Clouds over wagers of sin

Gambling on Sunday racing was expected, by some, to set betting shop tills ringing. Greg Wood reports on the reality
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A few weeks ago the manager of a betting shop in the West End of London added up his takings at the end of a day's racing. It did not take long. Throughout an afternoon which included two horse-race meetings and several at the dogs, four betting slips had passed over his counter. Each was for a stake of pounds 1, tax paid. His total turnover was pounds 4.40.

The day in question was a Sunday, one of the dozen which will stage racing this season, Britain's first with legalised on- and off-course betting.

When Parliament relaxed the rules which had prevented comprehensive Sunday racing last year, both the sport's administrators and the betting industry greeted the decision as if it were the crucial sixth number on the lottery. The evidence to date, however, is that only one side of the sport will judge the early months of the new era to be a success.

On 1,000 Guineas day, the first Sunday ever with betting shops open, William Hill opened all but a handful of their 1,700 outlets. Already, though, 250 have been cut from the Sunday rota, with more expected to follow.

"From the racecourses point of view, Sunday racing is probably a big success," David Hood, the firm's spokesman, said yesterday. "For that reason we're biting the bullet because the health of the racing industry on-course is essential to our well-being as well.

"Off-course, though, it's not good business at the moment and the overheads exceed the turnover. We're paying wages at double-time and we've still got the same general shop expenses that you have on a normal day, so in effect turnover would have to be stronger than on a normal day." If the experience of the manager in the West End is a guide, it is anything but.

The other side of the industry, however, may point out that the bookies' opposition to Sunday racing without off-course betting - on the grounds that it would encourage illegal betting - effectively prevented the sport moving on to the seventh day for many years.

If it now transpires that off-course punters are not that interested anyway, it is hardly racing's fault or problem. After all, some of the missing betting shop customers may simply be taking the family to the track.

Certainly, attendance figures for most of the Sunday meetings so far have been impressive (at Doncaster and Chepstow three days ago, the estimated crowds were 13,300 and 11,000 respectively).

"Except for Epsom, which had appalling weather, attendances so far have been highly encouraging," Simon Clare, executive assistant at the British Horseracing Board, said yesterday.

"Obviously you can't judge the success of Sunday racing as a concept at this stage, and the bookmakers would admit that too, but there's certainly no reason to take any action now. I think that when evening opening was legalised, the initial reports were pessimistic, but they almost needed to retrain their customers as to when to bet. Now they seem to be much less concerned about evening turnover.''

Next year, six of the 12 racing Sundays will have three meetings rather than two, an expansion which should improve off-course turnover even if its principal aim is to give more tracks the chance to stage a money-spinning fixture.

True, the Bank Holiday atmosphere may not suit everyone. John Prescott, the deputy leader of the Labour party, was at Doncaster three days ago and is reported to have commented that "we have seen parachutists and a display by Sea King helicopters. That's what Sunday racing is about."

It is a thought to make many regular racegoers recoil, but if nothing else, Sunday racing seems sure to help to preserve the quantity and variety of British tracks, many of which exist on the breadline. And while the meetings so far have thrown up their fair share of long-priced winners, if the bookmakers do not eventually turn a profit on Sunday, it will be the biggest surprise of all.