Racing: Discord as track betting falls flat to the boards: The on-course activities of off-course bookmakers cause rising controversy. Chris Corrigan reports

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE influence is gaining ground on racecourses. Big firms running betting shop chains can, and do, force down the starting price of their best-backed horses by placing bets at the tracks themselves.

These 'hedging' bets by off- course bookmakers have long been an essential contribution to starting prices. Recently, however, betting turnover among boards bookmakers has dropped dramatically, particularly at south of England courses. This is because big-money punters are a rare breed in the ring in comparison to the boom years.

On many race days, this has led to markets so weak that odds for certain horses can easily be massaged downwards with bets by representatives of the 'Big Three' - Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral.

Relatively paltry sums can sometimes be enough at smaller courses. But it is a daily occurrence at big tracks, too. A noted instance was in the first race at Ascot's King George meeting in July. Reporters recall seeing Ladbrokes agents bumping into one another as they rushed to back Lacotte. The horse had initially been offered on boards at 6-4. By the off, the odds had shrunk to 8-13.

Lacotte finished second, but lower SPs on well-backed horses can save large sums for off-course bookies when punters collect winnings from shops or the big firms' credit outlets.

Opinions are diverse over this issue. Many argue that the track markets would stagnate without the Big Three hedging their liabilities, and that racing as a whole would suffer.

David Smalley, an experienced SP reporter - starting prices are determined by Sporting Life and Press Association staff who study the ledgers of leading racecourse bookmakers - stepped up the controversy at the end of last week. In a column in Raceform Update, the PA's Smalley related tales of 'desperately weak' markets and that at Newmarket's recent Cambridgeshire meeting the majority of big bets had come from rails representatives of off-course bookmakers.

'At present these agents are dominating the markets at the smaller meetings and starting price manipulation is a piece of cake for these 'heavies' who wade in with three-figure wagers until the ring capitulates as there is little cash from punters to balance the books.'

These activities, Smalley added, sometimes took the form of, 'smashing prices off the boards in the last few seconds before the race gets underway'.

Smalley's views are not shared by everybody. Several other starting price reporters were of the opinion yesterday that the issue had been exaggerated. Without the hedging business the on-course markets would stagnate, they said.

William Hill spokesman David Hood said yesterday: 'The practice of hedging is purely reflective of the off-course business that we take.' Hood said he sure that the on-course market would be even more in the doldrums were it not for the business sent from the off- course market.

Rob Hartnett, for Ladbrokes, said race odds should be a reflection of the total amount of money wagered rather than of just that placed by punters at the tracks. 'Odds should be a fair reflection of the whole betting market,' he added.