Sabbath Stakes must go the distance

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The Independent Online
OUR lives are so subjected to marketing and research that there is always a cause for glee when something we are told we will like goes down like a Kevin Costner blockbuster. It means that the men with the money, and the arrogance of assumption, are not always as right as they think they should be.

But the ambiguous response that the public has shown to horse racing and betting on a Sunday is a source of anxious puzzlement to those who have always wished for Britain to break out of the strait-jacket of Victorian observance.

Since the spring of this year, when betting shops were permitted to open on Sundays, the level of custom has often been in inverse proportion to the attendance at the courses holding the meetings. Two weeks ago, Britain's biggest bookmakers, Ladbrokes, decided it would close their 1,900 shops for the next two Sundays of racing because of a dramatic shortfall in turnover.

Other bookmakers even urged the shutdown of SIS, which provides betting shops with TV pictures, on Sundays. But a wave of opposition from many of Britain's independent bookies has forced a rethink, so next Sunday's cards at Redcar and Goodwood can be shown in the shops that are open.

Perhaps a divided response from the betting industry was always to be expected - the bigger firms have huge wage and service costs to meet which are plainly not being covered by the muted response from their customers. But the disparity in attendances at the courses is also providing marketing consultants with a headache. Last Sunday, Pontefract drew a post-war record crowd of over 16,000, while Kempton, on the fringes of the metropolis, could attract only 5,600 paying customers. A fortnight earlier Chester attracted a huge crowd of over 35,000 while Lingfield enjoyed a more modest attendance.

To add to the confusion, the Pontefract card had nothing higher than a Class C handicap, and Kempton offered both Class B and Class C handicaps, while the number of runners at each course was roughly the same. Bookmakers' complaints of poor Sunday fields sound flawed when placed against these figures.

So what is going on? If I knew I could make a small fortune as an adviser to the bookmakers and to the British Horse Racing Board, but one thing strikes me as obvious - it is far too early to make a rational assessment of Sunday racing. After so many years of deprivation it is hardly surprising that punters have staggered from their darkened cells only to be blinded by the light of freedom.

Indeed I can still remember - since my dad was a part-time settler of wagers - the confused reaction to the legalisation of betting shops in 1961. The one near our house was initially viewed like an alien space craft. People would gather outside trying to peer in through the opening door to see what it was like, or just to eyeball those who had been inside to see if they had sprouted horns and tails.

While the intervening years have seen horse racing elevated into a multi- billion-pound leisure industry, the management of that change has not always been up to speed. The expansive and forward- thinking BHB has only been in operation for just over two years and is fighting a cultural legacy of puritanism and regulation that goes back centuries, not to mention those elitist pockets of resistance which still think racing is for the few not the many.

May I modestly suggest that all parties quit moaning and do their best to promote the remaining meetings; that they advertise the glorious attractions of a day at the races; and introduce incentives in betting shops, so this new initiative gets its best start. Then in the autumn, they can sit down and pool their research, turnover figures, experiences good or bad, and act upon them for the benefit of racing in general, not their own sectional interests.

As a token of optimism let me report that I took my two sons, aged seven and five, to Bath races last week where theoretically the only interest for them was the ice-cream van. But a look around the saddling boxes and the parade ring soon had them fascinated, and a horse with a visor was nicknamed "Batman". Then they sat by the post, thrilled by the surge of the beasts to the line, and proceeded to pick three winners, provoking a paternal pay-out in the order of pounds 6 towards their computer fund. They can't wait for Wincanton on Sunday 22 October.

Horse racing on Sunday may not in the end prove to be a viable enterprise in an Anglo-Saxon culture, but it deserves a decent period to give it the chance to succeed, both at the tracks and in the betting shops. We owe it to the punters of tomorrow.

T he appearance of the golfers Corey Pavin and Bernhard Langer on last Sunday's Songs of Praise, in which they both celebrated their faith in God, gave public testimony to what some of us see as an insidious development in sport. Pavin won this year's US Open, and Langer, apart from the occasions when I have backed him, has had another highly successful season, taking him to second place in the European money list.

Add to this the recent victory of the church-going Jonathan Edwards in the triple jump at Gothenburg, you begin to see a link between Christian belief and successful sporting achievements. The Barcelona football team, for example, have a chapel in the players' tunnel where devotions can be made before any home game.

All of which begs the question that if athletes and sportsmen can be suspended for taking performance enhancing drugs, or denied records because of wind assistance, will they soon be tested for God? If He exists then one presumes those sportsmen who believe in Him enjoy considerable advantage over the heathen mercenaries who are competing for earthly conceits such as money, fame, sex and glory.

No doubt our Q and A section can come up with a definitive list of the exceptional achievements of Christians in sport - excluding any bouts with lions - but in the meantime we should watch what happens if Pavin and Langer are paired to play head to head in next month's Ryder Cup.

A report by an American uni- versity this week suggested that footballers who head the ball too frequently during their careers are in danger of suffering brain damage in later life. As someone who grew up with nodding acquaintance of a "case-ball" - the heavy panelled leather sphere complete with the hard rubber bit from the bladder which always caught you smack on the forehead - I suppose I should be worried.

So I'll be monitoring the utterances of the likes of Joe Royle, Mark Hateley, Joe Jordan and John Toshack for any signs of incoherence or disorientation. But there may be readers who, on seeing the grinning poltroon whose mugshot accompanies these rambling words, have decided that the university's case is already unequivocally proven.