Howard refuses to let go of Tote

Greg Wood on why a key asset stays outside the control of racing's rulers
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Events away from the track are rarely as interesting as those upon it, but in these difficult times for racing, the industry's influence in the corridors of power is a useful measure of its health. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday addressed himself to racing matters, and while one of the British Horseracing Board's most cherished ambitions has been, for the moment at least, frustrated, the BHB will probably feel that it emerged with an honourable score draw.

Howard announced that the Board will not, as it had wished, be allowed to take control of the Tote, the publicly-owned body which has an effective monopoly on pool-betting and returns its profits to the sport.

"Transfer of a public asset to a private body such as the BHB raises complex issues," he said, "which are unlikely to be settled in the short term.''

However, the BHB will be consulted on the identity of a successor to Lord Wyatt, the current Tote chairman, whose extended tenure in the post will end in April next year.

Wyatt is a controversial figure, whose long stay at the Tote in a part- time position worth almost pounds 100,000 per annum, was seen by many as a reward for years of devotion to the Conservative cause. He famously admitted at Glorious Goodwood last year that he could not name any of the horses running on Sussex Stakes day, and the organisation's contribution to racing remains small in comparison to that yielded by deductions from fixed-odds bookmakers.

As the competition from the National Lottery continues to bite - Camelot announced yesterday that it intends to introduce a second weekly draw - the Tote could prove an essential weapon as racing attempts to protect its finances, and the British Horseracing Board will welcome the chance to add its input to the search for Wyatt's successor.

Another route to important ears will be provided by a new Horseracing Advisory Group, which is to be set up at the suggestion of Lord Wakeham, the BHB's new chairman and, as a former Goverment chief whip, a man who knows a great deal about behind-the-scenes influence.

To be selected personally by Wakeham, the four or five members of the advisory group, who will not formally represent any factional interests, will meet the Home Secretary to discuss matters of importance to the industry.

"There will obviously be some disappointed that one of our initial objectives has not yet been achieved," Tristram Ricketts, the BHB's chief executive, said yesterday. "But we've long taken the view that the important thing is not who owns the Tote, but that it is run successfully for the benefit of racing and there's no reason why that shouldn't happen."

Ricketts added: "It's become clear that any change in the Tote's status would put its exclusive licence [to conduct pool betting] at risk, and that would be extremely damaging for the Tote's contribution to racing. It would have been madness to press the Government to do something which is counter-productive.''

The news of an imminent second weekly Lottery draw, while not unexpected, remains depressing, with Camelot predicting an overall increase of 20 per cent in its revenue and bookmakers preparing to see their turnover depleted still further.

This morning, the big three bookmakers will officially unveil a new, unified strategy for betting on the Irish lottery numbers, with an identical betting slip to be carried in all their shops.

This is little consolation to the turf, however, which receives Levy only from betting turnover on British racing. Some may deride the new advisory group as nothing more than a talking shop, but at present racing needs all the friends and influence it can get.