Racing: Lad's injury a blow to Irish

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For the racing industry the important bulletin yesterday came from Tessa Jowell, the Government minister with a referee's role between bookmakers and the British Horseracing Board in deciding the sport's financial structure. For the punter in the betting shop her words to Parliament pale in significance beside the news from a farm in the Irish midlands where there is just one horse to keep the livestock company. That horse is Limestone Lad, possibly the most popular thoroughbred in Ireland and certainly the toughest. The sad announcement from his trainer, James Bowe, is that Limestone Lad is injured and may well be out of the Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

It took a freak injury to fell Limestone Lad, the winner of 29 races, most recently at Naas last Saturday in his usual front-running, they-shall-not-pass style.

"He was out in the paddock and somehow managed to get himself trapped under a rail," Michael Bowe, the trainer's son, said. "He panicked and kicked his way out from under it, smashing the rail.

"I heard a racket and rushed out to him. He was still on the ground and was clearly distressed. When I walked him back to the yard, he was stiff and seemed to be in a state of shock. He appears to have damaged muscles in his back and Cheltenham is in serious doubt at this stage."

Betting turnover at the Festival is thus threatened, as are bar takings as a win for Limestone Lad would have been the best celebrated of the week.

Financial matters on a larger scale were settled yesterday when Jowell issued her decision on the 41st and, thankfully, final Levy scheme scrum between bookmakers and the racing industry to decide how much the layers should pay towards the sport.

The decision by Jowell, the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, that the scheme will be based upon an average payment of around nine per cent of bookmakers' gross profits from horseracing, rather than turnover, was grudgingly welcomed by both sides without eliciting the wholehearted approval of either camp.

Jowell intimated that the factions need to start talking rather more respectfully to each other so that they can negotiate a commercial agreement over payments for the use of racing data and pictures for next year when the Levy disappears.

Jowell told Parliament: "I understand that the racing industry may be disappointed that I have decided to introduce a gross profits levy. But this is wholly consistent with the Government's introduction of a gross profits betting tax and is the fairest and most reliable indication of the bookmakers' capacity to pay."

Jowell's decision means that there could be a total yield to racing of between £90m and £105m, a figure welcomed by Peter Savill, the BHB chairman. "I am delighted that the Secretary of State has accepted racing's case for a substantial increase in the Levy" Savill said. "Granting racing by far the biggest ever increase in projected Levy income."

Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, spoke yesterday at the British Betting Offices Association seminar, and told an audience of key industry figures that the battles between the two groups must be brought to an end. "I know that relations between these two groups are notoriously difficult. Recently we have again been beset by the same old antagonisms with press statements and personal attacks in the newspapers every day. One might almost call them megaphone diplomacy.

"The levy referral was symptomatic of the failure of the industries to work together– that did nothing for their credibility in the eyes of Government. This last referral has only strengthened our commitment to abolish the Levy system. The Government must extract itself from the financial business of the racing industry."