Racing: Little a large loss to betting

The opportunity to sell racecourse pitches has started a stampede from the ring.
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The Independent Online
THE SPIDER'S web of burst capillaries on the cheeks of any veteran racecourse bookie are a testament to the stormy weather which comes with the job. Even at Kelso in January, though, there can never have been an icy gale like the one which is now blowing through Britain's betting rings. It is called free-market economics, and the casualty list seems to rise by the day.

A certain amount of fall-out was always likely when the administration of the ring was taken out of the bookies' hands and vested in a new body, the National Joint Pitch Committee, a few months ago. It had long been clear that the new regime would turn pitches in the betting ring, which vary enormously in the amount of business they can attract, into tradeable commodities. Older bookies - many, in fact, are truly ancient - tend to have the best pitches. As soon as they could realise their value, it would at last be time for them to sell up and retire.

But while the men who can remember both Wars - Boer and Crimean - are duly shuffling towards the final turnstile, others who are 30 or 40 years their junior are jostling to get there first. The first public auction of pitches will be held at Sandown Park this weekend, and among the lots on offer are those belonging to Joe Bates and David Boden, senior figures both but not even within sight of retirement age. No submission to the catalogue has caused more surprise and concern, though, than that of a single pitch belonging to Stephen Little.

Little should require little introduction to anyone, be they punter or bookie, who has spent time in a betting ring. His physical presence alone makes him difficult to miss, even when he is not wearing the ankle-length fur coat which is almost a visual dare to his customers. "This is where my judgement has got me," it seems to be saying. "Still feeling lucky?"

Stephen Little is the bookies' bookie, one of the few remaining heirs to men like the original William Hill, who would lay monstrous bets all afternoon. He is testing the water at Sunday's auction, but if it seems sufficiently warm, the rest of his pitches will be submitted to future sales. When JP McManus next walks into the Cheltenham ring with a six- figure punt on his mind its most obvious recipient may well be missing. That thought alone, to many minds, is evidence that the new regime is fundamentally flawed.

Certainly, the man himself has little time for the NJPC. "I knew what I wanted to do before I left school," Little says. "I've worked at it for half a lifetime, and now it's being ruined by a bunch of know-nothings. People are telling me how to run my business when they have no experience of either racecourse bookmaking or pitch administration."

His complaints are many and varied. New rules which require attendance at a third of a track's meetings each year in order to keep the right to bet there will, he says, "pander to part-timers rather than professional bookmakers". Other changes, such as the compulsory computerisation of betting tickets, will mean that Little "will not be able to give the standard of service that I've always wanted to".

The computers, Little believes, will slow him down, while being forced to display a guaranteed minimum liability on any one bet "will make people think that that's the most you're ever prepared to lay". He is also worried that the costs of administering the new system, which are being subsidised by the bookies themselves, will rise significantly in future years.

Richard Marriott, the chairman of the NJPC, admits that "a strong and healthy ring is very much what we're about, and I'd be sorry to see someone of Stephen's stature leave, if indeed he does. But in a sense the pitch he's putting up first time around is exactly the sort of position we would have wanted someone like him to put up. If he can't get regularly to a certain course, then someone else will, and they will give a more consistent service."

The real problem, Marriott says, is that "the NJPC is trying to put right in a few weeks things which have festered for far too long. The team has been heavily overloaded, with the result that we haven't communicated with bookmakers as we should have done. But the whole point of what we are trying to do is to get new punters into the betting ring and give them a good experience, so that they realise that they're winning tax- free out there."

If Stephen Little takes his leave of Tattersalls, though, one group of punters at least will find their service is seriously reduced. The real big- hitters could have nowhere else to go, and if that turns out to be an end result of free- market forces, Adam Smith will be spinning in his grave.