Moves to scrap the present method of returning starting prices have been hit by opposition from on-course bookmakers.
Yesterday, in an advertisement in racing's trade daily, The Racing Post, the SP executive made a late plea for bookmakers to sign up to a new computer-based system. However, track bookmakers are trying to secure copyright of the official starting prices which are relayed to Britain's betting shops.
The existing arrangement, which has had the mutual confidence of punters and bookmakers since 1925, involves representatives of the Press Association and Trinity Mirror, publishers of the Racing Post, and was intended to be replaced on 1 March by a system linking each bookmakers' terminal to a central computer.
Most observers believe the change is being made solely for cost-cutting reasons as nine "validators", on much worse employment terms, will replace all the starting price reporters. John Broadway, the senior SP reporter with 25 years' experience, is not being retained.
There will be only one validator at each meeting who, instead of monitoring the prices shown by the principal bookmakers in the ring, will merely check the final show produced by SIS, a company in which many leading off-course bookmakers are major shareholders.
This prompted one former SP reporter to warn Lord Donoughue, who is a member of the SP Executive responsible for trying to implement the changes, in a letter that: "The fact that all betting information passed from the racecourse will in future be generated by SIS is an integrity issue." However, the proposed new system, which depends entirely on the co-operation of the majority of on-course bookmakers, now looks totally unviable.
Jon Ridley, a director of the National Bookmakers' Association, who bets at 15 meetings in the North, said: "Not one bookmaker in the north has agreed to operate the new system, with, I think, the exception of Ladbrokes and Hills. Since December, 95 percent of on-course bookmakers in the North have been paying £5 a day into a fighting fund organised by the Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers. We fully intend to proceed with litigation to establish who holds copyright of the starting prices. The SP executive held a trial of the computer system at Cheltenham and completely misled the public when they said it worked smoothly. I understand that many of the people they are employing have no racecourse experience whatsoever."
Doug Newton, senior SP reporter for the Sporting Life from 1975 to 1998, added: "This is the first time in my memory than on-course bookmakers have been united. You would have thought the SP Executive would have consulted them first. It just shows how incompetent they are and if the bookmakers stick together then the new system will be kaput. But tentative moves have been made in the past to claim copyright of the SP, both by the Life and the PA, and legal opinion was that it was impossible to establish."