Bookies' formula for failure

When you are in a hole, so they say, it is best to stop digging. Britain's off-course bookmakers should be reminded of this when they surface somewhere in Tasmania.

The bookmaking profession has never been in such turmoil, pinned by the twin stakes of the National Lottery and cancelled meetings, so careful measures have to be taken to revive the industry. You would have thought.

For stupidity in public relations, the Oscar this week went to BOLA (the Betting Office Licensees Association) for their splendid work in tinkering with the Tricast formula. From today and Southwell's MacKenzie Handicap, a Tricast return featuring horses drawn close together will be significantly smaller.

The building in of a draw element to a formula that would already have Pythagoras snapping his pencil penalises punters twice. The current return is based on starting-price anyway, which is influenced by the draw.

The layers have had a bee in their bonnet about Tricasts ever since Paul Cooper, a professional punter, pulled off a coup on horses drawn high at Thirsk. Now the alert such as he have been squeezed out again, which is self-destructive for bookmaking.

BOLA argue that the new system will mean higher returns generally, but this misses the point. The industry seems to have forgotten that without big winners you do not get lots of little losers. People will not speculate when they do not have a dream at which to shoot. Camelot recognises this, as do the pools firms, who call up Joanna Lumley with a cheque the size of a tent whenever the jackpot is won.

The well-packaged Lottery is proof that people will give you money if the conditions are right. The vogue is to re-iterate what little chance there is of winning the big one, but still they do it. The stranglehold of Camelot's magic cannot be loosened.

While they moan about the weather and Camelot (and then come up with yet another way of alienating punters) the traditional bookies are being nipped in their own back yard by the flourishing spread-betting firms.

City Index recently asked a leading racing journalist to head their marketing department, and are just one spread company bursting with ideas. The well- scrubbed Wally Pyrah (he always wins the press room's best- turned-out award) attended the England rugby union squad's training session this week to spread the word for Sporting Index and continues to be amazed by the growth in his sector.

Pyrah used to be the spokesman for Coral, a job now occupied by Rob Hartnett, who for affability is untouchable. Hartnett is so pleasant in what many see as a dirty job that you could imagine him as a repossessions man receiving tips from his charmed victims. It was Hartnett who, this week, produced an amazing quote. "The advent of spread betting has prompted us [Coral] to be more imaginative," he said. Only now, it seems, as the former city dealers and the Lottery men compete for the leisure pound, are the off-course giants actually off and trying.

It begs the thought that the expertise of those running the Big Three (Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill), who for so long have had as competition bingo halls and pools companies, may have been overrated.

While they were running rings around the Colonel Bufton-Tuftons of the Jockey Club everyone seemed to accept the bookmakers were very clever chaps indeed. That contest may have taught us more about the losers than the victors, however.

Now that a different breed of challenger has arrived, the bookmakers are in a tizzy, blaming anything but their previous complacency. After the clear blue waters of the last 35 years they are now swimming against a rip tide. When the shareholders start asking questions there will have to be answers and initiatives. And that does not mean tinkering with the Tricast formula.

Richard Edmondson's nap: Maple Bay (Southwell 3.30); NB: Tempering (Southwell 3.00).