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Short odds on swift end to old-style bookies

THE BRITISH racecourse betting ring, a throwback to a different age which has barely changed since Victorian times, is to undergo the most dramatic and far-reaching reforms in its history over thenext 18 months.

Grizzled, ageing bookies calling the odds from the top of upturned wooden crates could begin to disappear as early as this October, under recommendations published yesterday by a committee which has spent many months studying the arcane ways of the ring.

Other changes will include a relaxation of the strict rules on where bookies can stand, and allow their "pitches" to be positioned around the paddock and hospitality areas - in other words, places where it is easy for their customers to reach them.

They will also be required to post a bond before being allowed to trade, and to make an audio tape recording of all transactions.

The most dramatic change, however, will be in the appearance of the betting ring. For decades, the standard bookie's "joint", the structure from which he operates, has been little more than a hastily erected heap of boxes and junk metal.

The new joint will be a standard construction of coloured, moulded plastic, with a power supply to allow the use of both a tape recorder and, almost inevitably, a computer, since the end is also in sight for traditional bookmakers' tickets.

At present, on-course bookmakers call a punter's bet to a clerk who shares their pitch, and issue a colourful, pre-printed betting ticket which gives the bookmaker's name and a unique number, but nothing more.

From 31 December 1999, the ticket will be required to list not just the bookie's name and address, but also the race time and name, the ticket number, the name of the horse backed, the stake, odds, type of bet and the potential return. A computerised system for handling bets will thus be almost essential.

The average age of bookmakers also seems certain to fall. Until now, a system of "seniority" has governed the allocation of racecourse pitches, with bookies often spending 20 years or more on a waiting list before they are allowed to work at the biggest tracks.

Soon though, they will be able to auction their pitches to the highest bidder, which may persuade many of the oldest gentlemen of the ring - several are well into their eighties - that the time has finally come to retire.

Any radical change will have its casualties, however. The bookies' clerks, whose skill and accuracy in filling out huge ledgers of bets and liabilities - sometimes at the rate of a ticket every four seconds - is one of the wonders of the track, may be redundant when the computers arrive.

Tic-tac, the racecourse semaphore system, should still be essential, however, and one other familiar feature of the joint will surely remain. No bookie, after all, would feel complete without a very deep satchel.