Board is braced for vital decisions

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The Independent Online

With Ayr and Newton Abbot at one end, and the Weatherbys Super Sprint at Newbury at the other, the week beginning 16 July 2001 does not, on the face of it, appear to be the most significant in the racing calendar. Do not be deceived, however, for while the action on the course is mainly limited to summer hurdlers and 0-90 handicappers, away from the track, the Group One racing politicians are preparing for several days of furious action.

One battle has already been joined, as William Hill seeks to overturn a High Court ruling that the British Horseracing Board is within its rights to charge bookmakers for the use of pre-race data – ie. the names of runners and riders – on internet betting sites. This morning, meanwhile, the Gambling Review Body, chaired by Sir Alan Budd, which started to consider the future of gambling in Britain in April 2000, will at last publish its report and recommendations.

Both events may prove to have profound significance for the entire racing industry, from the owners and trainers who are forever complaining about prize-money levels, right down to the betting-shop punters who keep the cogs oiled with their 50p Yankees.

The Review Body report may hold more of interest to the high street backers, not least because it is expected to recommend that gambling debts should at last be recoverable at law. Budd may also recommend that other age-old restrictions on betting be relaxed, but not, it is thought, that gambling should be allowed in pubs and cafes, a move which the BHB had urged him to consider.

The court action involving William Hill and BHB could be just as important in its way, however. Hill's appeal against a ruling originally handed down in January by Mr Justice Laddie started yesterday and is due to be concluded today. Judgment is expected to be reserved, but not for long, since the courts will soon be suspended for the summer recess. Nothing concentrates a legal mind quite like the call of Tuscany.

In its simplest terms, the case is about Hills and the BHB and whether one can charge the other for the use of its data. In the longer term, however, it is also about the BHB's plans for the funding of racing when, or if, the Levy system is abolished. The Board wants to exploit its data rights not just via the internet, but by selling the rights to use its information to every betting shop in the country. It will not be able to sell those rights, however, if the appeal hearing rules that it has nothing to sell.

Hills have the backing of their trade body, the Betting Office Licensees' Association, in the action, and if their appeal is dismissed, the case could yet find its way to the House of Lords. The bookmakers' argument is that it is not exploiting the great mass of statistics in the BHB's database, but rather using the minimum information necessary to allow punters to place a bet. The BHB insists that its database is compiled at great effort and cost – £4m, according to documents provided to the original court case – and it is only fair that anyone seeking to use the information should pay a copyright fee.

The BHB is eager to hear the decision of the three judges hearing the appeal before it meets the major bookies later this month to discuss replacements for the Levy scheme. The Board is also confident that the original judgment will be upheld.

It may have more to fear, though, from an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading, which was also initiated after a complaint by William Hill. This will examine not whether the BHB has the right to charge for its data, but rather whether it can charge what it would see as a fair market rate. Since it has an effective monopoly on the information, and has already admitted to a court what it costs to collate, it must now convince the OFT that it should be able to charge bookmakers many times as much to use it.

All this, and the abolition of betting tax too. The status of 1961, the year in which betting shops were legalised, as the most significant in the history of punting is under serious threat.