Can Britain's biggest bookmakers really be preparing to operate thousands of betting shops without pictures from most of the country's top racecourses? If the current dispute over picture rights continues, that is what is set to happen.
Ever since the launch of the broadcaster Turf TV in April, Britain's bookmakers have been at war with 31 of Britain's 59 racetracks, including those hosting the sport's blue riband events such as York, Ascot, Cheltenham, Newmarket and Aintree.
Turf TV was set up by the courses to challenge the monopoly previously enjoyed by the bookmaker-controlled SIS in supplying pictures to more than 8,000 British betting shops. Starting with six tracks whose contracts with SIS have expired, it will be the only broadcaster able to supply pictures from the 31 from next year.
But so far the big three bookmakers - Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral - have refused to have anything to do with the new venture. They maintain that from next year they will continue to rely on SIS - in which Ladbrokes and Hills are shareholders - for their coverage, and which has the rights to 28 courses, including most all-weather winter flat fixtures. They will show only the big races from the 31 that are screened on Channel 4 and BBC1, relying on radio commentaries, the SIS tracks and Irish racing to fill in the gaps.
They are also threatening to bring the Government into the row, arguing that if the courses want to take this route, the bookmakers will reconsider their backing for the retention of the levy of 10 per cent of bookmakers' horseracing profits that funds the sport.
A minor spat in a minority pastime? The statistics suggest otherwise. According to the British Horseracing Board, the racing and breeding industries are directly responsible for some 18,800 full-time equivalent jobs. The industry also supports a further 69,500 jobs, including 42,000 in the betting industry. To put it into context, the horseracing industry is, according to the BHB, the sixth biggest in Britain.
Some of the industry's bigwigs believe that the row has the potential to seriously damage an industry that is a crucial component of the economy of rural Britain.
Turf TV was ultimately born from the collapse of the first incarnation of At The Races in 2004, when a £307m deal between the satellite broadcaster - then a joint venture between Arena Leisure, BSkyB and Channel 4 - and 49 tracks collapsed. The debacle kept racing off TV screens, with the exception of the limited number of prestige fixtures screened by Channel 4 and the BBC, for several months. Betting turnover fell, and so, therefore, did income from the profit levy, badly rattling the courses and resulting in a cut in prize money to racehorse owners.
Emerging from the wreckage were two new broadcasters. A resurrected At The Races, now a joint venture between Arena and Sky, broadcasts from 29 British tracks, including Ascot, and all the Irish courses. It is free to anyone signing up to the basic Sky package.
The remaining courses boasted less fixtures overall, but had most of the prestige events. Spooked by what had happened at the original ATR, they set up their own broadcaster, Racing UK, initially available only by subscription, but now obtainable for £10 a month as part of the six-channel Setanta Sports package.
Many questioned whether R-UK could survive with its reliance on subscriptions and without a big-money backer. But three years down the line, both channels seem to be thriving.
So the R-UK courses took another leap into the dark, setting up Turf TV as a joint venture with the loss-making software company Alphameric, and this time adding Ascot to their number. Their intention was to wrest control of their betting shop broadcasting rights from bookmakers.
But that has set up an almighty row.
Ciaran O'Brien, head of communications for Ladbrokes, says there is precious little chance of the big bookmakers striking a deal with the new venture. He says: "It is unfortunate that within days of securing consensus around retention of the levy, half of the courses signed up to a deal that they knew would break that consensus.
"The courses that have signed up to SIS have secured increased revenue and the Turf TV courses would all be able to take advantage of similar deals if they negotiated directly with SIS. Unfortunately they want the betting industry to pay to create an additional broadcast network that we haven't asked for at great expense. As an industry, it would mean an extra £50m for a service that delivers less, so we have no option but to prepare for a commercial replacement of the levy and all that entails. We hope that the courses reconsider and return to the negotiating table."
