Racing: Grand plan looks like wishful thinking

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The Independent Online
The long-awaited financial plan for the future of racing was unveiled yesterday amid talk of a united front, but as Greg Wood reports, its implementation will prove to be more difficult still.

After leafing through the 83 pages which form the British Horseracing Board's Financial Plan for Racing, it is tempting to paraphrase Gerald Kaufman's comment on the Labour Party's manifesto before the 1983 General Election. If that, according to Kaufman, was the longest suicide note in history, then the result of Peter Savill's prolonged deliberation on the funding of racing is surely the longest begging letter - or that, at least, will be the inevitable conclusion among the hard-nosed politicians at whom it is directed.

Like the rest of the audience at yesterday's Industry Committee Forum, which received the first official glimpse of his plans, Savill is passionate about the sport of racing, and wants to see it thrive. He is also an intelligent and thoughtful man, whose analysis of the industry's structure was, on the whole, a reasonable one. Yet the very strength of his affection for the game seems to have blinded him to cold political reality. "Stage one," he said afterwards, "is to convince the Government that we have a case" - so don't hold your breath for stage two.

The bottom line in Savill's calculations is that British racing needs an additional annual investment of pounds 105m to put it on a firm financial footing and allow it to compete effectively with its major international rivals. He believes that racing itself can find pounds 25m through increased sponsorship, relaxed legislation allowing racecourses maximise the use of their assets, and a larger return from the Tote. The remaining pounds 80m, though, would arrive via a cut of 1.75 per cent in the rate of General Betting Duty, from 6.75 to 5 per cent, which would be passed on to the sport via the Levy.

The breakdown of how Savill would spend his pounds 105m is instructive. It includes pounds 14m for marketing, pounds 5m to make up for recent Levy deductions, pounds 1.8m for integrity services - and a staggering pounds 69.31m in extra prize- money for impoverished racehorse owners like, well, Savill. Again, he has the well-being of racing at heart, but the sight of a multi-millionaire tax exile arguing that he should receive cash from ordinary, tax-paying punters to reduce the cost of his hobby was almost surreal.

Now, Savill will argue that his cash injection would improve racing so immeasurably that betting turnover would soar, allowing the Government's right hand to reclaim - via duty and corporation tax on bookies - what it had given away with its left. This may be true, but then again, it may not. Look at it from Gordon Brown's point of view. You can do nothing and keep raking in pounds 300m a year from betting duty. Or you can cut duty as Savill would like, and risk finding yourself accused of handing millions of pounds to some of Britain's richest citizens, people who, in any case, almost certainly voted Tory back in May. Politicians like to boast about taking difficult decisions, but that, you suspect, will be one of the easier ones.

Such was clearly the reasoning of Lord Wakeham, who resigned 24 hours before the plan was unveiled rather than attempt to sell it the Government or defend it in public. His scepticism was not shared by many members of yesterday's audience, and representatives of trainers, breeders and (surprise, surprise) owners all greeted the presentation warmly. Indeed, Savill would no doubt be a popular choice to succeed Wakeham, and while he appeared to rule out that possibility yesterday, at least one of his denials was of the non-committal, serve-if-called-upon variety that Jim Hacker always carried off so well.

The remainder of yesterday's business was inevitably overshadowed by The Plan, and there was little of the acrimony which has made previous Forums so enjoyable. Mel Davies, one of the prime movers behind an attempt to build a new racecourse at Pembury in South Wales, did at least launch a long attack on the BHB Board for its refusal to sanction the plans. Such was his anger, however, that a very telling point - that some of the board members faced a conflict of interest when it came to a vote - was lost in the stream of bitterness.

Last night, meanwhile, Savill was due to board a plane to Dubai in order to present his plan in person to Sheikh Mohammed, who has threatened to withdraw from British racing unless the finances of the sport are improved. Out in the Emirates, the Sheikh need only issue a decree in order for his wishes to become law. How Savill must wish that the British system could be equally uncomplicated.