Racing: A 1-7 shot worth backing?

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The Independent Online
As no end of reckless punters have discovered to their cost, 1- 7 favourites do occasionally get beaten. When they cruise from the off and start to go clear on the bit inside the final furlong, though, serious mishaps are rare, and so it is that within a few weeks, racing can expect to be dealing with a Labour government for the first time in almost two decades. For an industry which is deeply conservative - with both sizes of "c" - it could be an interesting experience.

In fact, Jack Straw, who as the new Home Secretary would take direct responsibility for racing, has made his presence felt more than a month before polling day, with his refusal last week to approve Michael Howard's choice to succeed Lord Wyatt as chairman of the Tote. Since not only Labour but much of racing wished to see Peter Jones, former president of the Racehorse Owners Association, installed at Tote House, Howard's vote was clearly going elsewhere. Straw's first intervention on what is expected to be his new patch was thus shrewdly chosen.

Whether the remainder of his tenure would be as well- received is much more difficult to judge. When Labour last left office in 1979, the Jockey Club had ruled the turf for two centuries and few would have believed that its authority might end before the People's Party returned to power. But that was before Lord Hartington re-shaped the sport's power structure with a determination which even Tony Blair might envy, and handed the reins to the British Horseracing Board, where Tristram Ricketts, the chief executive, is playing an impressively straight bat over talk of a Labour administration.

"I don't think racing has anything to fear from a Labour government," Ricketts said this week. "We have always had cross-party support, and those who are interested have always expressed their understanding that racing is a major employer and generator of revenue, and together with the betting which goes with it, is something to be encouraged and nurtured.''

It is not a view with which Alan Meale, a Labour MP with a long-standing interest in racing, would disagree. "It is a gigantic earner for the Treasury, employs hundreds of thousands of people and gives enjoyment to millions," he says. "We're not going to do anything which might put that at risk."

What Meale would like to see, however, is a gentle shift in the balance of power. Within 24 hours of the announcement of the election, he met representatives of the National Association for the Protection of Punters, which has recently seemed likely to go out of business due to lack of funds, and advised them to "hold their breath until they've got a different government''.

Lest anyone should forget, it is worth emphasising yet again that it is punters, not bookmakers, who pay the Levy on bets, worth almost pounds 50m each year, which keeps racing afloat. Yet no officially-funded organisation - Ofpunt, if you like - exists to protect their interests. Meale believes that it is time for a change. "I think it's incredible that the Government hasn't shown any support for a punters' organisation," he says. "We need to get the industry to recognise its responsibilities, or encourage a more innovative method to ensure funding. There's millions already laying in bookmakers' satchels in uncollected bets. If that has to go anywhere, why shouldn't it go to an organisation that protects punters?''

The volume of squeals from bookies should indicate whether Meale's plan has a future (the louder the protests, the more plausible it is). Wait too for outrage from the leafier parts of the industry if, as pledged, a Labour government holds a free vote on abolition of fox-hunting.

"The BHB's position when we last discussed it was to agree not to take a corporate position," Ricketts, says. "But we did note that the abolition of hunting would adversely effect National Hunt racing and point-to-pointing." No objective studies have been carried out which might support this view, but the hunters will doubtless attempt to attach themselves to racing as any vote nears. The only consolation is that we should then be rid of them for good.

Elsewhere in the upper reaches of racing administration, Lord Wakeham, a former Tory chief whip, remains BHB chairman, but the potential for serious conflict is slight. "John Wakeham is a very competent guy," Meale says. "He knows the channels and he's negotiated at that level before and he'll no doubt do so with a Labour government." Another political foe, Lord Wyatt, will have left the Tote's chair - his reward for years of devotion to the Tory cause - though his extended tenure, not to mention Michael Howard's apparent wish to make another political appointment before departing, may not be forgotten. "It's about time the industry didn't have political appointments at all and got on with appointing its own people," Meale says.

Ultimately, of course, racing will prove to be far less significant to a government of any hue than those who live and work for the turf might like to suppose (and Gordon Brown could hardly pay less attention to the sport in his first Budget speech than Kenneth Clarke did in his last). It could be that one of the most significant changes in our isolated little world is that Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary and a passionate follower of the sport, might be forced to abandon his weekly tipping column in the Glasgow Herald.

For this, the punters of Scotland may be truly grateful. What fun it would be, though, if Britain's representative at the councils of the world was forced to absent himself from a G7 summit in order to file his selection in the 2.15 at Haydock.