Racing: Bookmakers pitch into a revolution

British race-track betting will ring the changes today as ritual makes an exit.
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The Independent Online
YORK RACECOURSE will look much the same today as it did last week, and so too Wincanton, Ludlow and Plumpton. On the patch of concrete which the bookmakers call home, though, the rules and regime of the last 40 years have changed overnight. Over the next 15 months, the appearance and administration of Britain's betting rings will change completely, and for everyone who makes a living by shouting the odds, the new millenium starts this afternoon.

The average punter trying to nick 7-4 about a 13-8 chance may not have time to notice the differences, but they will be there. From today, ring bookmakers must price up every race at least 10 minutes before the off, record all transactions on audio tape for use in resolving disputes, apply standard each-way terms if they offer each-way betting, and display an amount they guarantee to lay any horse to lose. If, for example, the figure is pounds 2,000, the bookie is obliged to accept a bet of pounds 1,000 about a 2-1 chance, or pounds 200 about a 10-1 shot.

Other changes will be introduced over the coming months. From January, bookmakers must operate from a standardised plastic pitch, rather than the loose assortment of upturned boxes which is often the case at present. The following month, information booths will appear in almost every racecourse ring, to guide novice punters through their first steps into the betting jungle. The final deadline in the reform process is 31 December 1999, after which all bookmakers will be required to issue tickets detailing such information as the name or number of the horse backed, the potential return, the odds and the type of bet. In effect, this will require all racecourse bookies to join the computer age.

Today, though, the transformation is more one of culture. For almost 40 years, on-course bookmakers have administered themselves, deciding who is allowed to bet, when and just as importantly, where, since different "pitches" in the betting ring will attract varying amounts of interest depending on their proximity to the terraces and Members' enclosure.

This has previously been arranged on the basis of "seniority", with those bookies who have been in the business longest generally allowed to bet in the most lucrative positions at a given racecourse. Seniority could also be handed down from generation to generation, but as a result, bookmakers with no family history in the business often had to join waiting lists which were years, even decades, long before being permitted to bet at the top tracks. This is why the average age of a racecourse bookie often seems to be only barely on the young side of three figures.

From today, though, a new body, the Joint National Pitch Council (JNPC), will administer the vital business of racecourse betting, power having been wrested from the bookmakers after a bitter seven-year dispute with the Racecourse Association. The old seniority lists will, to begin with, still play a role, but bookmakers will be required to attend a third of all meetings at a particular track in each calendar year in order to keep their place on the list.

Even more importantly, seniority positions can now be bought and sold, at auctions conducted by the JNPC. The first such auction will be held next month. Young - or at any rate, younger - bookies will now be able to buy their way into the ring, rather than waiting until they are close to drawing their pension. This should, in theory at least, bring vigorous new blood into the Tatts enclosure.

The changes will affect every punter, even those who never go any further than their high street betting shop. Starting prices, the odds at which the majority of off-course bets are settled, are based on the average price available about a horse in the racecourse ring at the start of a race. A strong on-course market is essential if the SPs are to be relied upon.

If racegoers can be persuaded back to the betting ring, from the Tote windows and on-course shops which have increasingly taken their bets in recent years, then the market can only grow stronger. A worry, though, is that racecourses may opt to split the ring, between the Tattersalls enclosure and the Members', from which bookies have previously been barred. Dividing the hard core of bookies would be bad news for the strength of the SP, although as yet, this is an option which few courses are considering.

Another fact which must never be forgotten is that the racecourses, which already make money from their customers via entrance charges, food and drink sales and so on, are also keen to take a cut from betting turnover in the ring. Any levy on bookmakers would inevitably be passed on to their customers, in effect bringing a return to on-course betting tax for the benefit of racecourses.

Computerisation planned for the end of next year will make it much easier to see just how much money the bookmakers are turning over. An attempt by the tracks to take a bit out of it may well follow. The new era in the betting ring will, on the face of it, be a good one for punters, both on and off the course. The concern is that they may also end up footing the bill.

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