Racing Commentary: Hidden costs of the late arrival

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The Independent Online
IT WAS easy last week to hail the evening opening of betting shops. It extended our freedom to blow money. It pleased the corporate bookies no end. But now the losers are emerging from the smoke-wreathed cockpits of Britain's 9,400 gambling dens. Now the arithmetic of that freedom is looking a little more complex.

The initial calculation was simple. Evenings, for most people, are leisure time. Racing is a sport. People bet on racing. Put them all together and what do you get? Well, extra profits for the bookmakers, as it happens, and the gross injustice of some betting-shop staff being threatened with dismissal if they refuse to sign new contracts. These days they need those bandit screens to hold off their employers as much as the robbers who, in the words of Alan Meale, the Labour MP, will greet evening opening as a 'muggers' charter'.

One of the most distressing aspects of the resistance to the Home Office's announcement is that betting-shop staff are being forced to voice their dismay anonymously for fear of persecution. They will tell you that they are afraid of violence from drunks, how they will miss their families, how they will resent arriving home at 11pm, how they were not properly consulted when the High Street chains were using their formidable lobbying powers in Whitehall. But their names? Rather not. Too dangerous.

To summarise, the Home Secretary has sanctioned evening opening from 1 April to 31 August, during which time there are currently 133 evening fixtures scheduled. Betting shops will be permitted, though not compelled, to open until 10pm, as against the current limit of 6.30pm. This change - the most significant reform since betting shops were legalised in 1961 - will come into force when Taunton stages a night meeting on 16 April (racing likes to start these things with a bang).

In the long term the sport will be radically altered. For evening opening to be viable, there will have to be two meetings a night, with staggered start times. The bookies say they want the afternoon programme left intact, so although all sides are saying there is plenty of racing as it is, inevitably there will be an impetus towards more meetings, and this at a time when the horse population is falling by 10 per cent a year.

To keep profits up, the High Street companies will have to draw punters from their homes, from pubs, from other leisure activities, so expect other sports - especially football - to be shown on banked television monitors so that an evening in a betting shop can be promoted as a night out (the health and wealth hazards will probably not be emphasised). You can expect, too, an increase in the number of greyhound meetings broadcast from bookmaker-owned tracks, because dog racing does not receive even the pittance (the Levy) that horse racing is granted from bookmakers' turnover.

Fancy it? In truth, it does have an undeniable logic, and the puritanical argument that evening opening encourages punters to dance with the devil night and day is not one that would find much sympathy here. If an incurable market-player wants to gamble away the family income, then he will find a way to do it whatever time the betting shop closes. But the real losers - racing's workforce - are increasingly hard to ignore in their anonymous protestations.

It is striking, first of all, how their conditions can be changed to suit their employers but not to make betting shops more inhabitable. The law now says that people can be trusted to bet in the evening, but it still does not permit betting shops to be anything like decent places for staff to work in.

They must not have windows, letting in natural light, for fear that the sight of other people gambling will draw in the weak off the street. The door must never be flung open in summer to let in air - or not without one of those chain-curtains being hung in its place - lest the flawed and the feckless stumble into the moral abyss. It takes more than coffee machines and matey voiceovers to convince staff and punters that society does not abhor them for their tastes.

Wherever you stand, you have to admire the big bookmakers for their grasp of political manoeuvring. The day after Kenneth Clarke made his declaration on evening opening, the trade began pushing the promise that racing would benefit by up to pounds 5m a year. But that was on the optimistic assumption that turnover would rise by 10 per cent, or pounds 430m, and even if that were true it did not take a degree in maths to see that racing would get only about one per cent of the extra turnover for all its efforts in restructuring the fixture list and disrupting the lives of countless thousands of workers.

When you draw up a balance sheet like this, the impulse is to approve of evening opening as an entirely logical attempt to match supply and demand, but say, also: not like this.

Not when the winners are so few.

(Photograph omitted)