Right in ’81 and right here too

WA racing has to move fast 23 July 2020

Recently saw an interesting conversation on After the Last on Racing.com about changing the traditional format of racing.

Western Australia needs to get on board and fast to keep up.

NIGHT RACING

Brent Zerafa was particularly persuasive in his comments, some which have come out of Covid-19 and others which are just common sense. Here are a few:

-Australian horse racing is a television sport

-Wednesday, traditionally ‘second best’ day of week, but no longer

-Sunday is the second biggest betting turnover day

-Insatiable appetite of corporate bookmaking firms to cover all events

-Originally racing Wednesday and Saturday related to ancient legislation

AGAINST THE ODDS: RACING COLUMN IN THE WESTERN MAIL 1981

Nearly 40 years ago in the long-forgotten The Western Mail newspaper, I wrote a column with the headline ‘Country races in the city?’ which championed television coverage as the future of WA racing.

“…while watching the repetitive process that is provincial racing, it might not be too long before people won’t journey to the country to watch a race meeting.

“Imagine the Perth Entertainment Centre (it closed in 2002 and demolished in 2012) filled with punters and bookmakers watching the midweek provincial races on direct telecast.”

That was 1981. According to its own history and Wikipedia, Sky channel (later Sky racing) and other vehicles came along to make this a reality when it debuted in 1985 but the service was only available at TAB outlets, sporting venues and clubs. It became a home subscription service in 1998.

Currently, with Racing.com on free-to-air and the ravages of Covid-19 since February 2020 it has become more apparent of the television-driven effect on horse racing.

As my column said: “Unlike human athletes, it is not essential for horse and rider to be urged on by a large crowd. Stakemoney is enough incentive.”

Further: “We watch every other major sporting event on direct telecast television so there should be no objection to a big screen direct link.”

Crowds add something to every sport and race horse owners and enthusiasts love to be on course but the last five months have proved racing gets by in silence.

Ancient legislation deemed Wednesday and Saturday to be the two days racing should be held. Country towns used to do half days on Wednesday, businesses closed at noon and those who wanted could go to the track.

The city boys cottoned on to this and midweek city racing was born. Now it has been surpassed by Sundays.

Betting is huge business in Australia and racing, the only sport being presented on TV during the early days of Covid-19, grabbed back some market share in those times. Numbers have been crunched and Sunday is now Day 2 for high turnover.

WA needs to be mindful of this. Every country cup day, if not already, should be programmed on Sunday and midweek city racing should be switched to Sunday city racing on the remaining available dates.

Unfortunately, Perth has the two-track syndrome against it here. Ascot races in the warmer months and Belmont Park in winter. Tote machines, bar equipment, televisions, the lot are transferred from one to the other when the seasons change. Therefore, we would be racing back-to-back (Saturday, Sunday) at the same venue if this continues.

Boring? Yes, but it’s been like that for a long time. Racing became homogenised in the 1980s when different style tracks like Beverley (dirt and flat), Toodyay (turf and undulating with a short straight) and York (then dirt and a steep downhill run to the home turn) were closed or limited.

Revamps of Northam, Pinjarra and Bunbury tried to make them all a bit like Belmont Park, providing an easier lot for punters. A major variable, track differences, was removed from the form equation.

I recall bookmaker Mark Read telling me in 1997 that his form regime was built around the Perth model because WA racing results were more consistent than other jurisdictions.

Even he seemed surprised when I explained how sharply different Perth conditions were from those in Melbourne: “Why wouldn’t it be?  It never rains and the tracks are all the same,” I said.

So TV has to be put in place. Fast.

PARMY UNDER THERE: DAMIEN OLIVER ON A DAY OFF

The next thing we should do is reach out to Hong Kong and tie Sha Tin in with Perth’s Sunday meeting.

Hong Kong racing is brilliant. Australia’s betting pools have been linked to theirs and the times are concurrent. A 10-race meeting at Sha Tin begins at 1pm and finishes just before 6pm.

Which raises another point. Hong Kong races are run every 30 minutes. WA still has inordinate gaps between races (I assume these are allotted and we get one of the last picks?) but the modern player wants faster action. Narrow the times between races. If trainers have to employ more race day staff that’s a positive for a country needing to provide jobs. Eventual higher turnover could somehow absorb this cost. 

All we have to do is get the industry participants on side. Already there is disquiet in Melbourne with Friday night meetings, Saturday main day of the week and then another big day on Sunday. Again, put on more staff, more stables should combine (Price & Kent jun.; Maher & Eustace; Dabernig & Hayes). Having more upper management (the trainer), allows for duplication of roles.

It serves no purpose for trainers and jockeys to get their own way in a dying industry/sport. If you want it to grow, this will be the way and you have to adapt. Sundays live on TV will help it grow.

Night racing will help it grow too and Belmont Park is ripe for this prospect (see breakout Night racing, no brainer).

WA racing is perfectly poised for all these changes.

  • We have a disgraceful grandstand at Belmont Park which has been promised to the wrecking ball for decades so a new venue would attract new customers
  • WA’s TAB is being sold after the Covid-19 air clears so new arrangements could be hammered out in negotiations with the buyer
  • There is a train line and major station servicing Optus Stadium which would bring patrons in safety for a night out
  • Planned development around Belmont Park racecourse provides new faces who may attend
  • Current programming model isn’t too full with racing on other days of the week and many of these are at far-flung courses. 

Get onto it guys. I was right in 1981. Might be right this time too?

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