Racing: Green tax to lure punters

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The Independent Online
THE THREE certainties of most punters' lives have always been death, tax and never being on the right side of an amended result. In less than six months' time, however, British backers will at last be able to do something about two of them. The Grim Reaper will still get us all in the end, but addled stewards and the tax man will suddenly become manageable problems, which will surely make 1999 the best year for punters since off-course betting was legalised almost 40 years ago.

The reason is simple. On 1 July, the rate of betting tax in the Republic of Ireland will be reduced from 10 per cent to five per cent, almost half the level of deductions required in Britain. Any British backer with a credit card will be able to ring an Irish bookmaker, open an account and bet immediately on racing in both Britain and Ireland, saving themselves four per cent of every stake. Someone who bets just pounds 10 a day will save almost pounds 150 over the course of a year, which is enough to keep them betting for another fortnight.

Although bookmakers in Britain are trying to appear as calm as possible, they know that the effect on their business could be dramatic. They know too that anyone tempted to send their money across the Irish Sea will unearth another well-kept secret, that punters in Ireland receive a far better service than their counterparts in this country. Competition is fierce, and offers which are an occasional treat in Britain are taken for granted by the Irish.

The most important of these is the double-result concession, which guarantees payment on both "winners" if a horse is disqualified by the stewards. Statistically speaking, amended results are rare, but a loss in the stewards' room etches its way into the memory like no other. The knowledge that the officials cannot touch your winnings is immensely reassuring.

Irish bookies also tend to offer excellent each-way terms, and morning- line prices on many more races than their British competitors. What is more, they tend to lay them as well, instead of running for shelter whenever their odds are fractionally out of line with the rest of the market.

In short, if a betting war breaks out this summer, Ladbrokes, Hills and company will be fighting with knitting needles while their opponents wield tactical nuclear weapons. The Irish layers are preparing for a huge marketing push, led by Paddy Power, their biggest domestic bookie, and its managing director, Stewart Kenny.

"This will be a huge bonus for our business and for international betting," Kenny said yesterday. "The British tax rate on betting is very high now by international standards. The last time the tax was reduced in Ireland was in 1985, when it came down from 20 per cent to 10 per cent, which put us in line with Britain, and in the next year, turnover rose by 44 per cent. This time there will be much more scope to compete in Britain, and not only will people get this very favourable tax rate, they will also be betting on terms which are a lot more advantageous."

The worry for British racing's administrators, of course, is that any betting turnover which finds its way to Ireland will reduce the yield of the Levy, which largely funds the sport in this country. When the Irish tax cut was announced a couple of months ago, one leading racehorse owner even went so far as to suggest that British punters should be legally prevented from taking advantage.

It was a bizarre and unworkable proposal, not to mention an example of gross hypocrisy, given that owners themselves currently enjoy significant tax concessions on their bloodstock purchases. It showed, though, that the implications of the new Irish tax regime have already started to sink in. The uncomplaining, put-upon punters who have funded British racing for almost half a century will suddenly have a choice. They may well prove to be not nearly as daft or predictable as many assume.

If nothing else, the major bookmakers in this country may have to match some of their rivals' offers, while in the medium term, a cut in our own rate of betting duty may be inevitable. There is also the imminent possibility of reliable internet betting with no tax at all. Punters are optimists almost by definition, but just for once, there is rather more to look forward to than tomorrow's racecards.

Lingfield will hold a 7.30am precautionary inspection to determine prospects for today's turf meeting. A heavy thunderstorm brought 7mm of rain to the track yesterday evening.