety concerns. This upgrade was something that the Wagga club had been fighting over fifteen years to achieve. One is left scratching their head at how many tracks in NSW would be unsafe for the dogs racing there. Here we have a track in Coonabarabran that hasn’t been inspected in a long time, surely this is an essential part of fair and safe greyhound racing.

One would think our own Bruce Teague would have a field day with this news.

Auditing 2013/14 – Topsy Dominates

Before wonderful words in expensive annual reports begin to emerge from the bunkers of state racing authorities I thought it might be a good idea to work out where we are and where we might end up – the industry, that is.

The first question might be how we can afford those fancy productions, or even the hard to use computer programs they put them in. But we will leave that for the moment.

Our Assets

1. As ever, the top bracket of dogs and the skills of their trainers give us wonderful weapons on which to base the industry.
2. Back-up services in veterinary, breeding, medicine, feeds, transport, housing and air-conditioning have come along in leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades, and continue to do so. But note most of this is in the control of private firms or individuals, not racing authorities.

Our Liabilities

1. Our tracks have completely missed the bus, lacking the investigation and analysis that would produce more trouble-free designs.
2. Money is becoming a major hassle, partly due to the lack of initiative internally, partly due to the degeneration of the wagering market, and partly due to the varying policies of state governments. Some states are better off than others, creating a serious imbalance across the nation.
3. Public image of the industry is still poor and lacks a national perspective to improve it. The current NSW parliamentary inquiry brought to light many aspects of this subject. The knowledge gap has also left the industry vulnerable to biased attacks such as those from the ABC’s 7:30 Report and in the Sydney Morning Herald.
4. Average field quality continues to decline as more low standard dogs are inserted into the mix, mostly to staff extra races being crammed into an already overcrowded calendar.
5. The reduction in the standard and numbers of dogs with staying ability, and the parallel increase in attention paid to shorter races is reforming the industry genetically, and in a fashion contrary to customer desires, as we understand them. There is no future in 300m races.
6. Generally, the “product” is being created in the eyes of administrators, rather than being pitched professionally to the desires of customers and the public. There is no evidence that we even know who those customers are.
7. The industry’s governance and organisational structures do not meet the standards of the modern world, being based on 1950s patterns and a survival theme.

Our Opportunities

1. As by far the dominant code in race numbers, greyhound racing has the potential to reach more customers, more often, providing only that they first understand what greyhound racing is all about.
2. The development of cohesive and authoritative national leadership could lead to more effective and efficient operation of the industry and play a greater part in influencing both governments and the public.
3. Creation of a national betting pool could build turnover significantly, almost overnight, by giving genuine punters something practical to use.

Our Risks

1. By far the industry’s greatest problem is the devolution of control to betting operators and their targetting of short term profits at the expense of the excellence of the product. Those operators are competing with each other (but seldom on price) at the expense of catering to a once-discerning customer group.
2. In turn, the industry is now largely dependent on income from mug gamblers who owe allegiance to nobody.
3. Breeding numbers (of both horses and dogs) have been flat or in decline for many years now, indicating serious shortcomings in the nature of the package on offer.
4. The industry is hugely dependent on the will of a tiny handful of large owner/breeders, to the extent that at least two states have, or will have, risks to their viability.
5. State governments are notoriously reluctant to view the racing industry constructively and therefore to introduce necessary reforms. The commonwealth has no power to intervene, even if it wished to do so.

The upshot of all this is that, were Australian greyhound racing listed on the stock exchange, its price would drop faster than those of an airline or a shonky property developer. There was a time when you could get away with anything, mostly because people in their thousands had no choice but to descend on the racetrack for the thrills and to have a go at making a million. That is no longer the case. Too many other choices are available and racing authorities (and state Treasuries) have failed to bring racing into the modern world. It is no longer as relevant as it once was. Major reform is the only answer.

Dismal? Perhaps, but what is the point of ignoring the facts? How else can you find solutions? Anyway, racing owes a greater return to its participants, who should be earning 50% to 100% more than they do now, while any genuine punters still in the game must be getting very frustrated. That’s incentive enough.

Not The Full Story

The facts often take a beating in the modern world of corporate and political life – even in racing. Or as Charles Dickens’ hungry young character asked; “Can I have some more, please sir.”

A recent Australia Institute report on mining attracted sympathetic treatment from the Fairfax press when it claimed that the Queensland government was subsidising mining interests to the tune of $9 billion or more at the expense of the state’s less fortunate citizens. However, it got a deserved thumping from economist Henry Ergas in his column in The Australian.

In fact, the report treated investments in rail and port infrastructure as pure “costs” and dismissed anything on the other side of the ledger. “For example, the report treats the $3.7 billion spent on Queensland’s coal rail network as a gift by taxpayers to the mining industry”, said Ergas, despite the state later selling those assets for a thumping $4.6 billion as well as recouping many millions en route in line rentals.

Similar examples abound in other spheres where you may hear only one side of the discussion, usually that of left-leaning groups like the Greens, although all sides of politics are guilty to some degree.

Still in Queensland, Racing Minister Dickson is busy trumpeting what a great deal he has done to screw more cash out of TattsBet when giving them a long term renewal of its license. The tote will equip more pubs and clubs, improve its marketing and, according to the Minister, “help grow the Queensland economy”. The government will also reduce its own tax take to 82 cents in each $100 (compared to $3.22 in NSW).

There is no word on how the Minister or Racing Queensland will reverse the movement of horses and dogs out of the state (permanently or to race at northern NSW tracks) or otherwise do anything positive about the appalling state of fields at Albion Park. Monday meetings are now a no-go area for genuine punters due to the poor standard of runners. On Thursdays, the same dogs go around every week but meetings are still padded out with Maidens and Novice events,

In NSW GRNSW gilded the lily when it said that the rebuilt turn at Maitland – a cutaway job – was based on “good experience elsewhere” with that device. No such evidence is available. It is all pie in the sky. Similar turns at Wentworth Park, Launceston and Cannington have done nothing less than further bias the track in favour of inside runners, or create extra interference. The outcome at Maitland was to improve win rates for runners in boxes 1, 2 and 8, which hardly needed any help in the first place. You will not find that evidence in the official statistics because the GRNSW data was not re-started after the track change. (I did it manually).

GRNSW is no doubt still busy working out how it will shift the Tweed Heads operation into Queensland jurisdiction, a plan it announced 18 months ago. It offered no reason for the proposed change. The massive legal and contractual challenges to this deal make it another candidate for the “pie in the sky” list, yet no further information has been put out since the original announcement. That must be confusing for many. The fact that Racing Queensland welcomed the move does it no credit either.

