Racing: Weekdays' weak days beefed up

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The Independent Online
Punters are to be lured towards betting more regularly on midweek and Sunday racing. Richard Edmondson reports.

Racing's intention to help itself took a further step forward yesterday with the announcement that "showcase races" will be introduced to enliven stale midweek cards.

From the start of the Flat season in March, each day of the week will feature a contest worth a minimum of pounds 10,000 on the Flat and over jumps, and pounds 7,500 over hurdles. Bookmakers will sponsor 120 of the 265 showcase races planned for 1998, and attempt to promote interest by offering morning prices. Newspaper editors have promised even more dedicated coverage.

The new plans are expected to stimulate off-course betting turnover and thus improve money returned to the sport via the Levy. "These initiatives are great for racing and provide a clear focus for the sport and its fans," Nigel Clark, the chairman of the British Horseracing Board off-course betting- development group which established the changes, said yesterday. "Almost pounds 800,000 in extra prize-money is another fine demonstration of the industry helping itself.

"I am confident that the schemes will be welcomed by punters and will ensure that there is always a daily focus within the racing programme, no matter how quiet a day the fixture list has produced."

The weekends have not been forgotten. The clever lads at the OCBDG identified Saturday as the most important punting day of the week, and BHB race planning is to address any weak Saturdays in the calendar. (A major and well-contested race each Saturday is also the key to getting the Tote's Superbet off the ground).

The fruitless chase for off-course punters' money on a Sunday is stepped up as prize-money for that day is increased by 17 per cent, the funds being supplied by extra sponsorship and Levy Board contribution. There are feature races scheduled for all 36 meetings on the 12 Sundays when racing will be staged. At least 32 of those contests will be worth pounds 20,000 or more, while a further 45 will be worth a minimum of pounds 10,000.

The announcements were well received by Peter Jones, now the Chairman of the Tote and formerly the instigator of the original OCBDG investigation. "This is just what racing needs to help claw back its market share," he said. "Showcase races will give a much-needed lift for the off-course market and the major boost to Sunday racing will help the betting industry mirror the success achieved by Sundays on-course."

The Cheltenham Festival, of course, has no problem generating betting interest, and there was further proof of why the meeting attracts so much scrutiny yesterday with the unveiling of the entries for both the Royal & SunAlliance and Arkle Chases. Last year's Festival bumper winner, Florida Pearl, is entered in both contests, leading Irish entries of 13 and 11 in the respective races. Martin Pipe has saturated the Royal & SunAlliance with 10 entries as he seeks to follow up the victories of Miinnehoma and Rolling Ball. Pipe also has Cyfor Malta, a leading ante-post consideration, among the 51 entries for the Arkle.

"This scale of entries for the Guinness Arkle Chase and the Royal & SunAlliance Chase is very encouraging," Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's managing director, said yesterday. "It is great to have so many novice chasers considered championship quality and bodes well for Cheltenham Festivals into the next century."

Among the 75 entries for the Royal & SunAlliance is an animal owned by an old lady who was laid up in bed yesterday. If the Queen Mother needs anything to speed along recuperation from a hip-replacement operation it will be the thought of watching her French-trained entrant, Fire Ball, whistling around the assault course at the base of Prestbury hill.