Festival bookies rage against the machine

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The Independent Online

Cheltenham: the ultimate test of man and beast. And, this year, of machine as well. It has been a long, wet winter, and they say that the ground might ride heavy at the Festival. Even then, few horses will face as stiff an examination of their mettle as the microchips in the bookies' computers, as they attempt to bring order to the mad maelstrom of the Cheltenham ring.

Cheltenham: the ultimate test of man and beast. And, this year, of machine as well. It has been a long, wet winter, and they say that the ground might ride heavy at the Festival. Even then, few horses will face as stiff an examination of their mettle as the microchips in the bookies' computers, as they attempt to bring order to the mad maelstrom of the Cheltenham ring.

Racecourse bookmakers have been required to issue detailed receipts to punters - forcing them to use computers to do so - since 1 January, and many had switched from cardboard to silicon months before. The system has worked smoothly, the only obvious change being that instead of the old brightly coloured tickets, punters receive a sad little scrap of paper, which has been coughed out apologetically by a printer. It takes a few seconds, which is more than quick enough at any normal meeting. Cheltenham is as abnormal as meetings get.

As one on-course bookie once put it, "at the Festival, people just push money at you without let-up. The only limit on the amount you can take is how quickly you can shove it into the satchel." Which is where the problems with the computers may arise. Technophobes will be pleased to hear that a Pentium-powered laptop is not as fast under pressure as the age-old system of bookie and clerk, with bets written into a ledger.

David Boden, a third-generation racecourse bookie, will not be at Cheltenham, having sold a prime pitch in the ring at one of the auctions organised by the National Joint Pitch Council (NJPC), the body which administers betting rings. "I'm very pleased not to be betting at Cheltenham with a computer," he says, "because undoubtedly we would operate more slowly. With a computer everything happens serially, whereas in the manual system, things were done in parallel. The clerk was writing things down as you were giving someone a ticket, which is impossible in the computerised system. With the manual system you could operate at twice the speed, and it has potential consequences for turnover."

Mel Jones will be betting at Cheltenham, and is technically literate, since he also runs a computer company. Yet he too has doubts about the new system's ability to cope with Cheltenham's unique demands.

"Under pressure, I don't know how we're going to operate," Jones says. "It's a clever system, but whether it's a clever system for storms, wind and the highest turnover of the year is another matter."

Jones says his computer has struggled to issue 200 tickets per race at an ordinary meeting. At Cheltenham, bookmakers expect to take 400 bets on most races and up to 700 on the main events. A further complication is that the new rules require a ticket to be issued for every bet, whereas bookies used to conduct up to half their trade by word of mouth.

It is not just a potential problem for on-course punters. Off-course bookies rely on the track market for the starting prices, and confusion in the ring would cause much concern in the country's 8,000 betting shops.

You can be sure that every bookie at Cheltenham will have a supply of old-fashioned tickets in their bag, just in case. If business is slower than it should be, or the rain gets into their keyboards, the temptation to turn the clock back will be immense, despite the possibility of swingeing fines, or even being barred from betting.

"The betting-ring managers have been instructed that there will be no exemptions regarding the provision of detailed receipts at Cheltenham," Clive Reams, the NJPC's chief executive, said yesterday. "However, common sense will prevail should problems occur in the middle of racing. The NJPC have been given assurances by the computer suppliers that they will provide technical support for their customers."

It was one of technology's greatest triumphs when the computer muscled into the ranks of the arch-traditionalists who shout the odds. For many layers it is still on probation, and only a glitch-free Cheltenham will persuade them that it can live with the pace of the ring.

The Millennium may have passed without incident, but now may be the time to prepare for the Festival Bug.

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