On the edges, readers might remember that on the occasion of the NSW parliamentary hearings an anti-racing group carried carefully prepared posters calling on the NSW government to cease providing subsidies to greyhound racing. Those subsidies were never identified and questions to some of the demonstrators produced nothing more than “you know it’s true” type responses. In practice, greyhound betting in NSW supplied almost $22 million in taxes to the state government in the last full year. And that’s without counting all the normal taxes paid by participants and organisations involved in the business. That’s more than confusing – it’s dishonest, but that’s what these people try to get away with.

Victoria usually has plenty to say, the latest being a story about $6.2 million to be spent renewing the Traralgon track and grandstand, yet it said nothing at all about what sort of track we would end up with. Public comments were not sought in advance, nor about Cranbourne where a major change is in the offing.

In both Queensland and SA, decisions to terminate the use of the follow-on-lure were made despite all the hard evidence demonstrating that it produced better results than the traditional finish in the pen. Emotional claims by some trainers should never have been allowed to influence those decisions. That amounts to a disservice to the racing public, but they will probably never know about it. NSW also experimented with the FOL at two tracks but never published any results and let the subject fade away.

WA has released plenty of information about the new Cannington track but it deliberately included a bend start for the 600m trip, apparently without bothering to analyse experience with those starts at numerous other Australian tracks, as well as the current Cannington track. Had they done so, they would have found that higher interference and less predictability for punters should have steered them off.

The obvious conclusion is never to believe anything you read until you get independent confirmation and hear all sides of the story. Seldom will that happen with racing authorities. It’s one thing to put on your best face but quite another to deny the public the full truth.

PROMISING

Let not the week go by without noting the terrific run by relative newcomer, Irinka Hope, to win in 41.99 over the Wentworth Park 720m trip last Saturday. The bit I liked was not only did it rail well but it also appeared to maintain very high pace on the turns. Not many dogs can do that. We will watch with interest as it moves through the grades.

The only surprise was that its sire is El Grand Senor, a fine sprinter but a dog that could not go past 520m to save its life. Indeed, early in its career it had trouble even doing that. Perhaps mum helped a little (Nana Cook)?

The Jolly Green Giant Stumbles Again

The shocking revelation on this website of Tabcorp’s practice of changing bets after the jump is bad enough.

But Tabcorp is also under the gun from Racing NSW about the practice of manipulating incoming Fixed Odds bets to suit its own purposes. Previously, we have quoted here excerpts from Tabcorp’s manual telling operators how to service these bets – apparently to make sure it never loses.

Here is another one.

For years Tabcorp has been playing around with its price screens to give undeserved and confusing priority to harness races. When a trot race is scheduled just after a dog race, Tabcorp instructs its computer to list the trots first in the “next up” list. For example, the other night a trot race from country WA was set to run two minutes after a good quality greyhound race from Sandown but Tabcorp reversed the order, thereby putting it out of sync with SKY pictures. This can be possible only by deliberately pre-programming its computer in that way.

So field of five scrubbers in the bush outranked a top class race in the city. The outcome is that the harness code pulls in marginal income from mug gamblers who don’t much care what they are betting on. By the time the trot race comes up, the greyhound race has been run and won – no more bets, please!

A nominal reason for this might be that individual harness races have bigger pools than greyhound races. True, but there are a lot more greyhound races in total, which is why the code is increasing turnover and the harness code is falling away, helped by lots of integrity problems.

But what right does Tabcorp have to decide that priority? It is supposed to be a “partner” of greyhound racing, so we are continually told. Some partner!

This anomaly is costing greyhound hard cash and we have brought it to the attention of racing authorities in Sydney and Melbourne on several occasions. Apparently, they have been unsuccessful in their efforts to right the ship.

Monopolies corrupt, absolute monopolies corrupt absolutely.

The remaining question for greyhound authorities is – why is this so? Greyhound promotion is obviously insufficient to cope with the competition, hence those smaller pools. It won’t just happen, it has to be made to happen.

STAYER’S CORNER

Some promise was evident last week in the staying caper.

The second thing that happened was on Thursday at Sandown Park when Zipping Rory overcame a tardy start to round up a moderate field over the 715m trip. He went on to win by over six lengths in a smart 41.82. Miata’s record is 41.17 but few dogs manage to get under 42 seconds these days.

Importantly, he raced like a stayer after placing at his previous two stars over the distance. He’s only 28 months old so may continue to improve, especially from an inside box.

A clue? Zipping Rory is by Mantra Lad, a top quality all-distance racer, unlike most of the other sires in the better distance races. Take a couple of steps back again and there sits Token Prince, perhaps an ever better dog over all distances than Mantra Lad. There’s a lot of substance there.

(A note: can we please get away from the Zipping name? So far as I can see, this time the dog had nothing whatever to do with the breed that started off that line. The problem now is that it’s hard to remember which is which anymore because there are Zipping’s everywhere. I know picking names can be a hassle but it’s worth the trouble to make life easier for everybody).

The first thing of note was the day before when Ballarat put on a 660m race which attracted several of the usual city types that have been running (very frequently but not well) over the long trip. But this time they were relegated in favour of a newcomer. Dyna Perseus was having its first try beyond 600m and comfortably took care of them, coming from 3rd spot down the back and winning in a solid 38.26. That’s better than the average time at the track although the record is 37.60, held by Gold Affair Two, which was also in Wednesday’s field but dropped off after leading.

Dyna Perseus is one of the progeny of Lonesome Cry, a well credentialled American sire brought here by Paul Wheeler as one of his efforts to increase the strength of his breed. It seems to have worked. Dyna Perseus has had a good career so far over mixed distances but has done nothing spectacular. However, the way it finished off the 660m suggests it will be well worth watching.

Elsewhere, nothing much happened in Sydney but in Brisbane Late Angel Lee’s connections took the opportunity to bring it back to the 520m trip in a Winter Carnival Cup heat. Alas, although it has had plenty of success over that trip, it walked out in last place (at 5/1 from box 1) and barely improved after that. Obviously running the dog eight times in eight weeks over 710m was hardly a good preparation for a sprint, especially when it was just flopping over the line in those staying trips.

For most of these failed dogs, I can only repeat my earlier suggestion: give’em a month or so off in the paddock chasing birds or whatever. They are not doing any good where they are.

DON’T MAKE IT HARD

GRNSW Newsletter 27 June: “GRNSW has committed to introducing a new Masters racing category for greyhounds aged 3 ½ years and over from 1 July 2014, with races to be scheduled at all TAB tracks via a coordinated race program. GRNSW is now seeking input from participants on the draft Masters Grading Guidelines”.

That’s good stuff, although this column has been calling for the move for at least the last 10 years, only for the advice to be ignored. In fact, I suggested it should be compulsory for each club to run one each month. Victoria has been running these races for yonks with consistent success. It’s an excellent way of extending the useful life of dogs which are still keen and eager. Owners would be encouraged, too.

At the provincials these experienced dogs often run the best of the night, or nearly so. Some are a bit short on early pace but most are well able to repeat their overall times. They know their way around and are better able to avoid trouble, which can make them good betting propositions.

