Cash and clout elude punters

Greg Wood finds no joy for gamblers when racing's bureaucrats meet
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The Independent Online
Given that Charles Robarts left the Jockey Club's headquarters in Portman Square last night pounds 11,974.21 richer than when he entered, he should have been one of the happiest punters in Britain. His winnings, however, are only on paper, and while the 200-year-old Tattersalls Committee, betting's self-appointed High Court, had decided that Robarts is owed the money by his bookmaker, his chance of ever actually seeing his payout must be considered a shade of odds against.

Indeed, in the final analysis, Robarts may well end up still further out of pocket, since the pounds 750 deposit he lodged with the Committee to have his case heard is non-returnable. The Committee decided that SP Racing Ltd, of 81 Headstone Gardens, Harrow, is liable for the debt, but Sonny Purcell, Robarts only obvious opponent at yesterday's hearing, claimed afterwards that he is not a director of the company in question. Instead, he is a director of SP Racing Enterprises Ltd, of 81 Headstone Gardens, Harrow, a different company entirely.

If the debt is not paid in 21 days, the Committee will investigate SP Racing Limited, determine who its directors are and recommend to the Jockey Club that they be warned off.

As punishments go, however, this hardly ranks alongside exile to Devil's Island, since the firm trades off-course anyway, and yesterday's proceedings simply highlighted once again how difficult it is for punters - or bookies for that matter - to recover unpaid gambling debts.

Robarts could oppose SP Racing Ltd's betting licence when it is next due for renewal, but as yet no magistrate has refused to grant a licence simply as a result of unpaid debts. The National Association for the Protection of Punters, meanwhile, recently demonstrated how easy it is to obtain a licence when the organisation's secretary successfully applied for a permit, even though he has less than pounds 1,000 worth of liquid assets to his name.

"Magistrates just aren't the right people to be going round issuing licences," Robarts said. "Trainers and jockeys and other people who have just as much part in the running of racing have to go and prove they can do it. They should show that they know what they are doing and that they have the money to do it. For now, punters should realise that if they're not absolutely sure they will be paid out, it's just not worth having the bet."

For all its unenforceability, the adjudication by the Tatts Committee was a far more satisfactory conclusion than any to be drawn from the British Horseracing Board's annual Industry Committee Forum. It is only fair to point out that, in the not-so-distant days of the Jockey Club, it would have been inconceivable to find racing's senior figures exposing themselves to the opinions and criticisms of racing's babbling multitude of interest groups. Ultimately, though, the only concrete lesson to be drawn from yesterday's gathering in South Kensington is that there is nothing, but nothing, quite like a good moan.

For some outsiders, the principal attraction of the Forum was the hope of seeing Lord Wakeham, the BHB chairman and a former Conservative chief whip, being thoroughly harangued by the sort of people who once formed his most devoted constituency. When Ken Clarke failed even to mention racing in his Budget speech, the BHB's three-and-a-half year honeymoon period with most sections of the industry reverted swiftly to domestic squabbles, and yesterday they spilled out on to the street.

The continuing lack of a long-promised "financial plan" which would allow the BHB's performance to be measured with some accuracy, is a particular cause for complaint, not least among business-minded owners. Other factions from jockeys through to bookies also took the chance to add their ha'p'orth, although a voice speaking on behalf of the punters who fund racing via the Levy was conspicuously absent.

The answer to most problems, it seemed, would be provided by a forthcoming wholesale review of the industry, and Lord Wakeham stroked most of the criticism into the covers with the ease you would expect of an ex-politician. Wakeham is much given to phrases such as "let me make it abundantly clear," which, as any connoisseur of MP-speak knows, is a fair sign that he is about to do anything but. Only once did his self- assurance slip, as he engaged in a brief yet entertaining spat with Peter Savill, one of the country's leading owners.

"It may not be the case where you come from," Wakeham told him, "but the BHB's decisions are made in a democratic manner." Just in case anyone had missed his point, he went on to point out that although Savill does his racing in Britain, he benefits from the somewhat undemanding tax regime of the Cayman Islands. Catty, perhaps, but no less enjoyable for that.

The same protagonists will gather in the same spot in 12 months' time, and the arguments will no doubt proceed along much the same lines. Unless Wakeham and company can offer rather more evidence of their endeavour, however, all the serious insults will surely be flying in the opposite direction.