Saturdays separating delights from the drudgery.....
BY JIM CREMIN
THAT there is life after the ending of Sky Sports’ coverage becomes ever more evident from Saturday week, when Crayford’s morning final of the Ladbrokes Golden Jacket is part of a new run of major Saturday events.
Last year that, like many former Sky occasions, took place on a Tuesday, as did the Racing Post Juvenile at Sheffield. That too has switched this year to a Saturday – March 2.
Following on that month is a key Irish final, the Ladbrokes Easter Cup at Shelbourne on Saturday, March 9, then it’s the Monmore Puppy Derby decider (Saturday 16), RPGTV Steel City Cup final (Sheffield, 23) and the Lol Jones Memorial gala (Monmore, 30).
Sheffield then remains in the Saturday spotlight with the Gain Trainers Championship on April 6, a generous double-header from the sponsors with their Gain 600 final also that night at Shelbourne.
The world’s richest puppy event is decided on Saturday April 20 – the Kirby Memorial at Limerick – while the RPGTV Scottish Derby concludes at Shawfield on Saturday, May 4.
With the sport’s showcase Star Sports, Arc and Local Parking Security Derby (this year newly confined to Fridays and Saturdays by Nottingham) the switch to weekends is substantive.
My regular visit last week to the ICE gaming and betting industry exhibition at London’s ExCeL produced the expected innovative diet of virtual and machine product, although SIS was particularly relieved to be able to offer plenty of international racing options too given the equine flu impact.
Greyhound racing will take a higher profile during this period, although that did nothing to halt speculation that the current volume of betting shop racing, caused by the war between the rival SIS and TRP services, is unsustainable.
Nobody knows what is going to happen, but given a likely significant drop in betting office numbers in the 18 months ahead due to the April 1 cut in permitted gaming machine stakes, the resulting reduced shop base has to be a factor. Aesthetically, too, our product has become disappointing, with less variety but more boring sprints.
Ron Hearn, who runs the JenningsBet in Charlton and was the 2017 Racing Post/SIS Manager of the Year, is a keen greyhound fan but fears his customers are fed up. JenningsBet takes all the TRP and SIS races on offer and he struggles to get the form on his shop wall.
Last Monday he cited four morning meetings going off in quick succession. The first started at 11.01am, the last at 11.11am, meaning four races taking place in ten minutes. In the afternoon there were three meetings, starting 2.06pm, the third at 2.12pm, resulting in three races every six minutes.
The evening saw Yarmouth start at 6.22pm. This and three others were joined by Youghal at 6.57pm, after which there were five races due to take place every 12 minutes.
It’s all too much, with confusion about what dogs are parading and where they are going into the traps. And in the ‘old days’, punters could see a replay. That’s rare now.
Commercially, of course, tracks will race when most financially prudent but the sport also needs to protect a customer and ownership base.
Returning to these Saturday prestige occasions is a welcome step, though an issue is getting the word out even more effectively. We need to explain to those casuals there just by chance why it’s important. Social media works best when a sense of fun underpins it – Paddy Power being the masters there.
ICE also saw greater showmanship than ever before in terms of projecting excitement, athough as I walked through the doors on the opening day I wondered if I would hear or see anything at all about greyhound racing. Within minutes I was being told about a greyhound that had been purchased to race with a Nottingham trainer with a view to a shot at the Derby!
Make no mistake, that Derby dream is what drives this sport. That’s always been on a Saturday and always will.
WHAT value will greyhound racing be to the off-course betting industry in the coming years given that major bookmakers’ continued appetite for it is vital to the health of the sport?
The imminent slashing of maximum stakes on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) is clearly going to have a negative impact via the closure of marginal betting shops, whose existence is reliant on the profits they have generated whilst having a requirement for live content such as greyhounds.
As horseracing has found out by a controversial pre-emptive strike from Arena Racing Company (Arc), the likelihood of fewer shops is viewed as leading to a drop in the value of media rights, which saw prize-money cut albeit that is currently on hold after the boycotting of races.
Prize-money could easily go the same downward way in greyhound racing, but the bigger issue will be what it means to the future of tracks, many of whom are dependent on media right payments just to survive. Few meetings these days are profitable to run as stand-alones, barring at weekends.
But there is another worry for greyhound racing and that is the profitability of greyhound racing to the off-course industry. What was once guaranteed to be a real cash cow is now anything but.
The current ‘war’ between SIS and TRP has led to duplication of service and a surfeit of greyhound racing, meaning that just getting a card out seems more important than ensuring it is tightly and carefully graded.
As a result, from a bookmakers’ point of view it becomes ever more important that the races are priced correctly and this is where the system has badly fallen down.
Many betting shows emanating from tracks, whether through accident or design, bear little resemblance to the true chances of greyhounds, and even blindly following the exchanges is fraught with risk as, unlike in horseracing, the figures needed to manipulate an opening show are not huge.
Now bookmakers have not helped their own cause by trimming right back on odds-compilers – ironically at a time when more races than ever are being priced-up – and no longer taking an active role in the on-course market as they once did to ensure it reflects the state of off-course liabilities.
But it is not a good look for greyhound racing full stop when a race which sees an opening show suggesting a competitive race then develops with one dog being backed as if defeat is out of the question while others take a big walk in the market.
Nottingham’s second race on Friday was a case in point with Olso McCrow.
The dog, who had started 5-1 and 9-2 on his last two appearances when beaten in the same A7 grade and was predicted a 9-2 chance in the Racing Post SP guide, opened at 2-1 in the first show sent out off-course and was smashed all the way into 4-5, mirroring very strong support on Betfair.
Despite being crowded early and not leading until halfway, he went on to record just a third career victory in 18 starts by fully eight lengths, doubtless playing to the casual viewers preconceptions about greyhound racing and leaving bookmaker traders for the off-course firms perplexed.
That is just one recent example of which there are many, and it is a real issue for greyhound racing if the betting market cannot be trusted to be somewhere near accurate – and that is allowing for the fact there will clearly always be gambles in a gambling sport.
Just how strong is the appetite off-course bookmakers’ for such racing going to remain?
The firms themselves have to do more and realise that greyhound racing cannot just be left to itself to happen, with the results taking care of themselves as it once did.
There are too many clued-up punters out there for that and trainer Peter Harnden, who guests on RPGTV tonight, was 100 per cent right when saying on his last appearance on the programme that this is the best time ever to be a greyhound punter.
But for how much longer? The best of times could lead to the worst of times if track closures follow reduced demand from greyhound racing’s sole marketplace.