Roy must not miss chance to gamble on a certainty

The Tote sell-off brings the sport to a crossroads where a strong sense of direction is needed
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The Independent Online

His tenure as chairman of the British Horseracing Authority has revealed Paul Roy as a man whose self-assurance will sometimes develop, with little obvious foundation to many who love the sport, into rampant self-certainty. You could forgive him nearly everything, however, if he happens to pull the Tote out of the fire for racing.

For the heat and smoke are already pretty intense. The Government, prompted by its present exigencies to dismiss any scruples about who actually "owns" it, has put the Tote into a fire sale. True, the Government promised on Monday to ease a guilty conscience by donating half the net proceeds to racing. Be in no doubt, however, that a possible dividend of £50m would represent a pitiful sop, relative to the stakes latent in the sale for horseracing.

Failure to secure the Tote for the charitable foundation – the bid organised, on behalf of the industry, by the Tote management – might some day come to be recognised as the third and final nail in the sport's coffin. The first, notoriously, came when betting shops were legalised into private hands, separating betting profits from their source. The second, less well known, came when the racing authorities declined an opportunity of partnership with the nascent revolution in betting exchanges. But both the big bookmaking chains and the exchanges could yet be torpedoed by an aggressive and ambitious Tote. It would take time, and guts, but bold reductions in pool take-outs could make any punter worth his salt recognise the Tote as the best value in the marketplace. And surely that's the best way to replace the Levy system – make it redundant.

The Government, understandably, is fed up with the antediluvian funding mechanism that so often requires ministers to bang heads together, amplifying as it does the antipathies dividing the sport and the big bookmakers. It says that its latest, exasperated intervention in a Levy impasse will also be the last. That, however, is why someone needs to show that the best way to get racing out of its hair is precisely through the Tote.

With this is mind, it could prove a catastrophe for it to be meretriciously hawked off elsewhere. The Government keeps making airy pledges that the Tote will be disposed of in such a way that recognises its historic kinship with racing. But Government needs to understand that even the division of the proceeds, between the sport and the state, would not begin to redress the mutual opportunity lost for both. For each to walk away with even £50m in its back pocket would only represent a fleeting gain, compared with those that might have been accumulated in the longer term.

It does not take Leon Trotsky to work out the overwhelming priority of the various drooling contenders, from the worlds of bookmaking and private equity. They will doubtless be ready to cry wolf, at the earliest opportunity, on grounds of state aid. Assuming the solution remains commercially respectable, however, the Government can surely drive the same coach and horses through such protests as have already trampled over misgivings about its title to the Tote in the first place.

It's a momentous crossroads for the racing industry. One way might well lead to the last straw; another, potentially, green shoots of new prosperity. How edifying, then, if racing's leaders could now astonish those who fear that their legacy will be confined to the heedless vanities of the new Flat racing calendar.

Roy, after all, is seasoned in the mysterious ways of the City. That was what he was always supposed to bring to the table – a bit of know-how, something to show Westminster that it was no longer simply dealing with those terribly nice, tweedy chaps up from the Shires. Here was a man who understood that the Square Mile has rough edges.

Well, the proof of the pudding will be the Tote. If he can deliver, Roy will merit a bouquet for every brickbat he has earned – harshly or otherwise – in other endeavours. In fairness, he could hardly have a stronger case. He knows he's right, and this time he damned well is. All he has to do is persuade them not throw out the baby with the bath water.

Turf account


Mannlichen (4.0 Leicester) It is always a little unnerving to back even a runaway winner under a penalty, when he has barely had time to be hosed down, but this one has a tough profile and looked miles ahead of his mark at Hereford on Sunday.

Next best

City Theatre (2.30 Leicester) Much better than this rating over hurdles and, not made to run before he can walk in chases thus far, promises more now he drops in trip for his first handicap over fences.

One to watch

Brunswick Gold (Steve Gollings) Contributed to a good day for his stable at Cheltenham on Saturday with a midfield finish in a hot novice hurdle, belying his inexperience and odds of 50-1.

Where the money's going

Ghizao is 9-2 from 5-1 with Paddy Power for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham next month.