Racing: Racing's gamble emerges in credit: Divine day for the Doncaster show as the atmosphere of a country fair replaces the heat of bookie-punter confrontation. Paul Hayward reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a day of mountainous anomalies, but one conclusion was safe. For the 23,000 mainly non- betting racegoers who attended Britain's first Sunday race meeting at Doncaster yesterday, the law is destined for infamy. Move over, the Combination Acts. The anti- gambling laws are now top of the injustice pile.

St Leger day without bookmakers would be an accurate description for this ultra-polite demonstration. From the time Father Donal Bambury's Sunday sermon was broadcast round the course - and into the gents' toilets, with troubling resonance - you knew this was going to be no ordinary day.

'We pray that God will bless this occasion,' Father Bambury said. 'We pray that whatever follows from this will be a source of blessing and healthy entertainment for many years to come, for generations yet unborn.' Divine approval? The Queen, through her racing manager, Lord Carnarvon, has already expressed her approval, and a racing certainty now is that the government will be under redoubled pressure to review the Betting and Gaming Act, which prohibits cash betting on a Sunday.

'I'd usually be in France now having my Sunday lunch,' Walter Swinburn, the rider who won the first two races, said. 'It feels really different.' And it did. All those entertainments, all that welcoming fervour. If racing could do this once, the disturbing logic ran, why not every time?

Not everything ran to script (and the militaristic parading of Scud missile launchers sounded the day's only sick note). When a stewards' inquiry was instituted after the second race, it was more than the racecourse announcer could manage to stop himself saying: 'The public are advised to retain all betting slips until the result of the inquiry is announced.'

If only we could. The fact that no on-course betting was permitted seemed not to deter families from staging picnics, nor an unusual assortment of day-trippers shouting encouragement at this horse or that. 'It's a completely different crowd today,' Swinburn said. 'Going to the paddock has been taking five minutes. If this is what it's going to be like it can only be good for racing.'

A familiar sentiment - almost wearingly so, in fact - as the search for dissenting voices yielded nothing. If all protests were like this, the police could give up crowd control. Write to your MP, successive Jockey Club officials said, but the chief impact of the aristocracy's well-mannered insurrection will be in the television pictures picked up by Home Office aerials.

There was something deeply absurd, if not surreal, about the sight of punters queuing for payphones so they could place credit or debit bets with the High Street companies, miles away and manning the switchboards as if this was a normal day's business. You can lose money betting on a Sunday, but only over the phone. Not in cash. It would have been hard for anyone to justify this here yesterday.

There were other law-dodging expedients. Because the Jockey Club was anxious to break not even the Sunday Observance Act (as it relates to admission fees) the charges of pounds 10 and pounds 5 were officially levied on musical entertainment and not horse racing. 'When the good Lord decreed that on the Seventh Day we should rest, I don't think he intended we should lie in bed,' Harold Walker, the MP for Doncaster Central, observed.

There were as many spectators at Doncaster as paid to see the Derby, and punters - if we can call them that - had begun queuing at 9.30am, half an hour before the gates opened for a programme of distractions that was Disneyesque in scope. One thing the Jockey Club is not, any longer, is smug, so you could forgive the self-basing smiles and triumphalism of those who conceived this experiment.

Contrary to earlier pronouncements - by any standards, they are in a mess on this issue - the Home Office said yesterday morning that section five of the Betting and Gaming Act may, after all, be open to review if the Doncaster meeting proved successful.

'People have expressed their will, and their desire, and the demand for Sunday racing cannot possibly be in doubt,' Christopher Haines, the Jockey Club's chief executive, said. Yesterday, that message was transmitted in every code except tic-tac.

(Photograph omitted)

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