Open and shut case for Sunday

RACING: A bold advance into seven-day operation for betting shops is in sudden retreat
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The Independent Online
GREG WOOD

Ask Norman Gundill, the clerk of the course at Pontefract, his opinion of Sunday racing, and his enthusiasm is so infectious it should carry a health warning.

"The response has been tremendous, I've never known so many people ringing up," Gundill said this week as he prepared for the track's meeting this weekend, its first on a Sunday.

"The biggest crowd we've had in recent years was 11,294 on a bank holiday evening in 1990. I think there's every chance we can get something like that on Sunday, and it's families and children who will be coming so we're investing in the future."

The staff of Britain's betting shops may also be looking forward to Sunday. They will be able to put their feet up and lose themselves in a newspaper, and on double-time too. For while the first full season of Sunday racing has been filling many tracks to bursting point, most betting shops have not even attracted enough punters to generate a decent pall of fag smoke.

Last week, just days after 35,000 spectators had crammed into Chester, Ladbrokes announced that all its betting shops will be closed both this Sunday and on 27 August, the next date in the programme.

Ladbrokes' decision co-incided almost exactly with an unexpected request - from the Satellite Information Services (SIS) Users' Committee, which includes representatives of most major bookmakers' trade bodies - to SIS, which televises live racing in betting shops. The committee asked SIS not to cover racing on either 13 or 27 August, which would force every bookie in the country to close on those days. Ladbrokes and other major firms, the conspiracy theorists concluded, were not content to close their own shops. They wanted to ensure no-one else could open either.

After howls of rage in the trade dailies, SIS decided to continue to broadcast. Quite rightly, too, since all bookmakers, large and small, paid up front for the service and should therefore be able to decide for themselves whether or not to open their doors. Yet those in racing who took satisfaction from this apparent defeat for the big bookies may have simply postponed the inevitable.

Coincidence, not conspiracy, seems a more likely explanation for last week's events, since even Ladbrokes are not (quite) arrogant enough to attempt to impose their will on the rest of the betting outlets. Rather, the firm's decision to close its shops and the users' committee's request to SIS - made more in protest, perhaps, than expectation - were simply independent reactions from an industry in a mood of growing desperation.

"On a scale of 0-10 in importance to my members, Sunday racing is two and the Lottery is 10," Warwick Bartlett, chairman of the British Betting Offices Association, says. The BBOA mainly represents small, independent firms, but the Big Three are taking a beating from the Lottery too, which explains why companies which have never been slow to grab a fresh opportunity are prepared to abandon Sunday racing so early in its existence.

"The fact is the public are not interested in it, and even if you put the Derby on a Sunday I don't think it would make any difference," Bartlett says. "There are deeply ingrained social habits which it will take a long time for people to get out of." Critics will say that the bookmakers should grit their teeth, market Sunday racing as heavily as possible, and for the good of racing, wait for those habits to change. Many bookmakers, however, know that if the march of the Lottery continues unchecked, they simply cannot wait that long.

And while many shops will now see out the remainder of the Sunday season, next year may be very different. SIS also needs to cover its costs and if, say, Ladbrokes and William Hill, decide that they are not prepared to pay for Sunday coverage, the charge for those who are will inevitably increase, probably to an uneconomic level.

Independents who wished to trade might be forced to rely on an audio- only service, which would be nostalgic for those who grew up with the "blower", but is hardly going to increase betting turnover or the Levy payments which derive from it.

For years, the introduction of Sunday racing was frustrated by the off- course bookmakers who insisted that unless betting shops were also allowed to trade, illegal gambling would be widespread. Understandably, many in racing are angry that the bookmakers now seem ready to abandon the programme after barely three months.

This is no time for grudges, however. The Lottery has started to put the sport through the mincer, and much as some may wish to gloat, the bookies' problems today will be racing's tomorrow.

Anyone who hoped that the Sunday cards would produce big crowds at the track and healthy Levy returns off-course may have to accept that one out of two isn't bad. And if - when - the betting shops shut their doors on Sunday, all complaints should be addressed to Camelot.

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