Racing: Bookies accuse Savill of slander

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BOOKMAKERS accused Peter Savill, the British Horseracing Board chairman, of making "slanderous and outrageous" comments concerning their honesty yesterday and decided to consult with their lawyers.

Savill had just spoken at the first BHB annual general meeting to be held in public, and had listed the results of an exit poll of 1,000 betting shop punters.

Half of the punters agreed that the betting industry was "greedy", but only 38 per cent that it "provided a good service" and 16 per cent that it was "committed to the good of horseracing". Just 17 per cent of those asked agreed strongly that bookies were honest.

The poll, conducted by Opinion Leader Research, had asked punters to characterise the betting industry from a list of possible descriptions.

Savill said that, of those questioned, 56 per cent agreed with the BHB that the quality of British horseracing was deteriorating, 72 per cent that prize money was too low, and 91 per cent that bookmakers should pay more to racing.

Conflict between the big off-course bookmakers and the BHB has been increasing all this year. But Savill's comments at yesterday's agm in London were the most abrasive yet. He argued that betting industry profits were running at more than 20 per cent and not 3.3 per cent as claimed by the Betting Office Licencees Association (BOLA). ``Why, after all, should their huge profits, more than trebled since 1995, be inviolable?'' he asked.

Savill said the betting industry had failed to accept its share of the responsibility for the health of racing and to pay racing a proper share of turnover. "The longer the betting industry abrogates these responsibilities, the quicker must its 100 per cent monopoly of the distribution of horserace betting be broken,'' he stated.

The BHB wants bookmakers to raise the contribution they make to racing via the Levy Board. Agreement on how much bookmakers must pay next year is due to be reached by 31 October. At present they pay about one per cent of turnover, according to Savill.

Chris Bell, managing director of Ladbrokes, left yesterday's meeting saying: "I have never heard anything that is so scurrilous, slanderous and outrageous since the age of one day. It is an absolute disgrace.

"If our punters thought in the way that that has been presented, which was extremely selective - even by their own admission they haven't analysed the whole survey - and 83 per cent of our customers thought we were dishonest, then we would not have a business turning over pounds 7 billion, because punters would not darken our doors.

``I think the first step is to talk to our lawyers. We must take legal advice - it misrepresented the position."

BOLA's Tom Kelly added: "Merely the implication that the majority of bookmakers are dishonest - that was the clear implication from what he said - is unacceptable to us."