Spread a little gloom

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The Independent Online
Someone must have stolen the bunting as I walked down the street to the bookmaker's shop on Friday.

The advent of nine per cent betting tax did not appear to be the panacea that many had hoped. It followed the announcement earlier in the week that turnover on racing betting for December was 13 per cent down on the same month the previous year.

For those with an interest in racing's finances there is nothing to celebrate in news from the spread-betting firms.

The only growth area in sporting speculation report that interest in the turf is dwindling like ashes in the fire. "Racing's proportion in spread betting is falling," Compton Hellyer, the chairman of Sporting Index, said. "If we were pure racing, we would have to be thinking about other markets to do in racing. We have a very rich menu on which to bet, so we don't need to rely on racing so much.

"The message is that, in the future, the man in the street is more likely to bet on sport than racing. We respond to that and I'd be surprised if the big bookmakers don't respond to it also."

The beauty, and ugliness, of spread betting is the danger. The possible loss is nowhere near what you would dream of staking at fixed odds. Spread betting is rather like attempting to remove a diamond-studded collar from a tiger's neck. The benefits could be huge, but at the same time you can do yourself a smidgen of damage.

With over 50 per cent of the spreads market, Sporting are the brand leaders of the new business. The diminutive and ebullient Hellyer has created a company in his own image, forever searching for new promotions. No sporting event these days seems to be complete without the perma-tanned Wally Pyrah, Sporting's media front, who appears to step down from Burtons' window before grabbing the corporate microphone.

Today Sporting Index go on to the Internet, the information super highway. This probably means more to people other than this author, who is on the information super cul-de-sac.

As they muscle for business, with rival firms City Index and IG Index, Sporting have new competition in the market, William Hill Index, who have just completed their 23rd trading week. If this intrusion has hurt, it is well hidden.

If a newcomer to an industry is proffered an olive branch he can usually expect a tarantula among the leaves, but here, it seems, friendliness abounds. "We welcome the advent of William Hill Index because we think it gives credibility and stature to our industry," Hellyer said.

Mike Quigley, the man behind William Hill Index, is grateful too to Sporting Index for hacking a trail through the bureaucracy of the spread-betting woods. It may be that the Big Three bookmakers will be further represented, as Ladbrokes have long been scrutinising this market. Those already involved hope they will follow the option of buying an existing firm rather than extending the population.

William Hill talk of their recent involvement as guided by "innovation and initiative". My teacher used to call it copying, but this has not stopped the firm building a base of 1,500 clients.

Quigley too does not have syringe-fuls of joy to pump into racing's hopes. "I don't think there is a tremendous growth market in horserace spread betting. That isn't the answer for us," he said. "The guys in charge of credit betting are aware that people are punting with us and they're losing a bit of turnover. But if William Hill Index didn't exist those people would be playing with Sporting or City.

"Horse racing doesn't adapt itself to spreads as much as other sports. Football, golf and cricket, and runs, shots and numbers seem better suited. The business on racing is light during the week. You don't get more than a few city dealers and others in the business playing."

Those dependent on racing revenue can leave the bunting in the attic then. Instead, hook a wreath over the door knob.