Racing: Blunt answer to turf's questions of justice

Greg Wood finds the system for settling betting disputes still unsatisfactory
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The Independent Online
The Tattersalls Committee, about half a dozen men in late middle- age, returned from lunch shortly after two o'clock. Thinning on top and expanding elsewhere, well-groomed and well-fed, they appeared about as objectionable as a party of senior citizens on a trip to the coast. It was a little surprising, therefore, to hear them collectively described, not 10 minutes later, as "an abomination".

But then, the Tatts Committee is as close as betting on the horses gets to a judge and jury, and few things stir the emotions quite like a courtroom drama. British law has long insisted that bets are a matter of honour between bookie and punter, and refused to become involved in claims for debts. The only recourse for either side is Tattersalls Committee, an anonymous collection of upstanding individuals who have passed judgement on betting disputes since the early years of the century.

Their first case yesterday was Robarts versus Purcell, punter against bookmaker in pursuit of pounds 11,974.21 in unpaid winnings, and it offered a perfect example of the shortcomings of the present disputes procedure. Charles Robarts, sporting a pinstripe suit and a nervous air, is a substantial punter who was attracted to Sonny Purcell's credit firm, SP Racing, both by the generous rate of betting tax (three per cent) and Purcell's willingness to lay early "tissue" prices on all races. Their relationship was untroubled while Robarts was losing, but it started to deteriorate in August, when he successfully backed Flying Legend (7-2) and Carranita (13-2) to win at Newmarket in singles of pounds 1,000 and pounds 500 respectively, with a pounds 250 double for good measure. He is still awaiting payment.

Robarts was required to pay pounds 750 to have his case heard by the Committee yesterday, the payment being just one of the factors which prompted Michael Singer, in attendance on behalf of the National Association for the Protection of Punters, to subject the process to sustained and bitter criticism. "It's an abomination," he said. "They meet in secret; to present a case you have to lodge a non-returnable deposit; you are not allowed legal representation and there are no legal means to enforce their ruling. Where's the natural justice in that?"

Yesterday's hearing was adjourned until 17 December, because Purcell claimed that he was not liable for the debt as he is not a director of the company concerned. Whatever the eventual outcome, the deficiencies of the system remain clear. The Tatts Committee plays every role from juror through to executioner, but at this final stage it wields an axe which is pitifully blunt.

Those found guilty of defaulting on a gambling debt will almost inevitably be "warned off", which in the case of a punter means that they cannot own or train horses or visit a racecourse, while an on-course bookmaker will lose his betting permit.

An off-course bookie, however, can continue to trade, and is not legally required to settle his debt. The SP Racing betting shop in Harrow will still be open for business even if the Committee eventually decides that its parent company has welched on a large winning bet. A disgruntled punter can oppose the renewal of a betting shop's licence in the local magistrates' court but, according to Singer, "there has never been a single recorded case when a punter successfully blocked a licence as a result of unpaid debts, and they might also incur substantial costs themselves."

In the Committee's defence, Peter Bartlett, its assistant secretary, pointed out that "we simply make a judgement on a bet, and issue an order against, say, a bookmaker. It's then up to the punter to decide what he wants to do, whether he wants to oppose their licence, and I would have thought that it has happened many times."

Charles Robarts may yet see his money, though he will need to wait until mid-December at least. Sonny Purcell was reluctant to comment as he left yesterday's hearing, other than to insist that he is "an honourable man". Robarts' response was simple: "He's got an opportunity to prove that he is. He can pay me."