Racing's way of putting on its Sunday bets

Despair had gripped the campaign for seven-day betting on horses. Then came a slice of luck. Greg Wood reports
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For those of a slightly mischievous disposition, the occasion at Newmarket this weekend of Britain's first Sunday race meeting with on- and off-course betting offers cause for extra celebration. Remember Lord Wyatt? we gloat. The Tote chairman confidently stated that we would not have Sunday racing for 25 years. That was in December 1993.

It has never been difficult to poke fun at Lord Wyatt. In this case, however it is also worth recalling just how many people laughed at his prediction when it was made. The simple logic of the cause, that racing should take place when people are best able to attend, had long been inescapable, but just 17 months ago, even Sunday racing's most fervent supporters saw their goal as a distant, perhaps impossible, dream. A campaign started by the Jockey Club in the mid-1980s had seemingly achieved nothing and the struggle to escape from the legal straitjacket was taking on an air of desperation.

Unlike sports such as cricket and football, which had cheerfully clambered through loopholes in the Sunday Observance Act for years, racing was also frustrated by the altogether more watertight provisions of the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act. Betting on Sunday was forbidden and so, effectively, was racing.

The first hint that seven-day competition might one day be a reality came a decade ago, as Nigel Clark, who was chairman of the Jockey Club's Sunday racing committee for several years, recalls. "It started in about 1985 when the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, suggested that if the industry was keen on Sunday racing it would be an appropriate time to press for legislation, as the Sunday Trading Bill was about to go through Parliament. As a result, a committee was formed to progress the idea."

The Bill fell victim to a concerted rebellion by Conservative backbenchers, but the committee endured. "We really went into the doldrums," Clark said. "We had three Private Member's Bills but really they got nowhere. Then there was a Home Office Select Committee which recommended that racing should be allowed on Sunday but with on-course betting only. When that was put to the Home Secretary he said no, because that would only encourage illegal betting."

At this stage, some racing administrators accused the big off-course bookmakers of standing in the way of progress. Tom Kelly, director-general of the Betting Office Licensees Association, sees things differently. "There was a general feeling that if racing with off-course betting wasn't achievable, they should go for on-course betting only," he says. "I argued against that and that view was accepted. If it had gone ahead under the original premise, it would have been a disaster."

Whatever the reason, Clark, now the committee chairman, needed to reinvigorate the Sunday racing campaign. His solution did full justice to his position as vice-chairman of the advertising agency, Lowe Howard Spink. "We had to do something spectacular, to try to bring it into public focus, so we decided to run some trial meetings on a Sunday with no on- or off-course betting."

The idea was received with enthusiasm in some quarters, and scepticism in others. Ladbrokes, in what amounted to little more than a childish (and ultimately very expensive) fit of pique, offered 4-1 against a trial meeting without betting taking place. Clark, and many others, collected handsomely the moment the stalls opened at Doncaster on 26 July, 1992.

"The Doncaster meeting really hit the headlines," Clark says, "with huge crowds and families en masse. There was a second trial at Cheltenham in November which was also a great success, and then another at Lingfield the following year.

"Pressure was building up, and we got a lucky break when Neil Hamilton, who was bringing a Deregulation Bill through the House, said he would be very happy to include Sunday racing. We got that through in May last year, and it went through the House of Lords in June."

Mission accomplished, Clark's small group of campaigners disbanded. The true worth of their achievement may become apparent at Newmarket this Sunday if, as seems possible, the 1,000 Guineas meeting is a sell-out for the first time in living memory.