Coral, not a shareholder in SIS unlike Ladbrokes or William Hill, is also sticking to its guns, along with Betfred, one of the biggest independents. Coral's managing director, Wilf Walsh, says: "This has not created competition at all. It has simply created two monopolies, one with 28 tracks and one with 31, where there was once one. We are not a shareholder in SIS so we have no axe to grind there, but what this new broadcaster means is we are simply getting the same service, just at a higher price because we are paying for two. We are not prepared to do that."
Others have seen a marketing advantage from signing up to the new service. Paddy Power, which has been expanding in Britain from its Irish base, has been offering give-aways and refunding stakes on races from the initial six Turf TV tracks after agreeing to sign up. Just days after Power joined, its big Irish rival, Boylesports, followed suit. The Tote also gave in, under pressure from the racecourses who are still theoretically supposed to become its owners if the Government ever gets around to ruling on their bid to take the troublesome pool betting monopoly off its hands.
But Mr Walsh says the big boys are not prepared to budge: "We want to be able to decide what is seen in our shops and how it is provided. If the courses had simply held out for more money from SIS, then they would have got it. What they have done instead is use Turf TV as a blunt instrument. There is still time to negotiate. They just have to drop Alphameric and come back to the table."
Otherwise? "We will go with a diet of foreign and virtual racing. They are bound to see their income from the levy falling."
Of course, if one of the other bookies cracked, Coral would rethink its position, says Mr Walsh. But: "We are not going to crack, and they are placing a pretty big bet that one will. That is not a bet we would want to lay."
Andrew Brown, chief operating officer for Racing UK, says Turf TV is here to say. "We believe the bookmakers will have difficulty in not taking our product. They have brought up the issue of the levy to threaten our resolve and our support base among the tracks, but everyone involved in Turf TV is resolute."
Mr Brown says there have been talks between the two sides, and that he hopes talks will continue. He says that at £6,500 a month for a shop next year, TTV is much cheaper than the £10,500 SIS will charge for its service for big bookmakers, more for independents.
Independent bookmakers have taken a different stance, and the Association of Independent Bookmakers, accounting for around 1,500 British bookies, has negotiated a deal with TTV on behalf of its members.
Ian Hogg, an IBA director who set up the Better chain, says he will relish the marketing advantage he gets from being able to show pictures from all the tracks.
But Mr Hogg remains deeply concerned about the long-term impact of the spat: "I liken it to the baseball and ice hockey strikes in the US. They found their customers went away as a result.
"If you use the punter and put him in the middle of your dispute, you risk having the same thing happen, so I worry about the effect this is going to have on both the racing industry and the bookmaking industry."
Rivals at the races
Ownership: Joint venture between Alphameric, 30 race-tracks that founded Racing UK, less Doncaster, and Ascot.
Broadcast rights now: Ascot, Bangor, Chester, Goodwood, Newbury, York.
From 1 January: Aintree, Ayr, Bangor-On-Dee, Beverley, Carlisle, Cartmel, Catterick, Cheltenham, Chester, Epsom, Goodwood, Hamilton Park, Haydock Park, Huntingdon, Kempton, Ludlow, Market Rasen, Musselburgh, Newbury, Newmaket, Nottingham, Pontefract, Redcar, Salisbury, Sandown, Thirsk, Warwick, Wetherby, Wincanton and York.
Prestige events include: Royal Ascot, Cheltenham Festival, the Derby, 1000 and 2000 Guineas, Grand National.
Ownership: Controlled by William Hill and Ladbrokes, Britain's two biggest bookies.
Broadcast rights now: 53 British racecourses.
From 1 January: Bath, Brighton, Chepstow, Exeter, Fakenham, Folkestone, Fontwell, Great Yarmouth, Hereford, Hexham, Kelso, Leicester, Lingfield, Newcastle, Newton Abbot, Perth, Plumpton, Ripon, Sedgefield, Southwell, Stratford, Taunton, Towcester, Uttoxeter, Windsor, Wolverhampton, Worcester, Doncaster. Also has all Irish tracks and provides coverage from a range of foreign courses including South Africa.
Prestige events: St Leger, Irish Derby, Irish 1000 and 2000 Guineas and St Leger, Punchestown Festival.Reuse content