The only odd thing is that GRNSW plumped for a new rule – a 3.5 years age limit, rather than 4 years. Time will tell how that works out.

But why would GRNSW complicate things by scheduling three “Masters” grades? Even in Victoria there is no indication that grading is a barrier, or that a lot more races are needed. In fact, grading restrictions may well make it harder to obtain full fields, which would defeat the purpose of the exercise. The time to look at that would be after six months experience. We shall see.

Reform Overdue, But Who Will Do It?

It’s interesting – in the light of issues raised in these columns recently – to look back at comments made in the past by racing participants who saw things differently to the powerbrokers in racing, or to the powerbrokers themselves.

The Bookmaker

In 1994 leading Randwick rails bookmaker, Mark Read, called on the AJC to improve bookmakers conditions or else “he would be forced to go elsewhere” (or words to that effect). That occurred in a speech he gave at a seminar promoted by the AJC, then the state authority for thoroughbred code. In the event the AJC changed nothing and Read decamped to Darwin to conduct his business online as IASBet. Together with an Alice Springs firm, that led to the influential position now occupied by a dozen or so Northern Territory bookmakers all, in effect, “branches” of their bases in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Since then, oncourse bookies have gained small advances such as auditoriums on non-race days and phone access to clients but are still under the thumb of the raceclub, the state racing authority (now Racing NSW) and the state governments. Bookmakers were unable, or did not try hard enough, to influence lawmakers to allow them to expand and compete properly. Ever since, the thoroughbred code has been steadily losing market share, although it was partly saved by business generated by the NT group.

The Customer

In 2002, following a statutory review of thoroughbred racing by the state government, consumer advocate Peter Mair had his position on the industry participant body (RIPAC) terminated after serving his initial two year term. His well-publicised views were never popular with traditional administrators or the government. For example, he claimed that “the Australian racing industry is on the wrong track – everyone agrees there is far too much racing”, leading to more low class competitors. He noted that the TRB (the forerunner to Racing NSW) had failed to conduct the required twice yearly consultation with RIPAC or to take note of its submissions to the TRB. Similar comments were made 12 years later at the NSW parliamentary inquiry into greyhound racing.

“The racing industry is still administered much as it was in the 19th century”, Mair said, “There is no commercial discipline in the administration”.

Today, serious punters are in decline, mug gambler numbers are rising, and field quality is dropping every year.

The Administrator

Peter V’Landys, CEO of Racing NSW, was appointed to his position the day after the job was advertised in the Financial Review, which was a bit odd. He came from a mixed bag of tricks at Harold Park trots, where its venture into poker machine land failed badly when locals did not support it. Harness racing crowds fell, too. The Glebe community was incensed when, following the departure of greyhound racing, it failed to gain promised access to the centre of the racecourse to conduct hockey games. That episode was the subject of a critical one hour documentary by ABC TV. Harness people failed to rejuvenate its operations and so the land is now the site of high density housing. This was a remarkably similar process to the demise of Beaumont Park greyhounds in Newcastle, where the greyhound authority at the time and the code’s two leading clubs declined to take any interest and the owner (NJC) sold it off.

V’Landys gained kudos when he successfully led the High Court fight with NT bookmakers on the method of charging racefield fees. He has now followed that up (belatedly) with an attack on their practice of cancelling customer’s accounts if they win regularly, and of failing to accept bets that did not suit them. Since Tabcorp has almost identical practices it is surprising that he did not give them a mention as well. Time will tell there.

Meantime, the thoroughbred code is still losing traction, harness racing has done its dash (in part self-inflicted), while greyhound racing has kept its head above water only by adding more cheap races to an already overcrowded calendar.

The Outcome

While we are talking mostly about NSW here, the position is not a lot different elsewhere. Some better, some worse. Every move the industry makes is governed either by what Tabcorp/SKY wants or how the leading clubs and authorities persevere with outdated traditions or how little notice they take of rapidly changing customer priorities.

Respectively, these organisations respond only to their shareholders or to the ideas and the ideology of a few people around the committee table. So-called industry representatives barely get a look-in, customers even less.

No better illustration is available than the trenchant opposition of these two groups to the arrival of Betfair and online bookmakers in the first place. Almost to a man, the powerbrokers (including greyhound chiefs) fought bitterly and abusively against their “legalisation”, only to find that they were defending a house of cards. Holes had been left in the system that they could drive a truck through, customers were deserting the traditional betting operators in droves, all in an era when the industry was not doing too well anyway.

Eventually, changes were forced on the industry, so it is ironic that racing people are now grabbing the rewards without a blush or an apology. Yet without that stimulus (which has now run its course) racing would be in dire straits indeed.

But that’s history. Today, not a soul is raising a question about the worth or the appropriateness of racing’s basic governance systems, or state governments’ roles in persevering with a broken concept. Never are they brought to account. Yet what else can be responsible for the industry’s failure to adjust to the real world’s demands and opportunities? Or to create new systems which can compete with other forms of gambling and other recreational outlets?

Read and Mair identified some of the problems 10 and 20 years ago yet they still have not been addressed, let alone fixed. When will the penny drop?

AN ERA PASSES

The retirement of one of the industry’s greatest assets, broadcaster Paul Ambrosoli, leaves shoes that will be hard to fill. Since radio and television were joined in covering races, no job has been more influential in promoting the sport and PA was always at the top of the tree. Clear, comprehensive and classy. Thanks, Paul.

Beware Monopoly Sell-Offs

Our recent claim that state governments got it wrong when they sold off their TABs to the highest bidder has some direct parallels in the wider world.

Those TAB sales attracted bigger amounts because they offered monopolies for 15 years and included conditions that hampered their competitors (oncourse bookmakers at the time). By simply creating a company with lots of retail investors the capital obtained would have been less, supposedly stopping the states building more hospitals, schools and the like.

Out in the real world, we are seeing a continuing string of sales of state infrastructure – ports, roads and electricity poles and wires, for example. Yet criticism of these ventures is coming thick and fast. The basic idea of increasing efficiency in those industries is not the problem; it’s the fact that offering monopoly rights to private companies involves two unavoidable and dangerous outcomes. First, firms love having a monopoly and therefore pay more than the facilities are really worth in an open market. In turn, that leads to higher user charges down the track – a burden on future customers. Second, the lack of competition discourages innovation and the development of new systems that can improve efficiency

Both those things have occurred in the betting market. TABs are becoming more expensive to use (especially the Fixed Odds sector) and competition is nominal at best. The arrival of corporate bookies and Betfair stirred the pot for a while but it has now descended into an unhealthy mix in which they chase each other’s tails.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is keeping a watchful eye on current moves by NSW Premier Baird to sell off parts of the electricity grid to fund future road and rail developments. Queensland and Victoria also have major sales in the offing. Chairman Rod Sims warns that these could effectively raise prices for the next generation as firms try to recoup their investments and pay off the debt involved in the original purchases. Sims and others argue that what they are doing is “akin to taxing future prosperity” (The Australian, 22 June).

