Illicit bets fear as pubs switch to new channel

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The Independent Online
Clubs and public houses will soon be able to switch on to a new specialised television channel for racing, prompting concern among bookmakers that illegal gambling will be encouraged.

The Racing Channel, launched little more than three weeks ago has so far signed up more than 8,500 viewers for the new service, which broadcasts via Sky satellite dishes from at least two race meetings each day, at a cost of pounds 19.99 a month.

Satellite Information Services (SIS), which produces the channel, has also started to persuade local cable television companies, who initially treated the venture with caution, to provide the service to its customers. Westminster Cable, one of the countries largest, will carry the channel from 1 December.

Not everyone, however, has greeted the Racing Channel with unequivocal delight. Within the next few days, SIS will begin issuing contracts to pubs and clubs which wish to take the station at the significantly higher cost of pounds 300 per month, and the arrival of daily racing in the local has prompted concern among bookmakers that illegal gambling will be encouraged.

Rare indeed is the punter who has not at one time or another resented paying 10 per cent "tax" (in reality, a mix of duty, a contribution to the Levy and a slice for the bookie) on every bet. As a result, illegal betting - a chap in the pub lays you a tenner at SP and you spend the tax on a drink instead - is often seen as a victimless crime.

As with other dodges, though, it is the honest punter who pays, with a higher level of deductions than might otherwise be necessary, while smaller betting shops, already under pressure from the Lottery, might be forced out of business altogether.

''Something that's illegal is by definition very hard to define," Will Roseff, of the British Betting Office Association, said yesterday. "My estimate is that pounds 50m in duty is being lost each year, but it might be twice that. If people can sit in a pub with a drink and watch the racing and bet without tax, it's very hard for a betting shop to compete.''

Irvine, though, is adamant that the Racing Channel will not make the problem any worse, and that bars where illegal betting is taking place will have their service withdrawn immediately. "If people are going to offer bets in a pub they're going to do it whether it's the Racing Channel or Channel 4," he said. "We're not going to encourage people any more than what's shown already, and the races which are on the BBC and Channel 4 are the top races of the year, which get the most publicity.

"We've got the best police force in the world. They're called betting shops, and they're not going to allow their margins to be eroded. If we get information from a bookmaker that illegal betting is going on in a pub, they will be switched off.''

Roseff, who invited a senior Customs & Excise official to a BBOA board meeting yesterday to discuss the problem, would like the revenue officials to set up an information hotline to take the onus off the bookies themselves.

"At the moment if a bookmaker finds business going down and discovers a pub doing it then it's very difficult because he becomes the villain in the area, he upsets the landlord and so on. It would be much easier to make a quiet call and let the Customs deal with it.''

In racecourse bars yesterday, the talk was of the jockeys' merry-go-round which has now seen Graham Bradley installed in the saddle for Viking Flagship's seasonal debut at Sandown on Saturday.

Bradley replaces Jamie Osborne, who got off the champion two-mile chaser to ride the ultimate champion, Master Oats, in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow. Bradley will school Viking Flagship at David Nicholson's yard tomorrow.

Osborne's move was made with an eye to the future since he will partner Master Oats up to and probably including the Festival next March, while Adrian Maguire, Nicholson's stable jockey, is expected to recover from an ankle injury in time to partner Viking Flagship in his next race. Osborne schooled the Gold Cup winner at Kim Bailey's stable yesterday morning, with the trainer reporting that "they went very well together."