IT TOOK a little less than two hours in the High Court yesterday for Mr Justice Owen to summarise 145 years of betting legislation, and its relevance to a bitter and protracted dispute of the modern era. The 60 seconds which really mattered, though, were those in which he effectively approved the wholesale reform of the way the business of betting is conducted on Britain's racecourses, a transformation which will begin exactly a month from today.
The seven-year battle between the race tracks and the bookmakers who bet in their enclosures probably passed most racegoers by, since it does not quite have the immediate relevance of the price of gin in the Members' Bar or the chances of the favourite in the last. But it was as desperate a head-to-head as any up the hill at Cheltenham, over such issues as who should decide how many bookmakers can stand at a meeting, who they should be, and what sort of service they should offer to punters.
The negotiations - such as they were - ground to a halt a year ago, at which point the Levy Board stepped in to impose a solution. It envisaged the buying and selling of the "pitches" where bookies stand to bet, to replace a system which forced would-be bookmakers to join waiting lists which were only marginally shorter than the average adult lifespan. There are plans for computerised betting tickets, guarantees on each-way terms and sums to be laid, and even the appearance and attitude of the bookies will be scrutinised. Crucially, the system will be administered by the Board, and not by the bookmakers themselves.
Yesterday's court hearing was at the instigation of the on-course bookmakers, as represented by the National Association of Bookmakers (NAB), who argued that the Board had overstepped the limits of its authority in imposing the new arrangements. The Board, with the strong backing of the Racecourse Association, disagreed, and their view won the day.
However, as befits such a tortuous dispute, the result was not as clear- cut as it might seem. Justice Owen admitted that a year ago, his decision would probably have been different, but that the imminent prospect of anarchy in the betting rings had persuaded him that something had to be done, and the Levy Board scheme was the only option. He gave leave to appeal against the decision, but in the meantime the new regime will come into operation.
This allowed David Boden, of the NAB, to claim that "we were first past the post, but we lost on a stewards' inquiry". The scale of the loss is significant, though, since costs were awarded against the NAB. The services of a QC do not come cheap, and there is no discount when you are paying for two. An unsuccessful appeal could finish the NAB off for good.
For the Racecourse Association, Morag Gray said that "it's happening and that's the practical reality. We just have to get on with it. Nothing radical will happen overnight, and most course bookmakers just want to get on with their job."
So they do, but many are also worried about whether the future has any room for them. Punters too should be concerned about the RCA's ambition to take a larger slice of betting-ring turnover, which would be much easier when computers are recording the flow of money in the ring. A charge on turnover would inevitably be passed on to the punters - a return of on- course betting tax by the back door.