Racing: Savill set for last big push

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The Independent Online
RACING'S CIVIL war is likely to be punctuated by a decisive battle in the next two months.

The conflict between the British Horseracing Board, which is seeking an extra pounds 105m by way of its Financial Plan to improve racing's finances, and the big bookmakers, who are reluctant to step up their contribution, is about to be fought out.

The battleground will be the Levy Board agreement, the mechanism whereby bookmakers return money to the sport. This year's renewal of the agreement is almost certain to end in deadlock. That will mean recourse to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. Only when he becomes involved will British racing know which turn the turf is taking. Either the status quo will be maintained (the bookies' aim), or Straw will respond to the prolonged entreaties of the BHB and set the way for the Big Three to pay considerably more for their seat at racing's table.

"We are coming to a catalyst, which is the Levy negotiation, possibly followed by Home Secretary determination," Peter Savill, the BHB's Chairman, said yesterday. "That will tell us if the Government agrees with our argument that if we have a monopoly distributor [the bookies] they should pay a fair price for the product.

"If I didn't feel there was a chance of persuading the Government that change should come along I wouldn't be the person sitting here today. I may well fail. We all may well fail. But I believe we have not before marshalled the arguments as thoroughly or had the same commitment or focus.

"If we are going to receive what I regard as absolutely miniscule proposals for improvement in the Levy there is no question the BHB will take the view that is not acceptable. We need to see a quantum leap to put racing in the position it ought to be. The industry requires an additional pounds 80m."

Savill was talking at a press conference replying to a recent bookmaker survey of his Financial Plan. He sees the plan as racing's equivalent in importance of the Dead Sea scrolls. Bookmakers consider it worth rolls of a different nature.

There had been a growing sense of rapprochement between the sides until Savill's election to the BHB chair. Racing's rulers were close to being beaten into submission by bookmaking's intransigience. Savill may not be a typical Yorkshireman, but he does have the grit, and will not lie down until he has appropriated some of the layers' funds.

Since Savill's appointment, relations have been characterised by alternate shooting from the respective trenches.

Following the Financial Plan came a bookmaker salvo when a critique from Coopers & Lybrand said the arguments contained "do not stand close analysis". Savill replied yesterday, in the wake of the sacking of C & L as the BHB's accountants. He said the critique was "weak, unresearched, inaccurate and misrepresentative". The theme seemed to be that he did not think much of it.

"When you get the proper structure in place we will be the happiest of partners with Hills, Ladbrokes and anybody else who bets on horseracing," Savill said. "But as long as racing doesn't have enough employees to look after the horses, the wage structure is wrong and the returns to owners are wrong we will not have a harmonious racing/betting relationship. It's as simple as that."

And so the war continues and, at some point, there will have to be a victim. The worst feeling is that it may be a body on the floor we have seen before. If bookmakers are forced to pay considerably more for their involvement they may feel compelled to pass on the cost. The punter, the sandwich and ice-cream diner, may once again have to pick up the tab for this whole sumptuous feast.