The recession has bit. Truth has dawned. Big wigs and flat hats alike have tumbled that the old game is part of the leisure business and yet is not allowed to operate on one of the two leisure days of the week. Doncaster today will in effect be one of the largest and quaintest protest rallies we have had in years.
It will be very jolly but it's a protest nonetheless. A protest at a whole raft of absurdities, not least that we are supposed to say this is not a race meeting but a concert. Yes, those who pay the pounds 10 or pounds 5 entry fee are officially shelling out, not to watch any of the 74 runners on the seven-event card, but to listen to the band. It's the law you see.
And not just one law either. Racing today lies like Gulliver in Lilliput, pinned down by the ropes of legal rights and practice whilst other giants in the leisure industry and the racing games in all other countries walk free. He won't pull out of this fix easily.
The strongest ropes are the betting laws and their cross-stitch with the Sunday trading regulations. Try this for a set of knots. If you have a race meeting at all you are probably breaking the Sunday Observance Act of 1780. If you have a meeting, you will want to have the ordinary on-course betting that goes with it. That breaks the Betting and Gaming Act of 1963.
So far so bad, but it gets worse. If you have betting on the course, police and bookmakers will strongly argue that you will need to open up the 9,000 odd High Street betting shops where over 90 per cent of Britain's pounds 4 billion annual bets are now struck, to avoid an instant return to the illegal betting joints prior to 1963. But if you open the shops, you are breaking not only the Sunday Trading Laws but another section of the Gaming Act. Keep wriggling Gulliver.
In view of the above, it is easy to understand why some people in racing, in big betting chains and in government itself, have preferred to keep the issue in the 'too difficult' tray. But that's where the recession has done its bit. Racing has had to have a long hard look at itself. It has realized that the 'leisure business' card is its strongest justification of all. With such events as Wimbledon, The Open Golf and The British Grand Prix now established on Sundays, racing could no longer stand meekly by.
The surprise radicals have been the Jockey Club. At long, long last they have seized an initiative to do something which is very obviously for the race fan first. They have had plenty of cautious, don't try it, advice but they have pushed on. Cynics will say they may have had plenty of practice but they have not been afraid of looking absurd.
Because of course there's a much more central absurdity this afternoon than having to pay for the band. There will be seven races, no tote or bookmakers, and definitely not a bet struck on the course. But you can still toddle along to Doncaster and bet like a dervish. All you have to do is to have a credit account, borrow a phone and punt your money. Exactly the same thing will happen off the track.
Everything is quite legal but what Doncaster and the other trial Sunday at Cheltenham in November will demonstrate is the law's discrimination against the ordinary non-credit fan, the continuance of the old sniffy, non-conformist conscience against the iniquity of betting.
What's wrong with having a bet? Of course it's a bad thing if done to excess. But so too are smoking, drinking and watching dirty videos, but nobody stops you paying cash for them on a Sunday. It's going to be a long and complicated process unravelling the law, but there's no doubt of the Harvey Smith sign that this afternoon's junket is giving to our kill-joy legislators.
It's time for Gulliver to get up and walk.Reuse content