Racing: MPs vote on Sunday bets

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PUNTERS may prefer the handicap chase at Chepstow, but the most significant contest by far this afternoon will be the 4.00 at Westminster. At about that time, MPs are expected to vote on an amendment to the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. The new clause would legalise on- and off-course betting on Sunday, and, in effect, racing on Sunday as well.

The long campaign for Sunday racing has suffered many setbacks, and has sometimes appeared to be running out of stamina. Now the supporters of seven-day racing are within touching distance of victory. Other sports have cheerfully flouted the law which prevents stadiums charging admission on Sunday for many years. Racing, however, with its dependence on betting both on and off the course, has been frustrated by the far more powerful Gaming Act. Had bookmakers defied the rules, their licences would have been revoked by Monday lunchtime.

Today's amendment, tabled by Jim Paice MP, a Conservative, has attracted cross-party support and is expected to be the subject of a free vote. While this will allow Robin Cook, the shadow Trade and Industry spokesman, and other Labour members to vote with Paice, it also means that MPs are not required to attend at all. The final tallies will resemble a rugby result rather than a cricket score, and a close one at that.

'If this opportunity is missed, there's no guarantee that it's going to come up again in the near future,' Tristram Ricketts, chief executive of the British Horseracing Board, said yesterday. 'It's very important. We need every vote we can get.'

Opposition to the amendment also cuts across party lines. Tory right-wingers will object on moral or religious grounds, while some Labour members are concerned that the industry's most vulnerable workers would suffer in the transition to a seven-day week. The shabby treatment of many betting-office staff when evening opening was introduced last year hardly offers an encouraging precendent.

Today's legislation includes safeguards for shop employees, without which few Labour members would have offered support, but makes no mention of stable staff. 'We want protection for existing staff,' Bill Adams, the secretary of the Stable Lads Association, said yesterday. 'From the moment that Sunday racing becomes a reality, new staff will know what they are coming into. We want a guarantee for staff already in racing, who get scant enough time off as it is.'

If the amendment is carried, the Bill will go to the House of Lords for clause-by-clause analysis before returning to the Commons for final approval, but the first vote is the crucial one. Success would allow Ricketts to start planning Sunday racing with confidence.

'We're talking about 1995,' he said. 'We would need to consult with both the racing and betting industries over precisely how we integrate it into the fixture list. But the list for 1995 has not yet been agreed, so it's come at a timely moment.'

The racing programme could be transformed. 'We want to ensure that big races are put on at a time when people can go and see them,' Ricketts said. The Derby, which has suffered a steep decline in attendance is an obvious candidate for a switch to Sunday.

A tight finish is in prospect this afternoon, but both Ricketts and the betting industry are busily calling in debts. Their efforts should prove sufficient.