As illustrated by sales of the TABs, state governments have some ability to avoid scrutiny. Commonwealth-state agreements about increasing efficiency via the sale of government owned enterprises always contained get-out clauses.

We now have had 50 years of that experience to show that the racing industry has had mixed outcomes.

The first 30 years were great as TABs steadily increased their product range, their services and their turnover while bookmakers (all oncourse then) at least maintained a level. The introduction of SKY channel in the late 1980s provided another boost to turnover, although it also prompted the steady decline in racecourse attendances and therefore in bookmaker numbers.

In the 1990s and 2000s the rapid growth in online bookmaking provided a buffer against, or caused (take your pick) the start of the decline in TAB takings. Overall, it initiated a pattern of betting operators trying to outdo each other while ignoring customer needs and a changing society. The most obvious outcome is the rise and rise of sports betting, where turnover now exceeds that of the harness code and is moving quickly to bypass greyhound betting. Betting on the gallops has been consistently on the wane for the last 20 years. Greyhounds have gained a little, but only by adding more and more poor quality races.

Just recently, economic experts at IBISworld assessed racing industry growth from 2009 to 2014 at minus 2.9%.

In the background, changes also have included a fall in breeding numbers of both horses and dogs, particularly over the last decade.

Meanwhile, racing authorities are concentrating on good news items. All GRNSW can tell us is that takings for the Easter Egg were terrific, mostly on the back of online bookmaker volumes. That’s nice but it is not the big picture, nor does it reflect its stated need to reform NSW racing or run out of money. Queensland is busy telling us how it will spend money (at the track at Logan) but not how it will revitalise its fading businesses. Victoria is flat, although last year it got lots of help from a re-worked share of state racing commissions.

TattsBet, which may or may not gain an extension on its licence in Queensland (decision due soon), is unpopular with locals while its small pools offer little encouragement for punters who have plenty of other choices these days. The other states in its package – Tasmania, SA and Northern Territory – are similarly affected.

Frankly, racing can no longer afford these risks. If you don’t go ahead, you are going to go backwards. Yet, split up between eight states and territories, each with a different ideas and different sorts of administrative structures dating mostly from the 1950s, and little or no recognition of the trends from state governments, where can the industry go?

Well, for a start, it can demand national betting pools to put some meat on the bones. For greyhounds in particular that would stimulate betting by serious punters. But it also has to look inwards to see why old-time management structures have failed to cut the mustard in a modern world. Our amateur-run raceclubs have been steamrolled by new recreational and betting opportunities while racing authorities are hell-bent on maintaining the status quo and little else.

Yet racing must be the only sport, indeed the only industry, which has failed to move with the times. The bits surrounding it – services like vets, drugs, feeds and medicines – have gone ahead in leaps and bounds yet the conduct of racing, its administration and the quality of its tracks are no different to what they were in the 1950s. It is therefore little wonder that it has been losing traction and that customers have gone elsewhere. In short, racing has failed to sell itself as an attractive option to today’s spectators or punters. It survives now only on a few professional punters and a swathe of passing gamblers – one group keenly analytical and sucked in by discounts, the other without a clue. All are being asked to bet on a product that is getting worse by the day.

TABs were launched specifically as a service to the industry and also as an antidote to illegal street corner SP bookies. Today, mug gamblers are supplying a service to TAB shareholders. What went wrong?

Signs Of The Times

In a remarkable move, Racing Victoria is set to increase Saturday thoroughbred races from eight to nine and reduce the gap between races to 35 minutes. The aim is simply to bring in more cash. It says it will provide “more opportunities” to owners but you can forget that – it is the dollars that count.

While this has no direct effect on greyhound racing, it is consistent with the pattern being pushed by Tabcorp/SKY to ram more races into every 24 hour period, regardless of any “unintended consequences”, of which there are plenty. That’s why we are seeing all sorts of strange French and Swedish trots and oddball gallops from South Africa (a country which bans greyhound racing), to be followed before long by American races, all of which will contain unknown runners at unknown tracks. These are the classic “four-legged poker machines” which Tabcorp favours to repair its ailing tote business.

Some of these do directly impact on greyhound turnover – the South African gallops in particular, so it’s not hard to see that the clear and distinct priorities of betting operators are, first, more turnover to please their shareholders and, a distant second, progressing the Australian racing industry. They are happening on top of an already overcrowded local program which is splitting the race by race betting chunks into smaller and less usable pieces.

Unfortunately, greyhound racing itself has assisted the trend, starting mainly in 2010, when extra meetings were added to an already busy Saturday night. The immediate result was a reduction in turnover on the two biggest betting attractions in the country – Wentworth Park and The Meadows greyhound meetings – which continues to this day. Their volumes are still usable for betting purposes, but only just, and only in the state of origin, especially with more turnover going across to corporate bookmakers. All of which reduces the integrity of the trend-setting TAB prices. Other than the big two, pools of $10,000 or so are the best you can hope for. So don’t put more than $10 on your Quinella choice as you will then be buying back your own money.

To rub salt into the wound, last Saturday night GRV put on an all-maiden meeting at Bendigo to do battle with prime greyhound and harness races. What sort of future does that promise? What were they thinking?

Maybe one fresh idea might come from other sports. Rugby Union is about to get a strong proposal from a group of businessmen (also supporters of the code) to buy up the NSW Waratahs and take them to greater heights. Clubs in Rugby League have already gone down that road – Brisbane, Newcastle and Melbourne. Many others in all codes are effectively controlled by related social clubs anyway.

Maybe a better plan would be to privatise the entire greyhound code, just as happened with the TABs, and gain the weapons to fight fire with fire. Alternatively, with the benefit of hindsight, it is plain that governments would have achieved better results by retaining ownership of the totes and selling off all the codes. If you have to have a monopoly, far better to have the government handle it, thereby offering the opportunity for the public to have a stronger voice. Or any voice, actually.

AROUND THE BETTING RINGS

Day of the Week

At Wenty, pools on Friday night are often shading those on Saturday, although the class of fields on the latter must be a good 30% better. Only the Peter Mossman final broke the pattern with $28,295 on the NSW Win tote. GRNSW is to shift half the Friday dates to provincial tracks in the coming year. Will they do as well? Doubtful.

Who Are Those Guys?

Sisco Rage (WPK R9) was sent out as an extraordinary $2.40 favourite from box 8. Who on earth could have done that, other than die-hard Darren McDonald supporters? It had no special form to speak of, its last good run being back in April when it won a 500m race at Bendigo. It has generally done better from the inside, too. I made it a 20/1 chance and it ran a mediocre 2.5 lengths to a slow 30.34 after coming out stone motherless last and then crossing to the rail. It finished in 2nd place only because of huge disruptions on the first turn.

