Punters face greater threat than old foe

RACING COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
I magine - or more accurately fantasise - that on Saturday you backed four horses, all 25-1 chances, in a pounds 1 win accumulator. Yesterday you checked the results and found, to your astonishment and delight, that all four had won. Now consider how you might feel if, instead of writing a cheque for the pounds 456,976 you were expecting, your bookmaker declined to pay a penny more than pounds 1,000.

This, pretty much, is what has happened to anyone who has won second prize in the National Lottery's current red scratch card game (the actual odds of a pounds 1,000 return are 486,500-1). Even the shadiest Sicilian businessman would consider short-changing on this scale a little extreme, yet somehow Camelot gets away with it.

Take a close look, too, at some of Camelot's claims about payouts. The "overall chance of winning" on the green scratch card, for instance, is said to be 1 in 5.44. Yet this includes the most likely outcome, that you will simply get your pounds 1 back, which seems strange given that any dictionary's definition of "win" will include the word "gain". If nothing else, you have to admire their gall.

Of course, given the incentives and advantages conferred on them by the Government, they would be mad to do anything else. Camelot can buy all the advertising time it can afford - which is clearly a great deal - on television and radio. It can sell its product through the local newsagent, like a magazine or Mars bar, even though scratch cards conform to the Home Office's definition of "hard" gambling, that is, there is an immediate chance to chase losses.

Most Britons still believe that the Lottery is just a bit of fun, but it is becoming ever clearer that there are some unpleasant realities lurking behind Anthea Turner's saccharine smile. The effect of the Lottery on horse racing is perhaps not the most important of these - there are charities facing ruin while the Opera House plans its refurbishment. Anyone involved with the industry, however, be they owner, punter or anything in between, should now view the Lottery as a mortal enemy.

Some already do. Bookmakers noticed a decline in betting turnover as soon as the Lottery was launched. With the arrival of scratch cards, the leak became a haemorrhage. An independent report by the Henley Centre recently predicted that 2,000 betting shops face closure with the loss of 6,500 jobs. This forecast, meanwhile, was based on the Lottery's current level of popularity, but it seems likely that far from being close to maturity, Camelot's child has not even started to shave.

No-one can deny that for off-course bookmakers, the good times had previously been rolling for a very long time. Business empires were built on the profits while their streetwise lobbyists and PRO's danced rings around the Jockey Club as it attempted to increase racing's meagre share of the spoils, acquired through the Levy.

Since the Club's replacement by the British Horseracing Board, however, a new spirit of co-operation has emerged, and when both sides agreed a five-year Levy scheme, the sport seemed at last to have a solid foundation. Now, thanks to the Lottery's impact on betting turnover, it is showing signs of disastrous subsidence.

The 1995 Levy scheme was expected to realise pounds 51m for racing. The Henley report anticipates a shortfall of pounds 6m (11.8 per cent), which can only increase in the years to come. The sequence which will follow is all too predictable. Decreasing Levy yield, poorer prize-money and facilities, fewer horses in training and therefore to bet on, even lower betting turnover, and even less from the Levy. Ever onward and downward - it is a prospect which should extinguish any lingering satisfaction at the sight of the bookmakers taking a pasting.

The racing industry's response to the possibility of terminal decline has, so far, been fractured and ineffectual. Both the BHB and the bookmakers have requested a reduction in betting duty in November's Budget, but their failure to agree on precisely how any cut should be divided up cannot help their cause.

In any case, the Government has little reason to listen. Like the scratch cards' 5.44-1 chance of winning, the idea that the Lottery was set up to raise money for good causes is another of those half-truths which Camelot is keen to peddle. In fact, one of the Lottery's primary functions is to raise large amounts of extra revenue for the Exchequer, but if it was marketed like that, how many people would play?

With 12p from every pounds 1 ticket going to the Government, and weekly sales now approaching pounds 100m, the Lottery is already generating more revenue than betting duty, and even taking into account the costs of 6,500 lost jobs, the Treasury will be pounds 500m ahead on the deal. It seems most unlikely that the Chancellor will want to disrupt the flow of funds.

There are those who feel - with some justice - that British racing today is uninspiring and underfunded, but if the Lottery's attack continues this could, within a matter of a decade, seem like a golden age. The message for everyone involved with the sport is simple. If you care about racing, boycott the Lottery.

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