Racing: Savill in swipe at bookies

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The Independent Online
THE WEEK between the Derby and Royal Ascot is not generally among the more interesting of the racing year, but for followers of turf politics at least, these last few days have been ones to remember. In a refreshing, rough-house fashion which owes more to the days of Lloyd George than those of Labour's spin doctors, Peter Savill has engaged his detractors among the big bookies in bitter verbal warfare, and there is little sign that the skirmishing is about to stop.

The ultimate root of the dispute is Savill's Financial Plan for Racing, which was published in January and estimated that the sport needs another pounds 105m each year to put it on a sound financial footing and allow it compete with the other major racing countries. His analysis received considerable acclaim from those sections of the industry which would not be required to pay for it (everyone, in other words, except the punters and the bookies who take their bets). Lord Wakeham, the BHB chairman, resigned to avoid being asked to support it, but this merely allowed Savill to surf the wave of popularity straight into Wakeham's job.

Nagging questions about the Plan - for instance, does it have more holes than St Andrews? - were overlooked or dismissed. Until Tuesday, that is, when Savill's detractors at the Betting Office Licensees' Association published an analysis of the Plan which BOLA had commissioned from the accountants, Coopers & Lybrand. The same firm, as it happens, audits the BHB's accounts, while Tuesday (again, as it happens) marked Savill's first board meeting as BHB chairman.

Coopers, to put it mildly, did not share Savill's vision of the future. The reports authors rejected not only the amount of money that might be generated, or required, but also the mechanics of how it could be spent. Claims that betting shops were an inefficient means of generating betting turnover, and that punting should not necessarily be restricted to licensed premises, were also heavily criticised.

Savill left his response until yesterday, but the intervening hours had not significantly mellowed his mood. BOLA, he told a press briefing, stands for "Biggest Operator of Little Accuracy". Its report, meanwhile, was "riddled with inaccuracies" and "a self-serving attempt to preserve the status quo". He added that while the BHB had "shown willing to work with the betting industry, we are not encouraged by the document they have produced that they share this view".

Savill's words were backed up by a thinly veiled threat from his deputy chairman, Angus Crichton-Miller, who is also chairman of the Racecourse Association, that co- operation between the two sides of the industry, for instance on the fixture list, might not continue. "The racing industry has consistently compromised on bookmakers' terms and it has to stop," he said.

Over at BOLA headquarters, however, Tom Kelly, the organisation's spokesman, was showing no obvious signs of either worry or remorse. "Coming from the principal author of the financial plan for racing, it's a bit rich," he said. "Peter Savill is a man who's been successful and is used to getting his own way. He's pretty new in politics, so perhaps he's finding it all a bit strange that people don't buckle down and do as he says. I suppose that's a predictable threat, but if they mess about with the fixture list, it's damaging for everyone."

Kelly insists that the Coopers & Lybrand report would have been published whatever its findings. "As far as we're concerned, the BHB plan started this particular episode in our relationship," he said. "They put forward ideas for betting outside betting offices which would be extremely damaging to us, and made predictions of benefits for both the betting industry and racing which we could not find any way of believing. Too many people outside racing also have their doubts about the plan, and it hasn't exactly swept Westminster. The main thing really is what is going to happen when the rhetoric is out of the way."

Savill's problem, of course, is that the interest groups which propelled him to the BHB chairmanship not only want but also expect him to deliver on his Plan. Even Llin Golding, a Labour MP with an interest in racing issues, advised him this week to "shelve the Plan", but this is simply not an option if Savill wants to retain his broad support within the industry. His difficulties, and the arguments, are only just beginning.