Racing: SIS resists Sunday closure call

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Attempts by the big bookmakers to climb off the Sunday racing bandwagon stalled yesterday when the satellite television service SIS refused to bow to pressure and announced that it would supply pictures to betting shops on the next two Sunday race days.

The strain of poor turnover and the higher costs of Sunday operations had prompted Ladbrokes to announce that they would not be opening their 1,900 shops on 13 and 27 August, the next two dates when racing will take place on the sabbath.

In a parallel development, bookmakers' organisations represented on the SIS users committee asked the satellite company not to supply pictures for those two days - a move which would have effectively forced the shutdown of rivals, particularly among the smaller independent firms, which preferred to open.

The move was condemned by both racing dailies, the Racing Post and The Sporting Life, which took the unusual step of running editorials yesterday. A telephone poll run by the Post attracted a huge response, "almost all from independent bookmakers outraged about the decision," according to the paper.

SIS said that it would be continuing its service as usual to allow its customers freedom of choice. The company said: "SIS has canvassed opinion through its regional offices and has absolutely been inundated with calls from customers who wish to trade on the two Sundays in question. In view of a number of customers wishing to receive the service, SIS will broadcast as normal on August 13 and 27."

Ladbrokes' spokesman, Ian Wassell, said: "Our decision is not affected by it. It was a commercial decision because of experience over the first six Sundays. Given the trade generated, we have looked at the fixtures and there's no change in our position."

Graham Sharpe, of William Hill, said: "We will review the situation and decide, in the next few days, how many shops to open." Coral adopted a similar stance.

The SIS announcement was welcomed by Pontefract, which along with Kempton, will race on Sunday week. The Pontefract clerk of the course, Norman Gundill, said: "This is absolutely the right decision. It's wrong that the major bookmakers should try to dictate to SIS. We've had to race on days that didn't suit us, yet the bookmakers don't want to have racing on days that don't suit them."

The row is the fiercest to flare in a summer of discontent for the bookmakers, who have seen their profits eroded by the National Lottery. The fixture list has been a persistent target of criticism.

The big three firms are unanimous in their belief in the difficulties of attracting punters into their lairs on the erstwhile day of rest. Sharpe likened it to "banging your head against a brick wall. People have formed their Sunday habits over years. Going into a betting shop is not one of them."

The bookmakers also bemoan the higher costs of paying their staff the premium rate - often double-time - provided for by statute as a condition for allowing betting shops to open on Sundays.

No precise figures are forthcoming on these wage costs, nor on turnover. Kelvin Stacey of Coral, however, did venture that takings on most Sundays have not "even approached a pretty mediocre midweek day."

This pessimism is in stark contrast to the success of the courses in attracting racegoers, who have seemed to need no educating to change their habits. Paying attendances at the 12 Sunday meetings staged so far have averaged around 13,400. The Tote's Geoffrey Webster reported that on-course pools are faring well, although the organisation's betting shops have experienced difficulties similar to those of their rivals. "People who go racing on a Sunday are natural Tote punters," he said.

Off-course firms are finding that their customers are ceasing to be natural betting shop punters. This botched attempt by the monopoly bookmakers at flexing their muscles must give pause for thought on how racing might one day have to go ahead without them.