Beneath an overcast sky the bookies curse the scratchcard punters

Racecourses face a spiral of decline in the face of competition from the Lottery, writes Andy Beckett
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The Independent Online
LAST Wednesday looked a good day for gambling in Brighton: bright sticky skies, sweet sticky candy-floss scenting the seafront, holidaying families holding cash. Out on Palace Pier, amid the crashing bedlam of pinball and rally car simulators, a young Asian woman from Leyton, east London, was betting on the horses.

She thought for 10 seconds, then chose number six. The miniature mechanical filly started slowly, then quickened and slid to victory along the 3ft track as a recorded crowd and commentator, dated as a cinema newsreel, roared out of a tiny speaker.

Her 10p had won her pounds 1.40 - not bad for a parsimonious arcade game like Derby. "We don't normally gamble," she said, giddy with winning as her holiday friends crowded round. "It's all a seaside laugh - I just can't resist it." Did she ever try the real thing? She stopped smiling. "I have never been to a betting shop. I wouldn't know what one looks like. I'm not a gambler - unless you can call the National Lottery gambling." She could be you. The day before, the Central Statistical Office announced that instant-win scratchcards on their own had been responsible for a quarter of the rise in all high-street spending since March, when Camelot first dangled them before us. Britain now buys 30 million of these shiny little temptations a week, spending rather more on the Lottery than on books or bread.

At Safeway in the centre of Brighton the scratchcards beckon in the hallway, before you reach the food. The Lottery stand is next to the cigarette counter; scraps of blue paper litter the counter, rubbed off while people queue to buy their Benson and Hedges.

A single mother in white leggings had just "won". Her pounds 2 came from an investment of pounds 2, the most common "winning" outcome, and one on which Camelot depends heavily for its stated lottery odds of "1 in 5.46". She queued for more. "It is an obsession," she said. "I wouldn't do it if it wasn't so easily available."

She had been scratching cards since their beginning ("I would say I've had my money back"). Recently she had imposed rules: "I won pounds 20 on Monday - quite a buzz - and spent it on more shopping ... but my father is buying 20 strips at a time. Then he's a gambling man ... I wouldn't go in a betting shop."

The Ladbrokes down the street, between the Lottery stand and a Jobcentre, was quiet. Staff outnumbered punters; the neat new red trim and humming air-conditioning suggested a travel agent's on a slack day or a doctor's waiting room. Last month Ladbrokes, which owns the biggest share (a fifth) of Britain's 9,300 betting shops, sacked 200 people, blaming a turnover decline of nearly a tenth since the Lottery started. The same week a report by the Henley Centre predicted that 1,700 betting shops could close by 1996.

"We've been affected a bit," said the Liverpudlian cashier. "Our bread and butter customers, who come in rain or shine and put pounds 2 on - we've still got them. But we might not." Across the red-flecked carpet (no betting stubs) a large florid man in braces looked up from his form guide to admit that, while this was his first visit since a Christmas vow of abstinence, he had never stopped playing the Lottery.

On the big television monitors a race started. The Scouser perked up. "When you've got a horse," he said, "you're shouting `come on!' And your horse can be last, and then the winner can fall at the last fence ... how can you have that on the Lottery?" He was sweating.

In a taxi up to Brighton racecourse the driver revealed that she too was a card scratcher, but was rationing herself ("You start with one, then it's two, then four"). The car pulled up in front of a grey huddle of buildings. "The races aren't what they were," she said.

The day had turned overcast. A cool wind blew along the top of the Downs; the city and sea had stopped glittering below. The course was peeling, half-empty, unrecognisable from Brighton Rock's teeming day-trippers' mecca. Racehorses clattered past the semis' parched gardens to ragged shouts from a single concrete stand. The commentary was as time-warped as the arcade game's on the pier.

Racing is suffering thanks to the Lottery. With bookies being squeezed, the Henley Centre estimates racing could lose a sixth of the levy it receives from off-course betting. This could mean poorer facilities and prizes, thus fewer punters, less gate revenue and so on in a gentle downward spiral. A Racing Post left in the rusty stand moaned about Camelot's unfair advantages (bookies can't advertise the possibility of winning, unlike the Lottery). "The Lottery has affected racing considerably," said a swarthy tic-tac man in a pink polo shirt and a shark's dark suit. "It's all over the South: attendances are down, money's down." Around him the few hundred faces were lined, shrewd - not many gullible holidaymakers had come up from the seafront. Spots of rain fell on the dead grass.

Then people started emerging from the bars for another, more important race. The man in the pink polo shirt got up on his wooden crate and started semaphoring odds. People - a surprising number now - started nipping from bookie to bookie. Tenners were waved. Graham Greene's "oiled hair" boys were still here, brushing against sun-creased pensioners. Odds shifted. The favourite slipped. A man in the stand with a gold watch said: "I'd sooner put a pound on a race accumulator than buy a lottery ticket. The odds are so bad."

I took his advice, and lost on the next race. My scratchcards came up empty, too. My lottery numbers are 1, 2, 7, 9, 12 and 21.