Throughout this week Cameron Rose and I have detailed how we would change Australian racing’s Group 1 calendar.
Concerned by declining mainstream interest in racing, which has been partnered in the last few years by falls in carnival crowds, a spike in the number of Group 1 races, and a diluted racing calendar, we decided it was time to show how Australian racing’s Group 1 calendar should look.
The main idea was that we were going to strip away state rivalries and all barriers to change in order to produce a truly national approach to Australian Group 1 racing.
The focus would be a better racing product and the benefactor would be the sport, its participants, punters and fans.
The response was varied, but largely positive I would say. We generated massive interest through the week, and we thank our loyal readers who chimed in with valuable ideas and improvements.
Cam got the ball rolling on this project, and we wanted every racing person to have a say if they wanted to. To see so many people get involved was pleasing.
The conversation exploded on Tuesday afternoon, when the debate turned to Twitter and some administrative heavyweights from Victoria joined in. There was encouragement from racing’s administrators and some criticism too – that’s not surprising when one considers where the main barriers to change lie.
In the end, we got the number of Group 1 races down to 41 but more importantly we created a calendar that we believe has a largely national focus, flows seamlessly and, crucially, was balanced.
The early autumn and spring were cleaned up, carnivals in Adelaide and Brisbane were given more direction, and the pendulum that swings from Sydney to Melbourne in October and then back to Sydney from Melbourne in March was re-tuned.
Overall, for such a big project, we were very happy with the result. But the thing is, while fixing racing’s calendar is going to do plenty for Australian racing, there is still a lot more the sport can do to improve its health.
The obvious thing would be to set up a national body that has the power to run racing for racing’s benefit, free from any state or club bias. Every racing fan dreams of that and one day we hope it is comes to fruition. We may be waiting a long time though and in that time there is a lot more change that can help racing get stronger.
The first area of change I would like to focus on is breeding. It is well known that the breeding industry has a stranglehold on racing. The way breeding currently influences racing is the best example of the tail wagging the dog I have ever seen in any sport.
The breeders hold the money and power in racing. And the way racing works at the moment, to get the most money out of the game, you have to play to the breeders’ rules.
Those rules? Race a colt, win a Group 1 and retire to stud with a large service fee. Then that colt becomes a stallion and that stallion’s job is to produce more stallions. How? By breeding Group 1 winners.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that racing is playing the game too by upgrading, for instance, races like the Golden Rose and Coolmore Stud to Group 1 in recent years, thereby offering breeders a pair of feature three-year-old stallion-making races. These races are won by colts most years and history shows that those colts will probably stand at stud less than 12 months after winning those races.
We tried to fix some of that this week. And, to be fair, we’ve done a good job to make the game fairer for racing. We took away the Golden Rose as a Group 1. We also took away the Randwick Guineas and a series of sprint races like the William Reid, the Galaxy and the BTC Cup as Group 1s.
It is maybe a radical idea but I’ve always enjoyed the thought of imposing a rule that means a stallion cannot stand at stud until the age of five. That would keep all fit and healthy entires on the track until the end of their four-year-old season. Unfortunately, getting a law like that passed would be very difficult.
An alternate solution, and this is something I’ve written about before, is introducing a four-year-old championship race at the start of the season to give the owners of valuable three-year-old colts a carrot to keep racing their horses as four-year-olds.
Ideally, the race would be held in early October, or late September, and the prize money on offer would be about $2-3 million. The specific conditions of the race, like the distance, would be open for debate.
This is an idea worth pursuing in any climate but especially one where Group 1 races are significantly reduced in number because the amount of colts searching for that elusive Group 1 would be enough to make the race a real goer.
Racing is different to many sports because it funds itself via gambling turnover. The rise of the corporate bookmaker posed a problem to the health of the sport some time ago, but due to the passing of race fields legislation, the sport now receives its fair share of the pie.
And, Racing Victoria, for example, rode to a $50 million profit last financial year on the back of earnings from race fields legislation.
Yet there is still plenty of work to be done in the gambling sector. With turnover so important to the sport, how there is not a national tote pool in operation is beyond belief. Currently there are three Australian totalisators. Ridiculous!
Any serious punter who has ever bet the tote knows the more money in the pool, the more confidence one can have to bet. So, the first thing racing can do to help itself, is establish a national tote pool.
Turnover on the tote would increase significantly with a national pool and that would bring more money directly into the sport, to make ownership cheaper, prize money bigger and racetrack facilities more modern. It’s a no-brainer and a real bone of contention for the punter.
The final area that racing needs to address quickly is its media rights. After the demise of TVN, Racing Victoria made the bold decision to turn their back on Sky Channel and open up their own free-to-air racing channel, Racing.com.
A marvellous decision, there is no doubt that the future of racing in Victoria is secure for the foreseeable future just on the back of this move alone. Kudos to the Vics!
But this project is about making Australian racing thrive. And, while the Victorians are sitting pretty, the rest of the country is withering out in the desert, hoping to get a bone or just a lick of water from Sky Channel.
Sky Channel are owned by TabCorp and while their main interest is in driving gambling turnover (a percentage of which will go back into racing), they’ve forgotten to nurture the product that feeds their hungry shareholders.
So, here is what Cam and I would like to see happen.
Racing.com’s website is a great tool – free replays, form guides, live broadcasts, and so on. What would benefit Australian racing most if the website was made national.
All race replays and extended form for each Australian horse and race would be accessible to everyone on one easy-to-navigate website for free. Fantastic stuff!
Next, Racing.com would become a national channel. Instead of just focusing on Victorian racing, it would broadcast racing from all around the country, as well as the major meetings from around the world like Dubai World Cup night and Royal Ascot.
But – not like Sky Channel. No, on any given day the feature meeting in Australia, from anywhere in the country, would be shown on free-to-air television, with complete mounting yard coverage and analysis alongside the second-most important Australian meeting.
That would extend to the weekend. So, in the late autumn carnival, the focus would be on The Championships at Randwick, but there would still be coverage of Morphettville, where the Adelaide carnival is warming up.
On that famous Monday in July, the broadcast would focus on the Darwin Cup with support coverage of the feature meeting from the rest of Australia, say at Warrnambool. In the middle of October, Caulfield Guineas Day would be broadcast alongside the Spring Champion meeting at Randwick.
You get the picture. The idea is that the sport as a whole is being viewed nationally, as one, all the time, by everyone and anyone. Now we are talking!
Meanwhile, what isn’t picked up by Racing.com, will still be shown on the betting channels of Sky, with some semblance of focus, hopefully, given to the more prominent meetings (not already shown on Racing.com) on Sky Thoroughbred Central.
Now, the way I see it, with a reduction in Group 1s to 41, a four-year-old championship race, a national tote pool and better media coverage, Australian racing is poised to show its best.
The old girl would be back standing on her own two feet again. Sounds good to me. What do you reckon?