Racing: When a bet becomes a lottery

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The Independent Online
With so little racing to bet on at present, it is a shame that no one is offering odds on the long-term future of the bookmakers' latest money- making scheme, the lottery-style "49s" game which has been broadcast shortly before closing time in most betting shops for the last three weeks.

The description of 49s as a "lottery-style" game is carefully chosen, since while punters bet on six numbers between one and 49 chosen from a spinning tombola, the bookmakers are adamant that in no way, shape or form is it a genuine lottery. That, after all, would be illegal, since the only business allowed to run a national lottery in Britain is Camelot, whose enormous success over the last two years has cut huge slices from the bookies' profits and turnover.

It is a distinction which the bookies are understandably keen to emphasise. "Quite clearly it is not a lottery," Tom Kelly, of the Betting Office Licensees Association, said yesterday. "A lottery involves the selling of tickets and the creation of a pool. The operator takes out the expenses and profit and divides what's left between the winners. There is no pool here, no selling of tickets, and if a popular combination of numbers comes up, the bookmaker can lose. It's a bet."

Camelot, however, are far from convinced, and a report into the legality of 49s, compiled by the Metropolitan Police, is being considered by the Crown Prosecution Service. Should the CPS decide that there is a case to answer, things could get a little nervy for the bookmakers, since ignorance of the law, or a belief that it is on your side, is no defence when you are charged with breaking it.

The question seems to be, what makes a bet a bet rather than a punt on a lottery? Is it the fact that fixed odds are involved, or is it the actual event being wagered upon, in this case, a random set of numbers? Some will argue that bookies offer many bets which are almost as unpredictable, but even punting in early January on a white Christmas can involve an element of skill.

The 49s game is run by a company, 49s Ltd, set up by the Big Three bookmakers, William Hill, Ladbrokes and Coral. The odds on offer - 11-2 against picking one number, or 511-1 against getting three - are hardly generous when placed against the true chance of success (8.2-1 and 921-1 respectively). The prices still compare very favourably with those offered by the National Lottery, however, and this too may be a source of irritation to Camelot.

Even Britain's bookmakers are not united in support of 49s. Some small, independent bookmakers are reluctant to accept bets on five correct numbers (for a payout of 99,999-1 against true odds of 317,814-1), and feel that the new game will inevitably increase the Big Three's market share.

The latest show on the future of 49s would probably be a shade of odds- on that it will survive. The final decision, however, seems likely to rest with the courts, and the thought processes of a British judge.

And those, some would argue, can be something of a lottery in themselves.