Racing: Betting shops to open in evening

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The Independent Online
IN A decision that is testimony to the lobbying skills of the three biggest bookmakers, the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced yesterday that betting shops are to be allowed to remain open until 10pm during the summer months.

It is a move that has been campaigned against rigorously by smaller bookmakers and the greyhound racing industry since the Government began to seek the opinion of interested parties in October 1991. But the parliamentary influence of Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral has prevailed.

The deregulation, which marks the biggest change in the laws governing gambling since off-course cash betting was legalised in 1961, will come into effect on 1 April and the first evening meeting to be affected is at Taunton on 16 April.

That is the first of 133 evening fixtures scheduled this year, but the Jockey Club yesterday indicated that they will begin work immediately on a new programme 'from which everyone will benefit'. For the bookmakers that means at least two meetings every evening with staggered start times to keep punters in their shops hooked; for the Jockey Club it means making sure the bookies pay for programming tailored to their requirements. 'Racing will wish to ensure that it receives an appropriate return through the levy for the evening meetings that are staged,' David Pipe, the Jockey Club's Director of Public Affairs, said.

The 'Big Three' bookies are sure to benefit from increased turnover and thus racing, through the levy, will gain too. Britain's racecourses, which have long sought to shed sparsely attended weekday afternoon meetings for profitable evening cards, will welcome the new legislation.

Certain losers though are the greyhound tracks and one-shop bookies. For the greyhound industry the fear is that attendances will fall dramatically as followers are lured away to betting shops. Greyhound racing already forms a significant part of the afternoon fare in betting shops and Satellite Information Services are likely to include an evening dog meeting alongside their twilight transmissions of horse racing. As several greyhound tracks are now owned by the main bookmakers, objections by the greyhound authorities are unlikely to carry much weight.

'We are absolutely devastated. We are responsible for 36 tracks and half of them could be in danger,' Geoffrey Thomas, deputy secretary of the British Greyhound Racing Board, said.

Archie Newhouse, Chief Executive of the British Greyhound Racing Board, said: 'The Government has come up with the worst possible situation because we have no parity with horse racing, no levy. Greyhound racing must now be put on the same basis as horse racing with a fully fledged levy otherwise it will be destroyed by those who favour wealth and privilege over the interests of the little people of this country. The Home Secretary has acted only to help the 'Big Three' bookmakers.'

Equally condemnatory was Warwick Bartlett, Chairman of the British Betting Office Association, which represents 700 independent bookmakers, disaffected by the representation they received from the 'Big Three'-led Betting Office Licensees' Association. 'We have waged a long, expensive and time-consuming campaign against evening opening,' Bartlett said. 'We don't think there will be any call for it.'

Unlike their larger rivals, many independent firms will not have the capability to roster staff to cope with the extended hours and will be without the option of shutting shops where there is no evening custom in order to switch staff to other outlets. They will be faced by longer hours, increased overheads and, for some, ruin. With their rivals in difficulty, the domination of the leading firms seems set to increase.

The announcement will also be greeted with little applause by betting-shop staff working for the 'Big Three'. They have already seen their day become more hectic as turnover is maximised by ensuring that betting opportunities arrive at ever shorter intervals. Opposition though, in an industry in which union representation has been discouraged, has been low key at a time when alternative employment is scarce. At William Hill, revised contracts of employment embracing evening working have been accepted by 98 per cent of staff.

So the revolution rolls on, although the Home Secretary's desire to achieve 'a sensible and reasonable balance between the various interests' precludes shops opening late after the end of August. That rules out catering for floodlit winter racing, as schemed for a proposed all-weather circuit at Wolverhampton. But the beaming in of live racing from America would be an attractive possibility and the notion of dressing down and going for an evening out in the betting shop has truly arrived.