The Tote's right to pool betting monopoly is drawing to a close. Under proposed new government legislation it appears the Tote in its present form will last for perhaps another five years. Then exclusiveness will disappear and the Tote will be out in the big, wide world, with licences flying around for potential rivals. Punting outside fixed odds betting will not be the same again.
Lord McIntosh, the Minister for the Media and Heritage, yesterday revealed the details of the new Horseracing Betting and Olympic Lottery Bill, under which the Tote's governance would be passed to a racing trust. Foremost among his announcement though was a bow to market forces. The Tote, which only this week announced improved turnover following the decision to cut the percentages from both their win and place pools, now finds those results a small triumph. The jungle beckons.
A spokesperson for the Tote said: "The Office Of Fair Trading originally wanted the Tote's monopoly of pool betting to end immediately it was sold. The suggested period of between five and seven years for the Tote to retain exclusive rights to pool betting is broadly within our expectations. However, we believe that it is in the punters' interest for there to be one big pool and that can be best provided by the Tote."
These are seismic times for racing as the OFT also looks into the conservative way the sport is run. The burghers of the turf are not liking it.
"Government has no place in the day-to-day operation of racing," Lord McIntosh told the annual industry seminar of bookmakers in London yesterday. There is no other sport, including greyhound racing, where we are so closely involved with the administration and finances. Quite simply, it is no longer appropriate, nor acceptable, for the Tote to remain in public ownership. Since 1999, the policy has been to sell the Tote to a racing trust. The plan is that when the racing trust buys the Tote it will be issued with an exclusive licence to conduct pool betting.
"But I can confirm now that this licence will be time-limited and will not be renewable. Once the transitional licence period has come to an end the pool betting market will be open to new entrants and there is no plan to limit the number of licences available. We think that this is the best way to establish a healthy pool betting market."
The time period for which the Tote would still hold exclusive rights for pool betting is officially set between two and 15 years. The clock, however, is ticking and most observers expect the trust to be granted a licence for a maximum of between five and seven years.
Upon the completion of that licence, the trust would continue to oversee the running of the Tote's business.
The Horseracing Betting and Olympic Lottery Bill - under which the Tote would be transformed - is now not expected to be mentioned in today's Queen's Speech, despite recent hopes that its implementation could be expedited. However, the Minister did insist that it would be introduced "as soon as Parliamentary time allows. If it isn't in the Queen's Speech, then we would hope to be making an announcement about it within a very short time indeed," he said.
The minister also touched upon the recent publicity surrounding betting exchanges, which are becoming subject to a new 'betting intermediary licence'. "We are all aware of the cases that have come to light of highly-fancied horses drifting on the exchanges," Lord McIntosh said.
"The term 'unusual betting patterns' has now firmly entered the vocabulary of the racing world. This is not a happy state of affairs. The government wants racing to show itself to be beyond reproach. The Panorama and Kenyon Confronts documentaries did racing no favours and no-one wants to see those incidents repeated."
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