Racing: Illegal bookmakers in the frame

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THERE WAS an unlikely star yesterday at the 25th annual general meeting of the Betting Office Licensees Association. Sixtyish, quiet and anonymous, he was sitting in the bar of a pub in Wandsworth, taking bets from the regulars. What he did not know was that as he did so, the disapproving might of the 1,600 shop William Hill empire was pointing straight at him.

The man was an illegal bookmaker, which makes him Public Enemy No 1 as far as the members of BOLA are concerned. Along with other black-market layers from Chesterfield and Coalville, he featured in video clips shot secretly by investigators from Hills, and used in recent court cases after which the liquor licences of the pubs concerned were revoked.

At yesterday's AGM, the footage was shown as evidence of the problem which faces legitimate bookies - and, therefore, racing in general - as millions of pounds continues to find its way into the pockets of their tax-free, illegal counterparts.

What the film also managed, though, was to provide compelling evidence of the potential market for legalised betting in pubs and clubs should the Government ever be minded to allow it. It is a possibility which racing's administrators, in their desperate search for extra money, have recently started to promote. But this was hardly a fair conclusion on a day when Peter Savill, the chairman of the British Horseracing Board, was among those who gathered to celebrate BOLA's quarter-century of service to bookies.

In a few months' time, Savill and Chris Bell, BOLA's chairman, may be on a war footing as negotiations continue to decide how much Britain's punters (via the Levy deducted by bookies) should pay to subsidise the prize-money paid to racehorse owners.

Savill, in his Financial Plan for Racing, has demanded another pounds 80m from the Levy, but there was no indication yesterday that Bell, who is also the chief executive of Ladbrokes, or his fellow bookmakers have any intention of assisting him in his aim.

"I strongly believe that it is completely indefensible to suggest that the betting-shop punter pay more to the owner," Bell told yesterday's AGM. "It is like saying that the National Lottery should be funding a Royal Opera House in every community. We have had the unenviable task of dealing with redundancies after the introduction of the National Lottery. We will not let the Financial Plan be the next catalyst for job losses in our industry."

Bell also expressed a hope that the negotiations will be "co-operative and constructive". Neither side shows any inclination to budge, however, and with his Ladbrokes hat on, it seems doubtful that Bell would offer odds any better than 10-1 against the prospect of peace breaking out.