Racing: Gamblers caught up by the Net

It's not just for computer nerds. The world-wide-web offers tax- free betting for punters. By Greg Wood

THERE ARE probably more than a few members of the Jockey Club who regard computers as the work of the Devil - and the funny thing is, they might be right. As a new millennium approaches, even the Club itself now has a web site, which allows surfers from every corner of the planet to read the latest rulings by the Disciplinary Committee (there are, after all, some very strange people in cyberspace). But a possibility that should perhaps be exercising racing's administrators is that the same technology, could yet begin to undermine the very foundations of the industry.

That statement may one day turn out to have been a wild exaggeration, but then again, the one certain thing about modern technology is that no-one can predict precisely how, or even how quickly, it will change the world. Nowhere is this more true than on the Web, which already links tens of millions of people around the world and adds thousands more to its extended family every day.

Shopping on the Internet is still in its infancy, but the volume of business which takes place in cyberspace is also growing. Already, for example, British music lovers have started to discover that even when postage is taken into account, it can be cheaper to buy CDs online from America than in the local branch of HMV.

If you can shop on the Net, then you can also bet on the Net - indeed, since it involves nothing more than money transfers, betting is in theory easier than shopping. And, crucially, if you can bet with a web-site based outside Britain, then you can do so without paying tax.

Ever since betting shops were legalised in the early 1960s, the "bees wax" has been an inescapable fact of life for British punters. At present, it is charged at nine per cent, but within that figure is the bookies' contribution to the racing Levy, which is passed on to the punters. Betting without tax would be excellent news for backers, but potentially disastrous for racing's finances.

And it is already possible to bet tax-free on British racing, via a web- site run from Oxford by a firm called Interbet. The method involved is being scrutinised by Customs & Excise, but as Ray Bailey, a director of the firm, says, "we could be anywhere in the world doing the same thing, so if things don't go our way with Customs, that might be the way to go. If we were to move overseas, it would not be a problem, because we've got the customer base."

Interbet has 4,000 clients from all over the world, which is almost as many as the leading British spread-betting firm. "It's getting quite scary, actually," Bailey says. "It's exploding, things are snowballing mainly through word of mouth. If punters know that they can trust a site, they'll use it."

Trust, of course, is an important point. Cyberspace is a wild frontier where the desperate and gullible are able to bet in dozens of on-line casinos based in the West Indies. In time, though, more dependable companies will emerge, and for a generation of punters brought up with personal computers, betting on the Net could be not just cheaper, but also easier than going to the betting shop.

The racing industry tends to treat punters as just so many poor fools to be milked of their money. If just five per cent of them were tempted away by the chance to bet without tax it would leave an enormous hole in racing's finances.

It will not happen overnight, but you need only consider how much tax you pay each year - someone who bets pounds 10, three times a week pays almost pounds 150 annually - to realise how attractive tax-free betting on the Net could become. British bookmakers already operate tax-free offshoots in Gibraltar for high-rolling foreign clients, and a web-based operation beyond the reach of the Exchequer would be a logical step.

Interbet can be found at www.interbet.co.uk. A newer arrival in online betting is Bet Online, at www.betonline.co.uk, a joint venture between City Index and the Sporting Life website, where UK clients can bet on a variety of sports at a reduced tax rate of 7.5 per cent.

RICHARD EDMONDSON

Nap: Rymer's Rascal

(York 2.00)

NB: Monte Cavo

(York 5.00)

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