Not the Real Reason

Notable at Wenty on Saturday were the runs of Keybow (R3) and Lochinvar Impact (R4). Both had box 8, both were favourites, both began poorly, both put their paw on the accelerator and whizzed around the field to lead in the back straight. Tops dogs? Well, yes, although Lochinvar Impact was pipped on the post, but the reason they were able to do that was not just due to their abilities but because the inside division bunched up, slowed down and therefore made space for outside dogs. It’s the nature of that awful run to and around the turn. Many others have done likewise. Anyone for a track re-build?

Clerical Error

Still at Wenty, how is it possible to publish race results with every sectional time wrong (R2, Saturday)? It happens every so often in Victoria, too. Does nobody actually look at these things before they send them off?

And Still No Change

Tasmania continues to tell lies by deliberately posting sectional times against the wrong dogs, while Tabcorp and Tattsbet continue to publish imaginary First Four dividends. When will the truth come out?

Stayers continue to take turns in winning and recording times ranging from ordinary to poor – the latest a miserable 42.48 by Zipping Joe at Sandown last Thursday (record 41.17 by Miata) beating dogs that have previously run much faster. I wonder if trainers have ever thought of giving their charges a month off to roam the paddock and freshen up. Horses and humans do it all the time but not greyhounds, it seems.

And we still have four states, soon to be five, where you are unable to print out a decent copy of the race results – all of which are in the care of GRNSW. Formguides are almost as inaccessible.

Error Firmed Up

The latest plans issued by RWWA and GWA confirm that its Cannington replacement will have a bend start for 600m races. This continues the muddled thinking present in virtually all other Australian clubs to produce designs which make life even more difficult for dogs and punters. Plans for the new track at Logan in Queensland do likewise. Together, that’s around $30 million of punters’ cash being spent badly.

But here’s a suggestion; put all track design in the hands of an experienced jockey. There is no way one of them would make a racing animal suffer a start like that.

The Future Is Here Already

We happened to enter the Woolies supermarket together and stop at the big box full of broccoli, attractively priced at $1.50 per kilo. She was a mature, well-dressed woman, clearly just out of an office or professional environment. I was just looking for a good deal, just as I used to do when wandering around a betting ring with 20 or 30 bookmakers keen to get my cash.

“Wow”, I said, “What a great price”.

“Is that good?” she asked. “Try four bucks”, I responded, quoting a more usual price.

Which tells you a lot. First, that Woolies had tumbled on to a huge pile of the stuff. Second, that it allowed them to use it as a “loss leader”, as the trade terms it, and thereby encourage shoppers to visit the store. And then buy more high priced items just down the aisle.

The supermarkets are past masters at this practice, far more so than the airlines which get all the publicity about managing yields by charging different fares at different times to different market segments.

For example, for 52 weeks a year Woolies charges just on $5 a bunch for rhubarb but I can get it for half that at the local greengrocer just down the road. No such competition exists inside the shopping centre (unless there is another supermarket) because Woolies has frozen out the greengrocer we used to have, along with the butcher and the deli (so no longer can we buy freshly-made lasagne). And when an enterprising Japanese food outlet started up just opposite its doors, Woolies immediately opened up a similar counter to divert the customers. Happily, it did poorly at that and it has discontinued the effort. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

The third lesson from my brief encounter was that some smartly-dressed mature women have not got a clue about the value of things, or maybe they don’t care. There is a remarkable parallel there to today’s happy gambler jumping on to the Fixed Odds prices being offered by Tabcorp and Tattsbet, regardless of their poor value. If you have $5 to spend, just whack it on. That includes the odds-on favourite which now is so short that it will never be possible to make a profit on it. But who cares? You may win enough to buy the next round of drinks, or some broccoli.

Another parallel is with the era when TAA and Ansett operated under the Two-Airline-Policy with set fares and identical numbers of planes. When their managements met every Monday morning they were little concerned about weekly profits or customers but instead whether they had 51% or 49% of the business. By comparison, when Woolies dropped milk prices to a fixed $2, Coles did exactly the same thing and later Aldi followed suit. Or was it vice versa, but who cares. Well, producers did and so were forced to breaking point in many cases. Personally, I would have been quite happy to pay $2.50, and I suspect many other folk would have had the same view. The point is that the supermarkets were concerned only about getting a jump on the other guy. Benefits to consumers or producers never came into it.

Meantime, airline fares are now half what they used to be since Gareth (Biggles) Evans, then Minister for Aviation, brought in deregulation in 1989 which, incidentally, has been of huge help to the thousands of greyhound trainers shuttling around the country.

I might add that that was one of the only three things Labor governments ever did to improve things. Another was floating the dollar and the other when Whitlam stopped inserting “British Subject” in my passport. I hated that and never took any notice of it anyway, so it was a nice touch.

Which leads us to the tweedledum-tweedledee nature of Fixed Odds prices. The differences are small and often hard to get hold of anyway, whether you are a big or small punter. But it is why Racing NSW is now making a song and dance about their anti-competitive practices. CEO V’Landys, in his usual noisy fashion, is threatening dire consequences unless they conform to normal (oncourse) bookmaker principles. A fine idea, of course, but threatening to deregister them, in effect, is unlikely to get anywhere. It involves his implied power over the copyright to field lists, which is a state by state matter rather than a national one. It might work with Tabcorp, which is licensed in NSW, but not with operators licensed in other states, which is all the others.

What the Northern Territory and Tasmanian governments do is all that matters, especially in a digital era when copyright power is becoming more and more irrelevant and difficult to police. And they are two tiny states which do need the extra taxes.

Certainly, quite a lot of punters are not happy at the moment. But mature, well-dressed women from an office environment or builders on a work site trying to get set via their IPad or mobile may not know or care. The power of the people is just not there, unfortunately. Without that push, state racing ministers are unlikely to show much initiative.

The ideal message would be to ask punters to walk away unless the price is right. That’s exactly what would have happened in a decent old-time betting ring. Sadly, many investors now seem to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Ideally, the industry might encourage the development of punters who do know what it is all about yet the facts suggest the opposite is occurring.

It is a classic case of people with knowledge outwitting those without it. That surely makes a case for more government intervention, which is principle I do not like, but what else can you ask for?

Otherwise, only a national reform of the betting market offers hope of improving the lot of today’s punters and gamblers, to say nothing about the future prosperity of the industry. Is a Royal Commission out of the question?

Greyhound Lotteries Dominate

Henry Ergas, usually better known for his economic and political commentary, plucked out a topical quote in his column in The Australian (16 June): “In the game of the round ball,” Jean-Paul Sartre ruefully observed, “everything is complicated by the presence of the opposing team.”

