Old units heading for final furlong

A new government regulation which comes into force today sets a final deadline of 31 December 2009 for an end to the use of almost all imperial measures, such as pounds and ounces. Although it is already illegal for traders to sell produce in non-metric quantities, it remains legal to display imperial measures as well, but this too will be outlawed in eight years' time. Like it or not, Britain is moving inexorably towards complete metrication - with few notable exceptions. Besieged though it is by kilos and metres, racing continues to stick loyally to its furlongs, stones and pounds.

A new government regulation which comes into force today sets a final deadline of 31 December 2009 for an end to the use of almost all imperial measures, such as pounds and ounces. Although it is already illegal for traders to sell produce in non-metric quantities, it remains legal to display imperial measures as well, but this too will be outlawed in eight years' time. Like it or not, Britain is moving inexorably towards complete metrication - with few notable exceptions. Besieged though it is by kilos and metres, racing continues to stick loyally to its furlongs, stones and pounds.

The racing authorities were preparing to study the new regulation yesterday, to discover what, if any, implications it may have for the sport of kings. While it is unlikely that the British Horseracing Board will find itself in court in early 2010, however, the seemingly inevitable victory of metrication elsewhere in British life does raise the question of whether racing should fall into line. For all that the final furlong, and top weights carrying 11st 10lb, are part of racing's heritage, the fact remains that imperial units have not been taught in most schools for 20 years. If the sport wants to attract new generations of punters and racegoers, some argue, it should at least try to speak to them in a language they can understand.

The racecards which appear in newspapers are compiled by Weatherbys, racing's so-called "civil service", which confirmed yesterday that including metric measures for distance and weight alongside their imperial equivalents would not be an unduly difficult problem in technical terms. Any change would ultimately need to be sanctioned by the BHB, however, which is more than satisfied with the status quo.

"At the moment there's no legal requirement on us to change," Paul Greeves, the BHB's director of racing, said, "but whenever the subject has been discussed within racing, it's always been by far the majority view that we should remain with the measures and distances which we all know so well, and are really part of the fabric of our racing. Using pounds for our weights also has the advantage of being slightly more exact than kilograms, where you have to work in halves to get an equivalent."

Racing is, of course, probably the most conservative industry in the country, and any proposal to change its weights and measures would be hugely unpopular with its older supporters in particular. Nor is mental conversion of kilos to stones and pounds the easiest of calculations, even for punters who routinely work out the returns on a double at 13-8 and 7-4. The furlong, on the other hand, has a very exact metric equivalent - 200 metres, give or take a centimetre or two - but the resistance to any encroachment of metrication on racecards will remain strong.

"It's a tradition which we're happy with and proud of," Greeves said. "It's up to racing to make sure that its prospective customers understand why we do what we do, but I haven't heard any complaints filtering through from young racegoers that they have difficulty in dealing with a measure they didn't use at school. We see it as a strength rather than a weakness, and I dare say that if there was a suggestion that we had to change, there would be a great deal of unhappiness within racing."

Punters can be a fairly hidebound breed too, however, yet the internet arms of many leading bookmakers have found that the use of decimal odds that include the 1pt stake rather than the traditional fractions - that is, 2.5 instead of 6-4 - has been very popular, particularly with new and younger punters. All they need do to work out their potential return is multiply the odds by the stake, which is far more user friendly, particularly when it comes to the more obscure fractions, and is a practice which may well become established in the rest of the betting industry in time.

There was much sadness among long-standing racegoers too when computerised betting slips with all the allure of a bus ticket replaced the traditional, brightly-coloured cardboard tickets.

New and occasional racegoers, however, have welcomed the change, which allows them to see precisely how much they stand to win, while most bookies are also converts to the benefits of technology.

So what are the odds that the top weight for the 2015 Grand National will carry 74kg over the 7200m trip? Probably about 21.00 - but stranger things have happened.

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