Racing: The Net widens punters' chances

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The Independent Online
BRITISH TELECOM unveiled a new payphone at Waterloo Station yesterday. By the middle of next year, they hope to have a thousand more like it all over the country. And no, you haven't strayed on to the home news pages by mistake. This is a story with long-term significance for racing, even if the people in charge of the turf do not realise it quite yet.

The point about BT's new payphone is that it will allow people to access the Internet almost as easily as they currently phone home to say they will be on the 7.19. In 10 years' time, when a generation which has never known a Net-less world comes of age, they will probably be on every street corner. At the touch of a button, you will be able to shop, pay bills, send e-mails and place a bet.

It is, of course, this last part which concerns us, particularly since in July 2009, your e-bookie will almost certainly be based in Gibraltar or somewhere similar, well beyond the reach of the Inland Revenue. For those who do not want to pay it, betting tax will belong in the last century.

And for some punters, the future is here already. Victor Chandler will find out this morning whether he will be allowed to advertise his new, Gibraltar-based telephone-betting operation, and its tempting "tax" rate of three per cent, on Teletext. Even if he is told that he cannot, however, he already has 5,000 account holders and the graph is exponential.

Appropriately, given that technology is bundling the world ever more tightly together, there was another story this week which ties in with the others. The Levy Board, which creams off a few pennies every time a punter has an off-course bet, revealed that it had raised pounds 52m for the benefit of racing in its last financial year.

At the same time, though, Rob Hughes, the Board's chairman, warned that low-tax and tax-free betting in Ireland, Gibraltar and elsewhere posed a significant threat to future Levy yields. He called for a reduction in the deductions charged in British betting shops from the current level of nine per cent, right down to Chandler's three per cent.

Whether the Government will listen or not is another matter, although with an election possibly two years away and plenty of promises still to fund, the omens are not good. The potential threat to racing cannot be underestimated, however.

Other bookmakers are already laying plans to take their credit-betting operations abroad. Within a decade, a significant slice of the betting turnover which racing currently depends upon for its funding could be out of the sport's reach.

All the major British bookmakers are already laying plans to move their phone betting operations abroad if necessary. "It will very rapidly go from a possibility to a probability," Trevor Beaumont, Coral's Group Trading Director, said yesterday, "as soon as we start to see a trend hitting us. We will be able to move into action straight away."

Nor is it simply the phone business which he is studying nervously. "I know from our surveys of telephone customers that a lot of them also go into betting shops," Beaumont says. "People who bet pounds 3,000 or pounds 4,000 a year in shops are going to start to realise that it will be worth doing it all with a three per cent deduction.

"But irrespective of Victor Chandler, I think the Internet is the biggest long-term threat, or opportunity, depending on how you look at it. It won't be long before you'll be watching racing on television and you'll be able to link to a bookmaker on the Net by pressing a button on the remote control."

Punters will inevitably like the idea of betting without tax, and good luck to them. If British racing is starved of its major cash stream, however, there may be precious little for us to bet on, in this country at least. Yet, while this threat starts to loom in the middle-distance, the BHB seems more interested in short-term squabbles with bookmakers.

It may be that a whole new way of raising money will need to be found, perhaps from the "media rights" to the pictures broadcast to betting shops. Whatever the answer may be, though, the time to start looking for it is now.