Racing: Sunday mission aims to convert: Racing's seventh-day adventure begins tomorrow but for gamblers who want to bet in cash it remains a day of abstinence. Paul Hayward reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PRAYERS will be said at noon and no laws will be broken, they hope, but tomorrow's meeting at Doncaster may still be the nearest thing we will see to the Jockey Club manning barricades. This is the polite revolt, supported by many whose only previous attempt at anarchy will have been shooting a grouse 10 minutes before the season began.

The first British programme of racing on a Sunday is being promoted as the beginning of the end for the restrictive legislation which confines the sport to half of the weekend leisure market. In fact, this experiment can only hope to ridicule those laws and demonstrate public sympathy for Sunday racing, because reform of the Betting Gaming and Lotteries Act - which prohibits cash betting on Sundays - is as far away as ever, as a call to the Home Office yesterday confirmed.

Cash betting is the lifeblood of racing, so without deregulation Britain will remain the only major racing country to close down for the weekend on Saturday night. The Jockey Club have been heartened by the news that Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is undertaking a review of Sunday trading, but in reality his department is not planning to examine the law as it relates to gambling on the seventh day.

'There is no intention of reviewing anything outside the scope of the Shops Act,' a spokeswoman for the Home Office said yesterday. 'We're still looking at the evening opening of betting shops, but the scope of that review is unlikely to be widened to cover Sunday opening.' Cash punting on Sundays, the spokeswoman added, 'will remain illegal until that section of the Betting and Gaming Act is amended', and there is, she said, 'no immediate prospect' of that happening.

Gloomy news for an industry which is deeply aggrieved at the discrimination it suffers in relation to other sports. As the Jockey Club indicates in its campaign leaflet, the Wimbledon Men's Final has been taking place on a Sunday since 1982, cricket's Sunday League began as long ago as 1969, the British Open reaches its climax on that same day, and Sunday football and Rugby League are now part of the national sporting culture. Not to mention the British Grand Prix.

In Ireland the number of Sunday fixtures has grown from six in 1985 (the inaugural year) to 26 this season, and Sunday is by some distance the most popular day with Irish racegoers - particularly families - despite potential religious objections. Budweiser, who sponsor the Irish Derby, insist that the race be run on a Sunday.

At Doncaster tomorrow credit and debit betting by telephone will be possible for those who have not placed their stakes today, but there will be no starting-price system and any bookmaker found taking bets will be bedding down for the night in a police cell. The restrictions, the Jockey Club says, 'mean that racing is barred from attracting the public on the one day which has increasingly become accepted as the favourite leisure day of the week'.

In Ireland betting shops are closed but the on-course market is open. Customs and Excise believe that if the Irish system was replicated here it would produce an upsurge in illegal gambling away from the track. The High Street firms, meanwhile, are ambivalent about Sunday racing because their shops are located to attract trade from Monday to Saturday, and it is probably their overall lack of enthusiasm for reform that has allowed government policy to drift.

Most owners, trainers, jockeys and racegoers support the idea of Sunday racing, as a recent poll convincingly demonstrated. The other uncertain party are stable staff, who are among the country's lowest paid workers and who have found their workload increasing as the recession produces redundancies in training yards. To defuse their concerns about Sunday working, the Jockey Club emphasises racing's position in the entertainment market and quotes Wembley Stadium's management as saying: 'We are a leisure industry and therefore have to work during most people's leisure time. We expect it.'

Three Private Members' Bills have failed to legitimise racing on the Sabbath. Intense lobbying of the Home Office has failed. The sport now hopes that at Doncaster tomorrow (and at Cheltenham on 15 November) enthusiasm for Sunday racing will embarrass the Government into submission.

'This will not be, could not be and was never intended to be a mirror image of a normal day's racing,' the Jockey Club says. 'The fact that there can be no proper on-course betting ensures this. We want Ministers to be left in no doubt that the discrimination which horse racing now suffers cannot be allowed to continue.'

Sadly, the chances are that it will.