Racing: Turf can learn from the numbers game

commentary
Click to follow
The Independent Online
One thing was certain after Sheikh Mohammed's speech had been delivered to the Gimcrack dinner at York last week - if the oil ever runs out, he could always turn to journalism. Direct, eloquent and menacing in equal measure, his words made it plain that an industry which has for years been declining in a genteel, typically British sort of way could suddenly find itself in the middle of a Korean-style crash.

As a discussion document on racing's future, it deserved far better than the reception it received. Both administrators and bookmakers simply retreated to the trenches they have occupied for the last 20 years, lobbed a few press releases into no-man's land and then returned to dreams of the Big Push. On Newsnight, for instance, an exchange between Tristram Ricketts, chief executive of the British Horseracing Board, and David Hood, William Hill's PR man, was as formulaic as a Spice Girls single. Hood even got away with the familiar, but still outrageous, line that bookmakers give a third of their profits to racing via the Levy, a claim which Ricketts should have nailed immediately. Yet that would have been an admission that it is the punters, not the bookies, who pay the Levy, a fact which the BHB seems almost as reluctant to acknowledge as the bookmakers themselves.

Jeremy Paxman has few equals when it comes to the incredulous sneer, but even his eyebrows could not do justice to Ricketts' belief that the Government might take a smaller cut of betting turnover in order to benefit the Levy. New Labour may be prepared to make the poor poorer, but making rich racehorse owners richer would be a little extreme even for them.

The only conclusion after three days of solid bluster was that nothing will change. Sheikh Mohammed may take his horses elsewhere and it is possible that he intends to anyway, now that his operation in Dubai is up and running. British racing, though, will just try to muddle on, weaker, poorer and still on the slide.

To anyone with a casual interest in the turf, the process by which it is all funded can seem bafflingly complicated, and sometimes you feel that this is a belief which the interested parties are keen to promote. In fact, it is surprisingly simple. Owners, at the top end, and punters, at the bottom, are the only two groups who actually put money into the great cash-guzzling machine in the middle. Everyone else - breeders, trainers, jockeys, bookmakers - is in there to make a living.

If owners want more prize-money, the punters are the only people who can provide it, and in turning their attention on the bookmakers, the BHB - and, for that matter, Sheikh Mohammed - are missing the point. The bookies do not contribute to the sport and never will since any extra costs will be passed on to customers.

The administrators would do far better to find an alternative way of getting their hands on betting turnover, one which cuts out the bookie in the middle. Consider, for example, the new Lottery-style game Pronto!, which was launched in pubs recently, having clambered through a loophole in the betting regulations which had always seemed to preclude betting and drinking in the same premises.

Jack Straw has promised to ban Pronto! within six months, but he may discover that it is easier to prevent things happening in the first place than to put a stop to them later. Pronto! is a business venture, but will also make significant donations to charities which have been hit hard by the National Lottery. It has now been running for a month, and as yet there have been no horror stories of high streets burned to the ground by mobs intoxicated by the heady mix of punting and booze. Why, people might ask, does the Government want to ban Pronto! when it cannot find the time to ban hunting, despite an overwhelming vote in the Commons. And why, more fundamentally, can we not be trusted to indulge in more than one vice at a time?

The important point for racing is that Pronto! uses similar technology for processing bets to that employed by Tote Direct, and could handle pool betting without major alterations (and the Tote, of course, returns its profits to racing). Bookmakers are forever complaining that up to 10 per cent of betting takes place illegally in pubs and clubs. So why not have a Tote/Pronto! terminal in every pub to take up the slack and generate money for the Government and racing?

The bookmakers might scream about unfair competition, but when betting shops were legalised in the 1960s, the Tote was not allowed to operate off-course for several years, by which time the major bookies had bought up all the best sites. Ladbrokes and company did not bleat about unfair competition then.

Legalised betting in pubs could be the last chance to increase racing's share of betting revenue. With a little vision on the part of the BHB, some lobbying on behalf of Pronto!, it could happen far sooner than anyone might imagine. And if the bookmakers don't like it, well, it's nothing personal. Just business.

Comments