The opposition in greyhound racing is turning out to be the people who refuse to do anything about removing the complications from its racetracks. No better illustration is available than the pictures of competitors at Wentworth Park in the Peter Mossman heats last Saturday. They were spread out at the first turn like a flock of geese in the path of a jet aeroplane. Feathers flew everywhere, three dogs fell but many more were inconvenienced. Few favourites won and exotics ranged from difficult to impossible to pick. The First Four in Hooksy’s race paid $4332, another paid $5,165 (or would have if someone had put $1 on it) and four others were just under or over the $1,000 mark.

The reason is simple – the track is badly designed.

Thirteen years ago authorities fiddled with both main turns, only to make the situation worse. For forty years before that, grass and loam, it was always known as “the tricky track”, mainly by comparison with the famed Harold Park circuit, beloved of trainers, punters and champion dogs. Many refused to go over the hill to Glebe’s other track, knowing their fortunes would be in the lap of the gods. Their numbers include Australia’s biggest and most successful owner, Paul Wheeler, who for years refused to allow his dogs to race at Wenty and now allows it only on special occasions when big money is on offer.

Perhaps Greyhounds Australasia talked about the subject at their quarterly meeting last week, although we have no idea what was on their agenda or what they decided to do. If so, they might also have looked at the other major circle tracks in the country, all of which also have significant faults in one way or another. The problem is endemic and it is scoring the industry a series of own goals. Punters don’t much like their chances being ruined after the first five seconds.

In some cases the problem is easy fixed. We pointed out the other day the urgent need to shift the start of the 600m trip at The Meadows, but you can add Albion Park’s 600m start to that list as well. Despite all the noise about millions being spent to create a new track at Logan, Albion Park will continue running for years to come and a comparatively small investment would attend to that problem. Yet it is not even on the shopping list.

Currently, that part of the track is hemmed in by the existence of one of those figure eight training tracks for the trots. That not only causes hassles for 600m starters but the resultant flat camber also disadvantages 710m dogs trying to get around their first turn. As favourite Tarks Nemesis will remember, it was there that it took the second favourite (Wag Tail) off the track in a heat of the Gold Cup, allowing outsiders to take the honours.

Incidentally, the last plan published for the new Logan track included a bend start for its middle distance trip, indicating that authorities are very slow on the uptake.

STILL GOING

Back to the nitty-gritty, Xylia Allen scored a meritorious all-the-way win in the Albion Park Gold Cup last Thursday, albeit she did not have a lot to beat. Her 41.71 time was three lengths slower than her heat win although she ran almost identical time to the judge the first time around. It was her seventh distance race in 42 days so the pressure is no doubt telling, even though the Albion Park is trip certainly one of the easier “700s” around.

On that last note, Albion Park’s 710m is essentially a 650m sort of trip with a good two thirds of all winners being in the first two from the jump. It was instructive to note a great stayer, Arvos Junior, finding it too tough from box 8 to catch the runaway leaders there in the National Championships. Outside boxes are always disadvantaged because of that flat first turn mentioned above.

More surprisingly, our old friend, Late Angel Lee, finally conquered his demons in winning a 4/5th grade 710m race last week in a smart 42.09, after running a quicker first sectional than Xylia Allen. In both these cases they were noticeably slowing on the line, suggesting that both are due for a longer break than the constant 7-day habit they have been experiencing. Be wary if that does not happen.

In the only other distance race of note last week, Luna Jinx got away quite nicely (5.10) at The Meadows and had little trouble scoring in a moderate 43.06. This time she paid a more sensible $4.20 on the tote. In her previous three starts, winning the first and doing poorly in the next two, she has been priced at $1.90, $1.50 and $2.80. Several of her opponents were theoretically capable of better times but all are fading these days or just not getting into the race. None of these is worth backing at anything less than $4.00, including Luna Jinx, and preferably after a longer beak than 7 days.

Move On. Nothing To See Here!

Not much there isn’t!

It was wonderful to hear the Queensland Racing Minister and Racing Queensland boss (Dickson and Dixon resp) tell assembled throngs at the annual award night that everything was looking fine and dandy, including the start of work on the new track at Logan, southwest of Brisbane, on May 19. That’s this year, not next. No further details are available yet but no doubt someone is there with a shovel or two.

The usual noisy objectors have been around, claiming greyhound racing is a dastardly affair and that the $12 million investment should have gone to hospitals and schools. That’s odd logic because that’s precisely where the gambling taxes go anyway. Demonstrators at the parliamentary Inquiry in Sydney also got their facts wrong in the same way.

Hovering at the moment is a decision on who will end up with the Queensland tote license, currently in the care of Tattsbet. The government and RQ have been looking for “innovative” submissions, whatever that means, yet the Minister seems to have missed the point that the tote (whoever runs it) has been losing traction for many years now. That may be partly due to its smaller size, partly due to the way it is run, but more importantly it is due to the fact that customers are fewer and/or are going elsewhere – ie to corporate bookies or to interstate and overseas operators.

The Minister’s joyful forecasts has also failed to take into account the continuing decline in animal numbers and nominations in all codes and owners’ preferences to move good racers elsewhere in search of better prize money and opportunities. Albion Park’s major weekly Thursday meeting now routinely includes one, two or three Maidens or Novice races and, last week, two 395m fillers to make up the numbers.

With the possible exception of NSW, racing authorities have all been putting on a bright face and trumpeting about what they term great results over recent years. GRNSW has at least pointed out it will be running out of cash before long as it is unable to negotiate a better split of TAB commissions, and may then have to rationalise operations.

None of these hopes have much substance behind them as progress has so far been funded by extra races and mug gamblers prepared to have a crack at anything. You will not hear much publicity about that, though. Interestingly, it all bears a great resemblance to the picture of the Australian economy, or at least the national budget.

Peter Van Onselen, a WA University professor writing in The Australian (June 14), surmises that the Commonwealth government is getting beaten about the head “because the community is yet to embrace the seriousness of the fiscal challenge in the years ahead” – that is, people will not accept we have been spending more than we can afford.

He agrees with the Abbott/Hockey objectives although not always the methods they have chosen to get there. To bring matters to a head, he claims that voters first need to realise the extent of the problem. “Three proofs are needed: (that) Australia has a fiscal problem, the government’s approach is flawed, and there is a better way”.

Many folk might not agree that greyhound racing has such a threefold problem. Yet, in real terms, industry incomes are flat or in decline. Field quality is getting poorer by the day as more and more races are being screwed out of a dog population that has not changed much for several years. And the betting market lacks enough real competition to generate attractive prices – largely due to the cartel nature of the system’s members.

In the last case, note that Fixed Odds operators all offer much the same price structure, more or less, while tote pricing sets the base for the former products (or perhaps vice versa).

