Betting ring row reaches Commons

Some racing disputes disappear in a matter of days, but the controversy over new procedures to determine starting prices is showing all the sort of stamina you would normally expect from a National winner. The argument reached the House of Commons yesterday, where Alex Salmond MP initiated an adjournment debate on the matter, calling the changes "a bookies' benefit to the detriment of punters". At the same time, it was revealed that Clive Reams, chief executive of the National Joint Pitch Committee (NJPC), recently wrote to Terry Ellis, the chairman of the SP Executive, which is responsible for the changes, demanding answers to no fewer than 66 questions about the changes, which have shifted SPs markedly in favour of the major off-course bookmakers.

Some racing disputes disappear in a matter of days, but the controversy over new procedures to determine starting prices is showing all the sort of stamina you would normally expect from a National winner. The argument reached the House of Commons yesterday, where Alex Salmond MP initiated an adjournment debate on the matter, calling the changes "a bookies' benefit to the detriment of punters". At the same time, it was revealed that Clive Reams, chief executive of the National Joint Pitch Committee (NJPC), recently wrote to Terry Ellis, the chairman of the SP Executive, which is responsible for the changes, demanding answers to no fewer than 66 questions about the changes, which have shifted SPs markedly in favour of the major off-course bookmakers.

The procedures, introduced on 22 May, require starting-price reporters to monitor the odds offered by a minimum of five on-course bookmakers, chosen before racing, rather than moving throughout the ring as they see fit, as was the case previously. This raised concerns that such a small and clearly defined selection would be open to influence by big off-course bookmakers trying to shorten the SPs of market leaders. Doubts have also been expressed about the appointment of Terry Ellis, the racing director of SIS, as chairman of the SP Executive, although he has since announced that he will relinquish the position shortly. The major bookmaking firms hold a significant shareholding in SIS, the company which provides televised racing to Britain's betting shops.

Salmond, a keen follower of racing, made the most of his 15 minutes of Parliamentary time last night.

"The decision to change the system was taken unilaterally by the SP Executive without consultation," Salmond told the House. "There was no overt demand for change and the suspicion is that the big bookmakers, William Hill, Coral and Ladbrokes, were behind the push for change. The SP Executive have let down punters by introducing the new system and the fact that Terry Ellis, chairman of the SP Executive, is a former Ladbrokes employee and his company, SIS, is substantially owned by the big bookmakers gives reasonable grounds for concerns."

Salmond went on to say that "no one in the racing world, apart from the big bookmakers and SIS, supports the new system, and its introduction has brought the integrity of the starting-price system and racing as a whole into question. We should revert to the old system immediately which has the confidence and support of most people in racing. The old system did provide a better deal for punters and if that hurts the big bookmakers, tough. They will still make handsome profits."

Salmond also called for the NJPC, which administers Britain's betting rings, to become involved in the SP Executive, which comprises representatives of Trinity/Mirror (the publishers of the Racing Post), the Press Association, and SIS. "If we are serious about protecting the interests of punters and defending the integrity of racing, the new SP system must be scrapped," he said. "The big bookmakers already get a fair deal from racing, they should not be allowed to rip off punters."

Far from diminishing with time, the pressure on the SP Executive now seems unrelenting. Furthermore, The Independent has obtained a copy of no fewer than 66 questions on the subject, covering four sheets of A4 paper, which were sent to Ellis by the NJPC earlier this month. These range from general enquiries, such as "Why were the procedures changed?", and "Why was the NJPC not consulted before the changes were introduced?", to detailed but pertinent queries over matters of procedure.

Ellis said yesterday that he responded to the questions within two days, though not on a point-by-point basis. "We declined to answer each question individually," he said, "but I believe we gave a very full general reply. Many of them are about operational detail, and to answer some would have been to prejudge the outcome of the independent review of our procedures about to take place."

The NJPC posed the questions to help it decide whether to join the SP Executive, and it has so far declined to do so. "The Council was disappointed," Clive Reams, the NJPC's chief executive, said yesterday. "After the independent review, we would hope they would be able to answer all 66 questions in detail, and then we would reconsider whether to join the SP Executive."

Reams remains puzzled that the NJPC was not consulted about the new procedures. "Even a glance at the changes would have shown that they would produce a step-change effect on the margins," he said. "It took me 30 seconds to identify that there would be a material effect. Effectively, yesterday's 9-4 has become today's 2-1 as far as the SP is concerned."

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