Punters win in battle over ring prices

Punters were promised a better deal from bookmakers yesterday when David Oldrey, the chairman of the Starting Price Executive, published new procedures for formulating SPs which have been devised by the accountants Arthur Andersen.

Punters were promised a better deal from bookmakers yesterday when David Oldrey, the chairman of the Starting Price Executive, published new procedures for formulating SPs which have been devised by the accountants Arthur Andersen.

Oldrey will hope that the new guidelines for SP reporters will draw a line under an argument which has been simmering since May, when the SP Executive, which was then chaired by Terry Ellis of SIS, changed the way the starting price was calculated, simultaneously producing an increase of around 5 per cent in the bookmakers' theoretical profit margins. Oldrey said yesterday that he hoped to see "a reversion to the position prior to May, but not to the pre-May methods".

The majority of bets placed in Britain's betting shops are settled at the starting price, but the punters who place them - reasoning that a winner is a winner - often have little idea of how they are formulated. It is easy to forget that while the difference between an SP return of 6-4 and 13-8 appears small, when the horse is a winning favourite, when multiplied across the industry, it can determine whether hundreds of thousands of pounds ends up in the pockets of the bookies or the backers.

The profit margins of off-course bookmakers had dipped significantly prior to May, as a result of reforms to the on-course market - from which the SP is determined - which had increased competition between racecourse bookies. After May, new methods insisted that SP reporters compile information from a pre-determined, and named, group of bookies, and based the final SP on a majority of the bookmakers surveyed. This produced a marked rise in the profit margin per runner, to the surprise of almost no one except, it seemed, the SP Executive itself.

Following persistent criticism, the SP Executive commissioned Arthur Anderson to investigate the system, and its recommendations should rectify the situation. Instead of returning the SP on the basis of a majority of prices, the requirement will be amended to one of general availability. This will be judged to be one third or more of the sample, and the best price to qualify under that definition will be the SP.

"These changes are going to hit the profit margins of the big bookmakers but I hope they will see it as the price to pay for a system that has universal confidence," Oldrey said.

The system will come into effect on Monday, when the predictions of Oldrey and Arthur Andersen will be tested. It does seem, though, that an important skirmish in the betting war has seen a rare victory for punters.

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