Racing: St Trinians at the race-track

A little naughtiness but few truants as bookies are tutored in the new rules.

IT MUST have been 60 years at least since some of the men gathered in front of the grandstand at Plumpton racecourse had answered to the attendance register at school, but they could easily have been a group of naughty adolescents as Andrew Boardley, the new betting-ring manager, carried out a roll-call of bookmakers yesterday lunchtime. "West," he said at one point. "That way, I think," someone replied with a giggle. Boardley, every inch the schoolmaster in his wire-rimmed spectacles, did not look amused.

But then this was a serious business, the first day of a new age in the betting ring. Regular attendance at the course is now essential if a bookie is to keep his hard-earned place in the pecking order, which is why yesterday's meeting at the tiny Sussex track attracted about 30 bookmakers, rather than the 20 who might have appeared a month ago. They were careful to listen for their name, answer promptly and then troop off to their place in the ring. As revolutions go, it could hardly have been more bloodless.

How strange it seemed to see them so acquiescent. Many racecourse bookmakers are from families which have made an uncertain living in the ring for three or four generations. Fierce self-reliance is written into their genes, and so too an independent outlook, but now they will have to get used to being told how to go about their business.

For some it will be easier than others. Among the new regulations in force from yesterday was a requirement for all bookmakers to price up races 10 minutes before the official "off" time, and to advertise prominently the amount which they are prepared to lay any particular horse to lose.

Most of the bookies at Plumpton took the first rule seriously - never before, in fact, can so many of them have priced up a very ordinary novice hurdle before the horses were even in the paddock.

There were some distinct whiffs of rebellion, though, when it came to the second. The sums which various bookies were prepared to lose on any one bet ranged from a solid pounds 2,000, right down to a not-very serious pounds 5 and a distinctly cheeky two-and-six. This last offer, from Jack Cohen, later changed to pounds 1,000, but it did not impress Boardley, and neither did Cohen's opening show on the first race - 1-3 the favourite, and no price at all about the remaining 11 runners.

"He shouldn't be doing that sort of thing," Boardley said, as he gave Cohen the sort of long, disapproving stare which must have served him well during his 30 years in the police force. "We might have to have a quiet word." Within a minute or two, the bookie had a full show on his board, but possibly too late to avoid his card being marked.

Cohen was reluctant to discuss the changes in the ring, but others were more forthcoming. "They don't understand betting," Lawrence Bond said. "They shouldn't be able to tell us how much punters can have on. What happens if they keep wanting to back a horse at all prices? Young people like me want change, but we don't need over-regulation."

Others fear that the tracks will now want to take a slice of their turnover. "I make between two and a half and three per cent on turnover," Dave Saphir said. "If you go out of here to the car park, you'll see jockeys, trainers and owners getting into aeroplanes, and most of the bookmakers lining up for a coach. If they try to get any more out of us, it won't be viable and there won't be any more bookmakers, and that would be completely against the punters' interests."

The mood in the ring was hardly improved by the first three races yesterday, as the favourite obliged comfortably every time. It might even have been enough to persuade some of the layers that the time has come to sell up their pitch entitlements, as the new regulations allow, and retire.

In another year or two, there could be very few of the old-time layers left. Fred Honour will be 76 next week, but he goes about his business - a little worryingly, it's true - wearing the smartest pair of Nikes you could ever wish to see. He has been a bookie for 40 years, but he suspects that his places may go up for auction next month.

Then again, his sales pitch could be a little more enticing. "I'll be amazed if there are many buyers," he said. "You can't make a living at this game any more."

HOW THE RING WILL CHANGE

n Bookmakers must price up every race 10 minutes before the off

n All transactions must be recorded on audio tape for use in resolving disputes

n Bookmakers must display the amount they guarantee to lay any horse to lose, eg: if the figure is pounds 2,000, the bookie is obliged to accept a bet of pounds 1,000 about a 2-1 chance or pounds 200 about a 10-1 shot

n Bookmakers leaving early have to leave any outstanding winnings with the betting-ring managers

n Standard each-way terms must apply

n First auction of seniority positions in the ring will take place next month

n From 1 January 1999, bookmakers must operate from a standardised plastic pitch

n From February 1999, information booths will appear in the racecourse ring to assist novice punters

n From 31 December 1999, bookmakers will be required to issue tickets detailing the horse's name or number, amount bet, odds, type of bet and potential return

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