It has been a long 18 months in the ring, during which many long-established practices have been swept away by the reforms of the National Joint Pitch Committee. No longer must would-be bookies wait for those ahead of them to die before moving up the ladder. They now operate from moulded plastic pitches, and use computers to issue betting tickets. Some even have digital number boards to advertise their odds.
Until now, however, one tradition remained untouched. Rails bookmakers, who operate along the fence between the Members and Tattersalls' enclosures at every racecourse, are not allowed to display their prices on boards. For them, word of mouth is the only way to communicate with would-be punters.
This situation was considered two years ago by a sub-committee of the Levy Board, which acquired the grand nickname of the Three Wise Men. They decided that it should continue, following which - and this is where the issue starts to involve serious money - many betting pitches in the main betting ring were sold publicly to the highest bidder.
Some of the best pitches, near the Members' enclosure and at the front of the ring, have since been sold for upwards of pounds 100,000. And they are surely worth it, since the better-heeled punters in Members currently have to walk into the main ring if they want to be able to easily compare the prices offered by competing bookmakers.
If, however, they were able to do so from the comfort of the top enclosure, very little of their substantial betting capital would find its way into the main ring. Pitches which were worth pounds 100,000 a few weeks ago might suddenly be worth a great deal less, while bookies on the farthest-flung pitches might see their turnover dry up altogether.
Yet this is the course of action proposed by Clive Reams, the NJPC's general manager, in an internal report which will be considered by the Council today. Reams refused to comment on the contents of the report yesterday, but it is understood to recommend that rails bookmakers should be allowed to display prices into the Members' enclosure only from the start of 2001. It also recommends that bookies be allowed to stand in areas removed from the main ring at many racecourses.
"So what?" may be the response of many racegoers, or even "Hooray, it'll be easier to get a bet on." Off-course punters, meanwhile, will assume it has nothing to do with them. But it does, particularly if they are among the majority who place their bets at starting price.
The official starting price is currently compiled by a survey of the odds being laid as the horses set off. Its integrity depends on a broad range of bookies to study, and as strong a flow of money around the ring as possible. Any move which concentrates the money, and therefore the power, in the ring into just a few hands will inevitably make it easier for the big off-course bookies to manipulate the odds in their favour. Ladbrokes, Hills and Coral, all of whom have a presence on the rails, are all in favour of rails bookies being allowed to display prices. That alone should set punters' antennae twitching.
There are all sorts of power games going on here, most of them understandably boring to the average punter, but they could yet bring further chaos and change to a system which currently acts pretty much in the punters' favour. Racecourses, for instance, have previously opposed boards on rails and bookies in the Members' enclosure for fear of a drop in Tote turnover, from which they receive a cut. Reams, though, recommends that the revenue from the sale of new pitches away from the main ring should be given to the courses as compensation. This may change their mind.
The legal position of Reams' proposals remains unclear. "I don't think they can do it," David Boden, a member of the council of the National Association of Bookmakers, which represents Tatts bookies, said yesterday. "There is also a meeting of the NAB next Tuesday, and I will be recommending that they litigate and commit the association to the full extent of their assets. We are prepared to bet the association on this one. The reason is that the Levy Board [the NJPC's parent body] last year sought a legal opinion as to whether the NJPC could sell new pitches and give the proceeds to the racecourses, and that opinion was firmly against. This throws into question the whole of the rest of the plan, and that is why I'm so certain that if we were to litigate, we would win."
It certainly seems extraordinary that the NJPC is prepared to risk legal action, both from trade bodies and individual bookies, and cause immense upheaval for the benefit of a small group of bookmakers, perhaps 50-strong in total.
A more worthwhile long-term aim, perhaps, would be to abolish the rails bookmakers altogether, and find a way to integrate them into the main ring. The question which the organisation needs to ask itself today is whether Reams' proposals will act to the benefit of all Britain's punters, both on and off the course. If the answer is no, the report should be thrown out without a second thought.