Racing: Bookies' bids rise to fever pitch

Big names joined the spree as prime sites in Britain's betting rings went under the hammer yesterday.
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The Independent Online
THERE WERE even more bookmakers than usual at Sandown yesterday, and probably a few dozen economics students too, there to take notes as a commodity which had never been traded before was suddenly cast into the snakepit of capitalism. Almost 100 lots were on offer at the first public auction of racecourse betting pitches. By the time the hammer fell on the last of them, nearly pounds 3 million had been paid for the right to shout the odds from small patches of concrete anywhere from Hereford to Folkestone.

For some, the auction marked the end of not just decades, but several generations in the racecourse betting business. For years, all a bookie had to do to progress slowly up the pecking order in the ring was keep breathing, and even when they stopped doing that, the "seniority" they had earned over the years could be passed on to their sons and daughters.

And it could be a valuable legacy, since the best pitches, towards the front of the ring and in the direction of the members' enclosure, do a far better trade than those in the second and third rank. Until yesterday, though, it was impossible to put a value on any pitch, since no-one was allowed either to buy or sell them. Bookies are used to pricing up six races a day, but deciding how much to ask or pay for, say, the fifth-best spot in Tattersalls at Brighton was more of a puzzle.

In the pre-auction hubbub, one potential buyer had pointed out that, while racecourse bookies often claim they cannot make a living any more, they also seemed to be hoping for serious money for their seniority rights. Something did not add up, and as soon as the bidding began, it became clear the market treated their claims of poverty with some scepticism.

The first lot was nine pitches, ranging from the best spot at Yarmouth to the 54th position at Ascot in the summer. When the auctioneer asked for an opening bid of pounds 50,000 it seemed ambitious. After opening at pounds 20,000 though, the bidding soared towards pounds 100,000. When the hammer came down at pounds 84,000, the 1,000-strong audience broke into applause. It works out at about pounds 1,600 per square yard of ground, which must make the average betting ring almost as valuable as a block in downtown Manhattan.

The water had been tested, and it was simmering. Soon after, the 37th position at Doncaster went for pounds 24,000, and a set of 11 pitches, mainly at minor jumps tracks, fetched pounds 125,000, the first six-figure price. And then came lot 22, five pitches in excellent positions at Haydock, Doncaster and York. It went for pounds 175,000, the best price of the day, with the successful bid made on behalf of Maurice Lindsay, the chief executive of Super League (Europe). He also paid pounds 28,000 for a rails pitch at Cheltenham, and the ring seems to have found a serious new player.

Cheltenham was the course everyone wanted. The first, second and fourth- best pitches at the home of the jumps Festival were all in yesterday's sale, and David Boden, offering the No 4 spot, did a good job of promoting it beforehand.

"Cheltenham is unique," he said. "The only limitation on the amount of money you can take is the speed at which you can shove it into the satchel. The punters just keep pushing money at you all afternoon."

Boden's pitch fetched pounds 95,000, while the No 1 and No 2 positions went for pounds 105,000 and pounds 90,000. The buyer of the top spot was Gregory Hughes, from Northern Ireland. "I've never been to Cheltenham," he said, "it's always been a dream of mine to work there." As for the six-figure price tag attached to his piece of the Festival, he reckoned it "the bargain of all time".

Hughes seemed just the sort of bookie the new regime in the ring hopes to attract. Young and keen, he and others like him will move in to replace old-timers like Roy Woolgar, who sold his business in three separate lots, along with an offer to spend time with the buyers to help them get started in the ring.

"I started in 1958 with my father, and I've carried on myself for 25 years since I lost him," Woolgar said. "It's been a lovely game and I'll miss it terribly, and, if it wasn't for my health, I wouldn't be getting out. But I'm grateful for the chance this has given me to get out with a bit of dignity rather than falling down on the racecourse."

The impetus which yesterday's auction will bring to the betting ring will soon become apparent. It is worth remembering, though, that without people like Woolgar, it will in some ways be a poorer place too.

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