Savill a convert to conciliation with bookies

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The Independent Online

Peter Savill, or a man who looked very much like him, introduced us to his new bestest of friends yesterday as he announced his plans for the financing of racing.

The Levy Board is going, as is much of government's interest in the sport, but the most striking departure of all is the enmity between the head of the British Horseracing Board and the bookmakers. Savill used to attempt to snaffle the betting industry for breakfast, but now, it seems, he is scuttling around the kitchen in an apron and sliding eggs on their toast.

There has been another whiff, of rapprochement, in the air all week. Savill and Warwick Bartlett, the chairman of the bookmakers' committee, met in a pub in Westminster on Monday and apparently it all went tankard-crashingly well. When they threw darts the missiles were actually aimed at a board.

Yesterday came further confirmation of a snake and mongoose alliance as Savill revealed that the Government had given him until the end of July to come up with a fresh system to finance racing. "We have been given a great opportunity, possibly the best racing has had since the legalisation of off-course bookmakers in 1961," he said, "to come up with solutions in a solid way which will take us right through this century.

"But it must be a solution which is not only of the industry, but by the industry and for the industry," the BHB Chairman added presidentially.

"Therefore we must enter a fully consultative process both with the racing industry and betting industry to try to reach what would be a historic process, a united position between the racing industries and the betting industries.

"As far as I am concerned, the confrontational approach to the betting industry is at an end and the negotiating process can now begin. We will meet regularly and try to find solutions to enable both racing and betting to flourish."

There were questions from the floor at a press conference in Portman Square, London, about this apparent volte-face. Savill was referred to varyingly as a bully, the Frog Prince, the great conciliator, New Savill, Henry Kissinger and Senator Mitchell, but he was not about to blow the moment and light his supposedly short fuse. Instead came the suggestion that his antipathy towards the bookmakers had been part of a grand plan. "I feel there was no other strategy," he said. "If we had sat there quietly and asked them [the bookmakers] to come and negotiate with us we'd still be sitting there.

"Now we are in a position where we can control our own destiny, move this industry forward and sit down and negotiate with the betting industry. I've spent my life negotiating contracts and, without the ability to conciliate and negotiate, I would not have been able to develop a business as successfully as I did. This idea of a transformation of Peter Savill from demon to gentle giant overnight is absolutely wrong.

"There has been some bad feeling. There's been bad feeling on my part over some of the ways that the betting industry let me down. But we put those things behind us and move on. If we sit there bearing grudges we don't make progress."

Savill's particular interests are liberating betting from the High Street shops and into pubs and clubs, regulating Internet betting and, most puzzlingly, gathering the thoughts of journalists. At least he will bump into them on his tour of the pubs and clubs. He will talk to many, but time is moving on.

"I want to meet the major racing associations and invite the constituent members of the industry to put forward ideas on what the right way forward is," he said. "Only if everybody participates in the process are we going to get a decision at the end of it which everyone can support." The deadline is six weeks.

By then, though, Peter Savill will probably be godfather to one of Warwick Bartlett's children. He may have been on a fishing holiday with John Brown and also clenched bloody palms with Tom Kelly. In racing politics, it now seems, anything is possible.

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