Racing: Gredley's strike call misses target

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Would you strike? It was a popular question in po-faced, sub- Arctic Newmarket over the weekend as the racing industry climbed out of its Mercedes to proclaim that the Government should take less out of the sport. With a target as big as a marquee to aim at, the Bill Gredley faction managed to shoot wide.

Gredley's contention seems to be that all would be well with racing if the state gourged itself just a little less on the fulsome meat of betting tax. There is no mention of the fact that bookmakers contribute virtually nothing towards the upkeep of the industry they live off, and no acknowledgment of the sacrifices that would have to be made in public expenditure if the Treasury made a special case of racing.

Newmarket was not a pleasant place to be last week. It is the spiritual capital of the me-myself-and- I-years (mainly the Eighties) and is in a state of rebellion now that the flow of money into the game has halted. Almost to a man and woman, the racehorse-owning classes voted for market forces in successive General Elections, and yet now that the laws of supply and demand have moved against the bloodstock industry the parish is suddenly full of interventionists, of welfare statists.

The argument is that racing is the country's sixth biggest employer and so must be assisted by a Government that extracts pounds 320m a year as its 7.75 per cent share of the 10 per cent tax on stakes. Gredley would be better employed asking what happens to the rest of that 10 per cent take-out, because if he did he would see that bookies use it to pay the levy, racing's meagre drip of subsistence ( pounds 47m next year), thus leaving their profits untouched.

This - and not Government taxation - is racing's structural fault line, together with the ineptitude of many who administer and sell the product. As Barney Curley, who has done more than anyone to open the debate about racing's future, said at Newmarket on Saturday: 'We've got 30 years of mismanagement to reverse, but we've made up a lot of ground in the last two months.'

Interestingly, Gredley chose to set up his own campaign for a one- day boycott on 2 November partly to distance himself from the Curley faction, who do not confine their anger to Government inaction. Gredley was concerned that Curley's protest at Fontwell would reflect badly on his own attempts at a diplomatic breakthrough.

This leaves the Curley-led group pursuing a separate course, with the leader saying: 'A crack in the wall appeared at Fontwell, a bigger crack opened up when the Maktoums refused to buy at the (Houghton) yearling sales, and by 1 May the wall could be down.'

The Jockey Club are being urged by the non-Gredleyites to convene an emergency meeting to draw up a list of urgent measures. If it refuses - and there is every probability it will - the radicals will consider more radical action, such as disrupting the start of the next Flat season, as well as the 1993 2,000 Guineas meeting at Newmarket. By choosing a quiet Monday with three minor meetings, Gredley is being accused in some quarters of asking smaller owners and trainers to make the biggest sacrifices.

So where does the Jockey Club stand? 'The stewards will make a statement on Monday, but I can assure you it will not be in favour of a strike,' Lord Hartington, the Senior Steward, announced on Saturday. The 'not' was heavily underlined, so the chances of Lords and Ladies gathering round braziers and evoking the memory of Keir Hardie are not great.

Panic struck the Cesarewitch meeting primarily because prices fell by 50 per cent at the October Yearling Sales, thus threatening the commercial survival of breeders, stallion owners and the many middle-men who cram the bars of Newmarket during race week.

'Obscene' and 'arrogant' were among the adjectives many in the town applied to the squeals of the wealthy. In the context of real poverty, and unemployment, you felt sickened to be there at all.