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Racing: Ask Tom? No point in asking Tate

IT IS rarely a cause for celebration when one of the best chasers in training is put away for the summer before the big Aintree Festival, but when Tom Tate announced yesterday that Ask Tom will probably not run again until the autumn, some punters will have greeted the news with an ironic cheer.

The reason, just in case you missed it in all the understandable excitement about One Man and Top Cees last Wednesday, was Tate's fascinating evidence to the stewards after Ask Tom's poor performance when fav-ourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. His horse, he said, had suffered a setback during his preparation for the race and was thus not at his best. Ask Tom himself, happily, was none the worse for the experience, but the same could not be said of those unfortunate enough to back him

The first thing you have to say about Tate's actions is that you cannot help but admire his honesty once the race had been run. Other trainers might have declared themselves mystified by his desperate run, or fallen back on that old favourite, "the jockey says he gurgled". Instead, Tate came clean and, even allowing for the detachment from reality afflicting many of his trade, he must have known he was inviting severe criticism, even though the stewards - quite correctly, as the rules stand - decided he had done nothing wrong.

Tate's attempt at justification was to claim that he was in a no-win situation, in which announcing the pre-race setback would have prompted just as many complaints if the horse still emerged victorious. This does not pass the faintest scrutiny. Success for Ask Tom in such circumstances would have reflected even greater credit on his handler, while the defeat which materialised would have been pre-excused by a mishap beyond his control.

Tate, of course, has suffered twice here, since the very fact of Ask Tom's poor showing was a bitter disappointment after so many months of justifiable optimism. He is also a very modest and likeable man, and hardly the first trainer to keep the punting public in the dark. Owners, they will claim, are the ones who pay the bills and thus the only people who need to be informed when their horse goes wrong, but the fact that this attitude is shared by many of his colleagues does not make it any easier to accept.

In fact, no group of participants in the densely interwoven world of racing can claim independence. The prize money which owners covet and which trainers make their living from is largely obtained from punters via the Levy. They need us every bit as much as we need them.

Indeed, if anything they need us rather more. Racing is glamorous, enthralling and unpredictable, and thus an ideal gambling medium, but it is hardly the only one we have. The erosion of racing's share of the punting market is the cause of much alarm among the sport's administrators, and a problem they have recently started to tackle in earnest, with such ideas as the imminent daily "showpiece" handicap to gather in the betting slips. Yet how much of their hard work was undone in a moment by Tom Tate's secrecy?

Until everyone from the top down is prepared to acknowledge their debt to punters, such incidents will recur, and persuade a few more backers that Manchester United or Liverpool are more deserving vehicles for their cash. At least you can be fairly sure that they are trying - in the Premiership and European competitions, at least - and injuries to key personnel will usually be known before kick-off.

This Wednesday the so-called "Three Wise Men" pondering the future of the betting ring will announce their binding decision on how on-course bookies should be regulated. It is a verdict with immense implications for every punter, even those who never visit a track, since starting prices are returned from the on-course market. Anything which might weaken the ring can only benefit the big off-course bookies in their attempts to influence SPs.

The Racecourse Association originally proposed a system which would have re-introduced betting tax to the track by the back door (until disclosure of their plan in these pages a few months ago prompted a hurried re-think).

Did anyone ever ask the punters for their views? Of course not. Whatever the outcome, it seems, the consumers are simply expected to carry on as before. At best, it is a foolish assumption. At worst, a potentially disastrous one.