Racing: Ring changes a rare win for punters

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK six years to bring the war of the ring to an end, and even then, the solution was imposed, not negotiated. It was no surprise, then, that some of the parties to the long dispute over the administration of racecourse betting rings were far from satisfied when the Levy Board's arbiters delivered their binding report last week. What was unexpected was their identity.

In the ante-post book, the rails bookmakers, who wanted, among other things, to be able to advertise their prices on boards like their colleagues in the main ring, and the Racecourse Association, who see bookies as an untapped source of revenue, were heavily favoured to get their way. Instead, both emerged as losers, while the Tattersalls layers were largely satisfied with what their future holds. Punters, most importantly of all, can give the new rules a cautious welcome, whether they do their betting on or off course.

Some will mourn the passing of brightly coloured tickets and joints built from driftwood, while the arrival of a few young(ish) faces in the betting ring will also take some getting used to. The advantages will include SIS coverage in every ring, bookies where you actually want them, information booths for betting virgins and inspectors to ensure that everyone sticks to the rules on such important matters as each-way terms. The ring should emerge stronger, which can only be good news for every punter.

No-one should imagine, though, that the desire of the racecourses to milk the ring - which inevitably means a tax on backers rather than bookies - has been frustrated for good. An early RCA plan to levy a three per cent turnover tax on bookmakers may have been seen off for now, but the inevitable arrival of computerised betting will make it far easier to establish precisely how much money the bookies are turning over. The RCA, not to mention the Government, will then be better placed to demand a share.

Other potential problems must also be addressed. An initial estimate of the "bond" which would-be bookies must provide as insurance against default was pounds 5,000, which seems ridiculously low. No-one knows how much the rogue bookie John Batten escaped with from the unregulated Hill area at Epsom last Derby day, but it seems a fair bet that it was rather more than pounds 5,000.

Back in the ring itself, meanwhile, some of those who felt hard done by following last week's report have started to exact revenge. Stephen Little is one of the best-known bookies on the course, a rails layer who is never afraid to lay his prices to serious money. He also, however, disagreed with his fellow rails layers over the issue of displaying their prices on boards, a change which would have put a considerable amount of power into the hands of just a few bookies.

Little's views may well have influenced the Levy Board's decision to leave things as they are, and on Friday he was informed that he had been expelled from the Rails Bookmakers Association, a rattles-out-of-the-pram reaction which questions the RBA's suitability to be involved in the new administration procedures.

"I'm a bit upset but not surprised," Little said. "It doesn't reflect well on any association that expels members who are otherwise qualified because they don't agree with the majority."

Little is also worried about a new ruling that any bookmaker who misses three consecutive racedays at a particular course will lose his right to a pitch. "I've had a look through the fixtures for this year, and if I stick to where I'd planned to go, and the rule is enforced, I'd lose 14 out of 24 pitches," he says. "It will have a devastating effect on quite a lot of people if we can't talk a bit of sense into them."

There are still potential pitfalls, but the aim of the Levy Board report seems to be to preserve the strength of the ring and thus of starting prices, to improve the service to on-course backers and to keep the racecourses' itchy fingers out of the punters' pockets. For once, racing's administrators have done us all a favour.

RICHARD EDMONDSON

NAP: Rehaab

(Lingfield 2.40)

NB: Pearly Queen

(Lingfield 3.40)

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