Racing: Bets row rumbles on

Greg Wood on a punter's bitter dispute with a top bookmaking firm
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The Independent Online
The fuzzy nature of the rules governing disputes between backers and bookmakers was highlighted once again yesterday when the Sporting Life's Green Seal Service, a long- established but unaccountable panel of arbitrators, decided that Coral were justified in refusing to pay Terry O'Callaghan, a Cardiff punter, the pounds 259,200 he believes he is owed as his return on a football bet placed on 10 September.

Though the argument between O'Callaghan and Coral centres on sports betting rather than racing, it is still one which should be of concern to anyone who ever places a bet.

O'Callaghan staked pounds 50, plus tax, on forecasting a series of football scorelines. The problem with his coupon is that Ron Chivers, the manager of the Cardiff betting shop where he placed the bet, ``clocked'' it on the cash register but then failed to pass the coupon through a security camera.

These cameras, installed in all shops, are designed to ensure that blank slips are not time-stamped and then filled in once the result of an event is known.

Coral did not suggest that O'Callaghan and Chivers colluded or plotted to defraud the company in any way, but none the less argued that its rules, which state that the firm "reserves the right to declare void any betting slip with whose bona fides we are not satisfied", allowed it to refuse payment. The Life's Green Seal Service, the membership of which remains anonymous, agreed.

The National Association for the Protection of Punters, the only organisation that is devoted solely to the campaign for backers' rights, reacted to the decision with anger and disappointment.

"The Service seems to be set up entirely to interpret the bookmakers' rules without giving any thought to whether those rules are actually fair," Steve High, a NAPP spokesman, said.

"It's completely one-sided, it's unaccountable and it doesn't have any teeth anyway, because even if they had found against Coral, they are under no obligation to pay up. There was no suggestion of any collusion, they just seem to have found a reason for not paying."

Trevor Beaumont, Coral's trading director, said yesterday that "if the rules were not fair, I think we would have more problems, and they are very much the norm in the industry. We are following up certain issues, a process which might be finished tomorrow, next week or next month, but I am not prepared to review this any further in the press. As far as we are concerned, the matter is closed."

As far as Terry O'Callaghan is concerned, however, it is anything but. British law still clings to the quaint notion that a gentleman's word is his bond and that gambling disputes are not a matter for the courts, but O'Callaghan intends to pursue a slightly different tack.

"I will be seeing my barrister in the morning," he said yesterday, "and we will definitely be going down the legal route. We believe Coral breached their duty of care and that they processed the bet without due diligence."

O'Callaghan's argument is, in effect, that he should not be made to pay for an error by Coral. How far it will get him is anyone's guess, but if the case highlights the manifest flaws of the present situation for resolving differences, every punter in Britain will owe him a debt of gratitude.

"It's been an objective of NAPP for a long time that there should be an independent betting ombudsman," High said.

"This is roughly a pounds 6 billion industry, and it is something which works very well in areas like banking and insurance. The ombudsman could be funded by the Levy Board, which after all deals with money collected entirely from punters, and could publish an annual report highlighting significant cases, explaining why rulings were made and showing how they might be applied in the future.

``It would benefit the whole industry as well as the punters, who just don't know where they are at the moment. They will lose faith in the system and before you know it they will be off betting on the National Lottery instead."

Until a more open and accountable system is in place, the clear advice for punters is to make absolutely sure that their slip has passed through the camera.