On the Rails
Executive director of racing Bill Nader hit the nail on the head with his view that the Jockey Club needs to examine the programming of course selection at Happy Valley.
The club seems to have gone to more trouble than usual to promote tomorrow night's Valley meeting, hanging it on the Happy Valley Trophy as 'the highest class sprint in terms of ratings seen at the city track since 2002'.
Which is all very well but we note with alarm the Happy Valley Trophy is being run on the deplorable C+3 track for the third time in four seasons. The club had chopped the use of the C+3 at Happy Valley back to two meetings a term in the 2006-07 season - two more than we'd prefer but acceptably low.
For some reason, they have since sprouted again like mushrooms after rain, with the 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons featuring six C+3 cards.
We don't entirely understand why it happened in 2007-08 or 2008-09, unless it was to prepare us all for the darker future, but last season Happy Valley did get more use as a result of the extra five race meetings conducted by the club. All of them were run at Happy Valley.
While winners do come from wider gates on the C+3, the hard fact is that it is the most draw-sensitive course in town and over 58 per cent of the 142 winners in the past three completed seasons have started from gates one to five.
High-grade Valley performers have had a raw deal for some years, with their opportunities diminished, so to then run these Class One events on the rotten C+3 seems to add insult to injury.
Alas, the frequent response from officials to any such criticism has been to wave the increasing turnover figures as confirmation the club's 'customers' have no issue with whatever issue any criticism might highlight. The customers don't baulk at betting on the C+3, perhaps because they put a line through the ones drawn outside five and embrace the obvious biases of the widest rail placement on what starts as a tight course anyway.
In the current climate of upward momentum, it isn't an argument to say everything is perfect because turnover climbs, just as it was not right to say everything was wrong during the decade of declining turnover. You could dress the horses as Colonel Sanders and put hidden trapdoors and flaming jumps all around the track and turnover would continue to rise.
If customer satisfaction is the only criterion, let's put the rail out even further and make it a one lane track and start the horses in single file, one behind the other.
Punters could bet the house that number one would win every race, and they'd be right, but the club may not be as happy at having to stump up cash to top up the minimum dividends every race. Still, betting turnover would be up.
The club's gambling business is a customer-driven business, yes, but there is a point where simply pleasing the bettor at the expense of, let's say in this case the owners of the likes of Perfect Style or Vital Flyer, is not right.
On this occasion, owners of most of the main chances have drawn satisfactorily, but those mentioned must be a little non-plussed.
When their occasional chance at a good race at the Valley comes along, the draw puts them behind the eight-ball before they even get to the races, just because the venue is the unfair C+3 track.
Jockeys have been happy enough with how even the B and C courses have ridden at Happy Valley, so the club has plenty of options on tracks where the Class One events can be run.
If Nader is correct and there is a coming drive to return some respect to the Valley by staging more better-class events - even Group races as there once were - then the course selection needs more thought to accommodate them on an appropriate stage.