Anzac Day punters were treated to a smorgasbord of decent racing yesterday, with Gai Waterhouse once again saluting in the VRC St Leger at Flemington.
Other places in the world do night racing spectacularly, but Australian night meetings are a long way behind the benchmark.
Night racing works wonders in Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of participation, though no jurisdiction will ever be able to meet the lofty spectacle of night racing in Dubai.
Racing Victoria last week announced plans to modernise the Victorian racing calendar by extending the night racing season to nine months. It will see four new meetings at Cranbourne throughout May which will commence at the earlier time of 5:30pm and conclude around 8:30pm.
For the 2014-15 season, Victoria will see 36 night meetings split between Cranbourne (20) and Moonee Valley (16), with 33 held on Friday evenings and three on Saturdays.
While credit must be given to Racing Victoria for their attempt to address participation issues, the new plans hardly solve the existing problems.
Over the past few years, Victoria has used Cranbourne and Moonee Valley as venues for night meetings, while Canterbury regularly hosts Friday night meetings in Sydney.
Hong Kong has long had Happy Wednesdays as a tradition, in which crowds gather after work on a Wednesday evening at Happy Valley.
Since 1973, Happy Valley has been the regular destination of professionals to enjoy the atmosphere, a few casual drinks (everyone still has to work the next day) and live music. And there are two main reasons why Happy Wednesdays is so successful Hong Kong.
The first is because Happy Valley is extremely accessible – just a five-minute tram ride from the Central Business District (Central and Wan Chai). With trams buzzing non-stop along the main road, getting to the racecourse and back is never a problem.
Additionally, there is nothing else happening in Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening. Not for the locals at least.
Horse racing is the major sport of Hong Kong and they have specifically positioned racing on a Wednesday night to break up the week, with their other meeting on Sunday.
On these two principles alone, Victoria cannot even remotely expect the same crowds as Happy Valley.
Moonee Valley is only about five kilometres from the city centre but getting there by public transport is difficult. There is no direct train to the course and trams are infrequent. Driving is the easiest way to get to Moonee Valley (where parking facilities are excellent), but very few people who work in the city drive to work.
Cranbourne is much worse. For those unfamiliar with Melbourne’s layout, Cranbourne is the end of the train line. It takes approximately an hour to get from the city centre to Cranbourne and the track is still a 20-minute walk from the station.
Needless to say, very few people working in the city will be commuting down to Cranbourne after work on a Friday evening.
Geographically speaking, Caulfield is by far the most accessible racecourse in Victoria because it is a major transit hub which is used by both V-Line and Metro. The station also happens to be a two-minute walk from the racecourse, but Racing Victoria has signalled no intentions to introduce night racing at Caulfield.
From a scheduling perspective, the question has to be asked as to why Racing Victoria is hell-bent on Friday night racing.
It makes sense for racing to be an after-work wind-down activity, but Australia’s major race day is Saturday. If people are attending the races on Friday night, how likely are they to do the same the following day?
This doesn’t even take into account the fact that Melbourne is the sporting capital of Australia, with AFL, Super Rugby and NRL strongly followed. This means that for three months, horse racing must go head-to-head with the biggest sporting codes in the country, not just in terms of attendances but television viewers too.
Perhaps those three months would be the ideal time to test racing on any night other than Friday?
Seeing as Racing Victoria are supposedly being innovative, why not take a crack at something revolutionary like consistent night racing?
Summer in Victoria is dangerously hot and as we saw over the past few months, meetings around the state had to be moved or rescheduled due to heat concerns. What if we raced exclusively in the evenings for two months during summer?
Standing around on a 40-degree day hurts. It’s not pleasant for the horses and it’s not pleasant for the spectators.
With extended daylight and cool changes expected in the evenings, summer presents an interesting opportunity to host night meetings. This would, however, be an extremely costly exercise involving the installation of floodlights at the relevant racetracks.
It’s good to see Racing Victoria trying something new and experimenting with the racing calendar but they seem pigeonholed in their choice of nights and racecourses.
And we haven’t even mentioned the quality of racing.