Racing: OFT accused of naïvety as BHB fights for control

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The Independent Online

As punters and racegoers mull over today's claiming hurdle at Hereford they can reflect that they are playing their part in a "multi-faceted sporting entity, collaborative by design and cognisant of the interests of its many constituent members". That description of the racing industry came yesterday from the man in charge, Greg Nichols, the British Horseracing Board chief executive.

Nichols used his speech at the annual general meeting of one of the constituent members, the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, to take a swipe at the proposals of the Office of Fair Trading that would greatly diminish the Board's power - in short BHB lashes OFT at TBA AGM.

The OFT's proposals would divest the BHB of the power to negotiate deals over data rights on behalf of the whole industry and hand that role over to the individual racecourses. It is the consequences of that which so disconcerts Nichols.

"The onset of a free-for-all might in the short term benefit some racecourses," he said. "However, in the long term, money will be driven out of British racing and into the hands of only one of racing's customer groups - the bookmakers.

"I am surprised by the naïvety of the OFT's logic if they seriously consider that the punter will be a beneficiary. A more plausible outcome is that money will be driven to bookmakers to enlarge their respective annual profits.

"The ability of bookmakers to act as a buyer cartel for racing's data rights will remain unimpaired if the OFT succeed. The only means to negotiate with a collective buyer with the magnitude of market capitalisation of British bookmakers is for the sport to collectively sell its assets." That, of course, is where the BHB comes in.

There was surprising harmony yesterday among two other constituent members, the rule-makers and the riders when the "Ludlow Seven", who had been suspended for taking the wrong course in a race last month, had their punishments reduced by the Jockey Club.

John Blake, the new chief executive of the Jockeys' Association, was pleased with the result of a complicated hearing at the Club's Portman Square headquarters which lasted over four hours. The riders initially received 19 days' suspension each - 12 for taking the wrong course and seven for failing to pull up - now reduced to a total of 10 days for six of the group and three days for one culprit.

"The jockeys were pleased to have an opportunity to disentangle such a complex case," Blake said. "The revised punishments are more suitable to what amounted to professional mistakes - something anybody can do."

Proof is that the Ludlow incident followed a race at Towcester four days' earlier where the first five home were thrown out for taking the wrong course. Keen to avert such pantomime scenes again, John Maxse, the Jockey Club's director of public relations, said yesterday that procedures for bypassing obstacles are to be reviewed.

"While it is clear that the responsibility has to lie with the jockeys to familiarise themselves with what course to take," Maxse said, "we have a role to play in making sure that procedures in place are as clear as possible to minimise the chance of misunderstanding."

* See More Business, winner of the 1999 Cheltenham Gold Cup and King George VI Chase of 1997 and 1999, has been retired aged 14. Trained by Paul Nicholls, he won 18 of his 36 races for £701,722 in prize-money.