Police investigate rogue bookmaker

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The Independent Online
The steady flow of positive publicity surrounding the latest running of the Derby on Saturday came to an abrupt halt yesterday when it emerged that a rogue bookmaker operating on the Hill, where thousands of spectators watch for free, made off with thousands of pounds of their money. Since the Hill is one of the few remaining unregulated areas on British courses, punters who backed Benny The Dip or any other winners cannot seek compensation for their loss.

The bookmaker attracted plenty of custom by offering Entrepreneur, the odds-on Derby favourite, at 6-4 and even 7-4 against, while simultaneously offering competitive odds against the remaining runners as well.

One punter from Cardiff returned after the race to collect pounds 300 but found no trace of him, and the track has already received complaints from backers claiming to be owed a total of pounds 10,500. "We have received 29 complaints so far," Stephen Wallis, the racecourse manager, said yesterday, "which I suspect is the tip of the iceberg."

A further embarrassing aspect for Epsom is that the conman had acquired a bookmakers' badge, apparently by showing a fake bookmakers' permit to a track official. "He gave an address in St Albans and a phone number, and both have turned out to be bogus," Wallis said.

The Metropolitan Police, who are investigating the fraud, said detectives would be meeting with the Jockey Club. ''We are certain that a case of deception has been carried out and at the moment the amount stolen seems to be somewhere in excess of pounds 10,000," a police spokesman said.

Such frauds were once commonplace at many tracks, and an account of Derby day written in the mid-1800s describes punters holding hands and encircling bookmakers to be sure that they did not attempt to escape. Since the late 1950s, however, pitches and bookies have been more tightly regulated, but since the Hill is - almost uniquely - free to the public, it does not fall within the rules. As recently as 1987, a bookmaker there who had been laying fancy odds had to be rescued from an angry crowd when he did not have money to pay them.

"It's a vast area and difficult to police properly," Ron Whytock, of the National Association of Bookmakers, said. "Anyone can turn up and if they've got the credentials they can bet. It's easy these days to get hold of a betting permit [issued by a magistrate], photocopy it and alter the details.

"I understand that officials went to the pitch and found two guys on it who were casual staff he'd picked up on the day. They didn't know what had happened to him and when they opened the bag it was empty. We are going to have to sit down with the Epsom authorities and discuss this in some depth to work out what safeguards we can provide for the public in future."

But it may be down to the public themselves to prevent any recurrence. If they happen upon a bookie whose odds seem too good to be true, they almost certainly are, and while Ladbrokes and Hills may not offer quite the same rates of reward, they will at least be there when you return for your winnings. It might also pay to study the name on the betting tickets he is handing out. The conman at Epsom on Saturday gave his name as John Batten, but the name on his tickets was ... Lucan.