An interesting pointer came from Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald (May 31) when he examined the so-called competition now being promoted between universities following the latest series of budget changes. He suggests there is no genuine competition there as “we have a relatively small number of large and larger organisations, selling differentiated products of uncertain quality. We have oligopoly rather than perfect competition”.

Consequently, they “usually try to avoid competing on price rather than marketing. They have a degree of pricing power and their competition takes the form of “rivalry” – focusing on the behaviour of competitors rather than the needs of the public”.

Is that any different from what we are experiencing amongst betting operators? It seems not, thereby helping to explain why the overall market is static or falling, and has been for 20 years now.

At the core, the underlying reason for that situation is that state governments control the major operators directly as well as approving the rules under which the others work. But when have governments been good at running commercial enterprises? When have they updated or brought about reforms? Not in recent memory.

Indeed, the reverse is the case. The only significant change to the racing system over the last few decades has been arrival of corporate bookmakers, starting in the 1990s. Yet, almost to a man, state governments and racing authorities opposed them violently, giving way only when the Northern Territory and Tasmania broke ranks after they got offers too good to refuse. Although customers had always welcomed the newcomers, their views were coincidental and had little impact on the big decisions.

Hence the artificiality of the wagering system as we know it. It’s set by power brokers – in an oligopoly – rather than by customer demand. And it is expensive to use, which is why we have seen the increase in mug gamblers as a proportion of the betting public. Greed wins over rationality. Genuine punters have either insisted on big discounts or given the game away.

So there is nothing new about racing trends; it’s just a matter of whether we recognise them and take corrective action.

Non Penalty Is Actually A Misnomer

What exactly is the purpose of Non Penalty races in Victoria?

Just to take a brief example, at last Thursday’s meeting at Sandown – a normal high standard one – winners averaged 29.57. Three days later at the usual Sunday Non Penalty meeting they averaged 29.64. Nothing much in that. There was no clear difference in the state of the track but the Thursday dogs would certainly have had greater experience. On the other hand, the Sunday meeting also included two maiden events.

A natural conclusion would be that there was plenty of ability around on Sunday, leading to the question of why the races were not conducted under normal 5th Grade conditions. The answer is shrouded in mystery.

One outcome is that Non Penalty winners are free to go around in yet another NP race, or to compete in 5th Grade races anywhere else in the state without carrying with them any upgrading penalty – ie they obviously can win more low grade races. Still, that is a prime objective of the unusual Victorian system, and no doubt an attraction for immigrants from other states.

But let’s go back to that mysterious past.

NP meetings emerged from nowhere over a decade ago, apparently with the aim of providing an outlet for dogs which either wanted experience in the city or which could not otherwise gain a spot in the regular weekly meetings at each of Sandown and The Meadows. No doubt the clubs were also pressing for more opportunities to use their expensive facilities.

At the outset, the two clubs were granted one NP meeting each fortnight and prize money was assessed at much lower than provincial levels. Obviously authorities did not want to upset the balance unduly. Nominations came almost equally from youngsters on a learning curve and oldies returning from injury or needing to regain form.

However, the next stage moved the NP frequency from one to two each week and then prize money was moved up to full provincial levels. Generally, that improved the standard of races but it came at a great cost. Field standards dropped at provincial clubs, something which continues to this day, as the pathway to wealth was always going to be via the city clubs.

More recently, the NP principle has been extended to all clubs, along with the introduction of T3 races, which are restricted to dogs which have shown they cannot run fast. The resultant package, which included extra races, meant that average field standards in the state continued falling. A double whammy, in effect.

From a cash viewpoint, there was no noticeable shortfall as the era paralleled the rise and rise of mug gamblers as a proportion of the betting public. Not only did the modestly performed dogs serve the newcomers’ purpose but they also bet equally as much on maiden races. All these factors have contributed to the general increase in races offered, albeit they were staffed by a higher percentage of inferior dogs.

So the NP concept led directly or indirectly to a number of things:

· Wider opportunities for dogs wanting access to city tracks.
· More opportunities for low standard dogs.
· More statewide income as authorities filled gaps in the TAB program with extra races.
· Greater utilisation of tracks due to higher meeting frequency.
· A decrease in field standards everywhere, including in the city.
· A decrease in the size of betting pools, whether in the city or the country.

Of all these factors, the most critical have been the dubious nature of field standards where, for example, Novice dogs now even fill holes in major city meetings, and where provincial clubs are left with less to promote to both local and SKY/TAB consumers. Amongst other reasons, these factors must have prompted the decline in serious punter numbers, and certainly weakened week-round patronage.

Whatever the reasons, and whatever your point of view, it is inescapable that there is no natural growth in industry income, no growth in dog numbers (good or bad), and little or no effort to build a product which might attract discerning customers. Yes, there have been some advances here and there in efficiency but they have been more than outweighed by the negatives.

As we have mentioned here previously, the 120-plus different grades offered in Australia have emerged primarily because one or other authority thought “it would be a good idea” at the time, always prompted by a perceived need to keep all the owners and trainers happy, not by any particular customer demand. That was underlined even further when NSW recently installed not one but another three Grades for “Masters” (meaning veterans) events after ignoring that potential for many years. That’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut, if ever I saw one.

For their part, customers have been left mostly with a package of four-legged poker machines. That’s been fine for those able to press a button, but not of much use for anyone with half a brain.

Aside from the sorry nature of our track layouts, the long term worry is twofold; authorities and clubs have failed to consider the long term impacts of their policies, and they have been unable to create more innovative approaches to the need to improve the racing product and related services.

Separately, the NSW parliamentary inquiry has touched only the tip of this iceberg but we may get more encouragement when its financial outlook appears at the end of the month.

Farmers Use It, Aeroplanes Use It, So Why Not Greyhounds?

Using modern science like GPS, that is.

Rumour has it that Greyhounds Australasia Ltd recently talked about the need for a serious study into the art of track design.

It can only be a rumour as GAL, the code’s only national body, seldom talks about what it does. No meeting agendas are published. Few decisions are announced, and then only for matters limited to veterinary subjects, drug investigations or, in the latest case, greyhound welfare programs.

The veterinary area is further limited by a GAL policy to deal only with the Australian Greyhound Veterinary Association (AGVA) and not with other organisations, including universities. In itself, that policy severely restricts the advancement of the sport, given that AGVA is comprised of members who are, by definition, tied up with current industry participants or organisations in one way or another. Conflicts of interest would be present and innovative thinking put at risk.

On the other hand, universities would in theory and practice be keen to engage with outside organisations such as racing authorities, provided only that they get sufficient encouragement. That was the case with Sydney University when it conducted investigations into the use of whips in thoroughbred racing. But it got no such support when GAL refused to deal with it on a suggested subject a year or so ago. Noteworthy also is that projects selected by final year students normally include a large number of dog breeds but none of the greyhound.

