Racing: Call for unity as factions face up again

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The Independent Online
THERE MAY not quite be blood on the boardroom carpet when the cleaners arrive at Portman Square this evening, but a fly on the wall at today's British Horseracing Board meeting might be surprised by the strength of some of the language. These are difficult and antagonistic times for the suits who run British racing, and their latest coming together is unlikely to clear the air.

In recent weeks, Peter Savill, the BHB chairman, and his deputy, Angus Crichton-Miller, have fallen out rather publicly, in a dispute which has its roots in Savill's radical ideas for next year's fixture list.

Manchester United's recent shenanigans aside, other sports do not usually have problems deciding who will do what, where and when. The Football League computer comes up with the season's fixtures, and if it decides, as it did this year, that the Brighton team and their fans must travel to Hartlepool on a Tuesday evening in early March, well, that's just too bad.

Racing fixtures, on the other hand, are the bread of life where racecourses are concerned, and they fight for every crumb they can get from the BHB. How many meeting they are allowed to hold, and just as importantly, when, are the two most significant factors in a course's profitability.

Evenings and weekends are the times when thousands of punters will be easily able to come through the turnstiles and spend small fortunes in the bars and restaurants. Midweek fixtures, on the other hand, are poorly attended, and the courses are often subsidised for putting on these meetings at what is a prime time for off-course bookmakers.

Savill's vision of the fixture list for next year revolved around more Sunday racing, which is still establishing itself in the racing public's mind, at the expense of many Saturday nights, which are often so popular that the beer runs out. Tracks which were being asked to give up these Saturday meetings were, not surprisingly, a little put out.

And so it was that when Savill first tried to persuade the Levy Board, which has the final say in these things, of the brilliance of his vision, Crichton-Miller, his own deputy, was among those who successfully voted the proposals out. Crichton-Miller is a member of the BHB Board, which had backed Savill's plan, and thus in theory bound to agree with its decisions. He is also, though, the chairman of the Racecourse Association, and he voted with his RCA hat on. The relationship between the two men has since been frosty, to say the least.

The list was eventually agreed with some alterations, but racecourses who will lose valuable fixtures are demanding compensation. Crichton-Miller is supporting them in their aim, and the squabbling goes on.

If this all sounds like a sad example of egos in conflict, that may be because it is. But these disputes and power plays will do much to shape the face of racing in the new millennium, and could hardly have come at a worse time. Racing must reach agreement with the bookmakers within the next few months on the amount to be raised by the next Levy scheme. Bickering on one side of the table is just what those on the other side would want to see.

"It's got to be sorted out once and for all," Michael Harris, of the Racehorse Owners' Association, said yesterday. "At the one time that racing needs unity, all this in-fighting is crazy. The bookmakers must be laughing their heads off."

Harris was echoing a statement yesterday by his president, Sir Eric Parker, who knows a thing or two about running a major business. "The BHB can only operate," Sir Eric said, "if the board members accept the concept of collective decision-making and corporate responsibility. It is not acceptable that collective decisions are made and factional interests then attempt to undermine the results, with disastrous consequences."

Claims for compensation, he added, "largely emanate from courses which put little or nothing into prize-money". The ROA, meanwhile, "looks forward to an end to these petty and damaging disputes caused by factional interests." It may be looking for a good while yet.