Click to follow
The Independent Online
S is for . . .

Skulduggery: A splendid word which conjures up visions of the sort of Cockney ne'er-do-wells that Basil Rathbone used to tap for information in old Sherlock Holmes films, and encompasses any of the (often imaginary) crimes, coups and plots which give racing its unique allure. Doping, ringers, bribery, jockeys' races (where the riders work out beforehand who is going to win and adjust their bets accordingly) - all are part of the rich tapestry of the turf, or at any rate, that bit of it that finds its way into Dick Francis novels. In fact, given the huge amount of cash which swills through the game, not to mention the inequality of its distribution, British racing is surprisingly straight. And while it would be naive to imagine that any more than a handful of the runners in a Fakenham novice hurdle are all that "busy", these days the jockeys do at least know that their efforts will be scrutinised by the nation's punters on . . .

SIS: Which flickered into life 11 years ago, thanks to the efforts of the major bookmakers, who remain leading shareholders. The Jockey Club, to its shame, seemed to regard the whole exercise as beneath its dignity and allowed them to get on with it, which was a sin of omission to rank alongside its similar aloofness when off-course betting was legalised in the 1960s. Having saturated the domestic market within a couple of years of its launch, SIS turned its attention to foreign markets, where a belief in the honesty of British racing is a major selling point with the punters, and it is now possible to watch the 1.30 from Newton Abbot in 41 different counties, from Antigua and Austria to India, Russia and Sri Lanka. Some of the profits find their way back to racing thanks to the broadcasting rights negotiated with racecourses and the dividends on the Racecourse Association's 10 per cent shareholding, but rather less than would have been the case with a little more vision from the administrators.

Systems: It is the very plausibility of the idea of a winning system which makes it so attractive to punters - and, more worryingly, to bookmakers too. Everyone knows that horses are at least vaguely predictable, while a year's racing programme runs to several thousand races, and it is hard not to believe that somewhere in that great mass of statistical data, there is not a set of rules for finding bets which will lead to an inevitable profit. The problem with this logic is that the most important variable is the starting price of the selections, something which it is almost impossible to predict with accuracy. Yet while a foolproof system is the stuff of dreams and dodgy small ads, a systematic approach to betting is part of the discipline which all the best punters possess. For instance, a refusal ever to back a horse at less than 5-2 is the sort of rule which can make the difference between profit and loss.

Sleeper: A winning bet which has gone unclaimed, for reasons of amnesia, death, or sheer unforgivable laziness. Most bookies will pay on any valid slip no matter how long after the event it is presented, although sleeping Tote bets are added to the annual payment to racing after five years. A couple of years ago, for instance, a man walked into a branch of William Hill with a sheaf of 1,700 winning slips dating back the best part of a decade and worth pounds 11,300. Stranger still, he frequented the shop on a daily basis, but claimed that he was always so busy working out his next set of selections that he had no time to get any cash back from the last. In practice, of course, very few bets which go to sleep for a year or two will ever wake up again. The bookmakers are a little coy about just how much the unclaimed winnings amount to, no doubt because of worries that, since it is not strictly speaking theirs, someone might suggest a better home for the cash than one of their high- interest bank accounts.

Smoke: Not everyone in Britain who spends time in a betting shop is a 60-a-day smoker - it just feels that way. And feel is often the operative word, as punters try to find their way towards the betting window through a thick fug which defies even 20-20 vision. Anyone would think that extractor fans were a cutting-edge technology beyond the reach of betting-shop owners, but those who would prefer to place a bet without inviting a hike in their life-assurance premiums may have to rely on the EC for salvation. Brussels is pondering a directive on working conditions which could open the way for cashiers to sue employers who do not provide a smoke-free environment. Then again, since the cashiers are often the most devoted puffers, do not hold whatever breath you have left.