Still, going back to the welfare issue, GAL’s recently announced a push into the national sphere of the recent moves by NSW and Victoria to improve regulations and practices. It included a string of measures aimed solely at trainers and their kennels – all to “to help ensure continued improvement in greyhound welfare outcomes”. Nice but narrow.

Even the recent NSW parliamentary inquiry identified problems with tracks, especially those with bend starts, as important factors in racing injuries – surely a welfare issue, as well as a public relations challenge.

These days, the creation of good, reliable and trouble free tracks is one of the few major influences on the code’s future that still lie in the hands of the industry’s managers. Pretty well everything else is controlled by TABs and corporate bookmakers. Unfortunately, those betting organisations have now run out of puff; tote takings are in decline, alternative betting such as Fixed Odds are a financial rip-off for punters and have probably done their dash now, the weekly racing program is already jammed full, expansion is limited to strange and unknowable international events at odd hours, and sportsbetting is on the rise.

So where will future growth come from? The only logical answer is from more betting from existing customers and the attraction of new customers, preferably big spending ones.

To bring that about, it is plain that, as well as better marketing, greyhound racing has to offer a more reliable set of outcomes – ie tracks which enable more interference-free races – which then encourage serious punters to take part.

Obviously that would cost money, but going down that road is likely to be far more rewarding over the long term than doing nothing. In any event, many changes are possible before moving into the million dollar category.

For example, let’s pick out one of the worst problems and use that as a test case. There are plenty of other options but the 600m trip at The Meadows offers multiple opportunities. Its first 100m are invariably a shocking mess as eight dogs try to negotiate space sufficient for half that number. Push and shove are extreme and penalties are always enough to force one or more runners out of the competition completely.

The underlying point is that middle distance racing has become more and more popular over the last decade, indicating that dogs and their trainers, as well as punters, would like to see more of them – but not when they get smashed at the start. That popularity, incidentally, is also being affected by the fact that 700m racing is clearly beyond the capacity of the vast majority of the current dog population, including many of today’s big race winners.

So the challenge is to get out the jack hammers and the concrete mixers, pull that 600m start out and move it around to a spot which allows the field to get a good look down the upcoming straight. Never mind all the mountains and cliffs in the way, just use your nous and do it.

Going back to the track study, we have previously outlined in these columns how greyhound racing lags far behind other codes of racing and virtually all other sports in the way it has failed to modernise and improve its layouts. We pointed out that the technology and the science were basically there to be used, just as the AFL and the NRL have employed GPS monitoring of player movements and used firms like Sportsdata and Champion data to create analysis programs.

But there is more.

Now the Australian Institute of Sport has built a new system based on multi-camera pictures which feed into computers the moves by every player on the field and then pass that on to coaches for evaluation.

Nicole Jeffery in The Australian (June 6) reports that “leading AFL and NRL clubs already use GPS for competition analysis but (AIS sports scientist) Stuart Morgan says the camera data is superior because it allows coaches to track the movements not only of their own players but also of the opposition”.

“We were looking for a non-invasive way to track athletes, how fast they run, how far they run during a game, where they were during set plays, what the opposition is doing from a tactical point of view”, says Morgan.

All this sounds like stuff that track designers could readily use to assess what works well on a greyhound track and what doesn’t, even second-guessing the dogs.

Can we afford not to use it?

The Kiss Principle Is Always Worthwhile Watching

There’s a lot in the words we use and the way we use them.

I was reminded of this subject, not so much when I first read the word “blistering”, but later when it was used to describe a dog running home to take second place. It makes you wonder what the winner did. First applied by GRV’s Watchdog, the practice has now spread across the nation. Words like good, fast, quick and so on are of little use today in the greyhound world, while anything critical or nasty is a definite no-no.

“Sensational” is another favourite but its real meaning must remain in the mind of the writer, along with “gobsmacked” which was attached to a race won the other night in Melbourne by Sweet It Is. The fact that its time is regularly equalled or bettered by a lot of other dogs was missed in all the excitement.

Such performances should always be described in context, but seldom are.

Indeed, race broadcasters often tend to set an imaginary scene as well. Favourites usually come out “fairly” (whatever that means) whether they are third, fourth or last to the first marker. Many runners have “no luck” when in fact they have an annoying habit of creating their own bad luck on a regular basis. Or they simply bungle the start. That matters little to SKY viewers, who can see for themselves, but it is pretty important for radio listeners at home, or for those reading formguide comments about past races.

Those same guys (where are the women?) are also prone to tell you every night about a great meeting coming up tomorrow at XYZ, regardless of the quality of the fields. As with the racing authority websites, it emphasises the fact that nearly all the public comment about greyhound racing comes from people who are paid to support the code. (You might remember that in pre-SKY days the broadcaster was always paid by the club and the habits seem to persist today).

It’s all part of the Good News theme which is universally adopted by racing authorities and other commentators bar, of course, this publication which tries to present all sides of the discussion. (Reports of suspensions and penalties get a good run here and often rank amongst the “most read”).

One consequence of this policy is that the words usually go in one ear and out the other. They end up being of minimal interest to the public although they can be pleasing to the owner/trainer of the dog involved. That may make them feel good but it does not put any more money in the till or help the industry’s image.

Anyway, the issue came to light recently from a couple of different angles.

First, a review by John Preston of The Telegraph in London highlighted the value of the book Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers, revised and updated by his great grand-daughter Rebecca Gowers (Penguin). The original Gowers wrote and revised the best-selling book several times while working for the UK Treasury pre- and post-WW11.

Gowers advised writers to “steer clear of clichés” and to stick to his three golden rules: “Be short, be simple and be human”

He had support from others who are concerned about all the gobbledygook. “I think a lot of it comes from people writing to impress rather than to inform,” says Tony Maher, general manager of the Plain English Society. “They don’t stop to consider who might be reading this stuff. They just think their bosses will be impressed by as many long words as they can put in – and of course it makes no sense at all.”

Politicians got a serve from author George Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

And from Winston Churchill. “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best,” Churchill said, “and the old ones when short are the best of all.”

Speaking of politicians, Janet Albrechtsen of The Australian (June 4) likens present day governments to “a 21st-century form of tyranny” – the tyranny of paternalism. ‘Swathes of social policy are being delegated by parliament to unelected bureaucrats at the expense of democracy”. Unfortunately, as “the power of bureaucrats expands, our power as citizens shrinks”.

There is a parallel here. Racing is run by bureaucracies in each state and code, and each has a habit of growing every year in size and influence, regardless of their relationships with the Boards in question. In some cases, there is more than one Board involved (in Queensland and WA, for example), leading to further confusion, and all have to contend with the influence of the Racing Minister’s own bureaucracy, which can be considerable.

A good idea would be to require all authorities to include in their annual reports a couple of key indicators; the administration (including consultancies) cost per race conducted, and the number of races run per administration employee. That might offer some interesting comparisons.

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