Stakeout at the bookies' corral

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Racing: A long and bitter dispute between race tracks and bookmakers is close to a conclusion, and the outcome could affect punters everywhere.

You could call it racing's forgotten war - were it not for the fact that hardly anyone except its protagonists was even aware it had started.

The battleground is the betting ring and over the last six years the people who own Britain's racecourses and the bookmakers who offer odds in their enclosures have talked themselves to a bitter standstill over proposals to change the way the ring is organised. And no-one has noticed, not the racegoers in the bars and on the terraces, and certainly not the punters in the off-course shops where the vast majority of British bets are placed.

Which is a shame, because a peace treaty will be imposed on the warring parties within the next 12 months, and if the arbitrators get it wrong, the long- term consequences for ordinary backers could be disastrous. Punters' representatives are concerned that the major off-course bookmakers will finally achieve a long-cherished ambition, and effectively take control of the prices which are transmitted from the ring to the country's betting shops by Satellite Information Services (SIS).

"It's the last piece in the jigsaw," Michael Singer, chairman of the National Association for the Protection of Punters, says. "They already have control of SIS, and they will be able to do as they please."

You do not need to be a shareholder in Ladbrokes to appreciate that major bookies doing as they please is hardly likely to work to the benefit of punters. The reasons for Singer's concern - which are echoed by many on- course bookmakers - are complex, but originate, as do most of racing's internal disputes, in the structural anomalies of a sport which started out as an aristocratic hobby and turned, by legal fits and starts, into a billion-pound industry.

For more than 30 years on-course bookmakers have administered the betting rings through their trade association, the National Association of Bookmakers. They determine how many bookmakers will operate at any given meeting and who they will be, via a system of seniority.

This means that if you want to be an on-course bookie, you join a waiting list (often a very long one), before starting out in the poorest betting positions in the cheap enclosures and slowly working your way up (this, incidentally, explains why bookies in the best pitches, at the front near the Members' enclosure, rarely seem to be less than 60 years old).

No-one claims that the system is perfect, but from a punters' point of view at least, it does not work too badly. In all the time that the NAB has administered pitches, not a single boards bookie has welched on his customers, and it is no coincidence that "John Batten", the infamous con- man who disappeared with thousands of pounds on Derby day, was standing on Epsom Hill, one of the only remaining betting sites that does not come under NAB control.

"It's an example of self-regulation that's been terrifically successful," David Bowden, an experienced on-course bookmaker, says. "People know each other and they make the policing system work."

The racecourses, however, argue that the ring does not cater adequately for their customers. Many bookies, for instance, refuse to offer each- way betting, and among those who do, the precise terms are down to the individual. The tracks would also like to remove the ban which prevents rails bookmakers - on the prime sites adjoining the big hitters of the Members' enclosure - from displaying their prices on boards like the rest of the ring, something which the ordinary layers fear would remove much of their business at a stroke.

If so, this would also make it much easier for the major off-course chains, who are already represented on the rails, to manipulate the on-course market.

Another source of irritation is the increasing proliferation of smart, well-appointed betting shops on racecourses. "The main concern is to provide comfort and choice for our customers," Morag Gray, of the Racecourse Association, says. "They want to be able to have small bets, and multiples, which they can't have in the ring, and as racecourse managers it would be shameful if we didn't want to provide that service."

What concerns the bookies, though, is that the track receives a commission on bets placed in the on-course shops, rather than a flat-fee rent for the site. This, they believe, gives the course a considerable incentive to persuade racegoers to bet at the shop rather than in the ring. Many of these new betting pavilions, what's more, are built with interest-free loans from the Levy Board. This could ultimately mean that money from off-course punters is being used to undermine the interests of the very people who have provided it.

``Of course, the racecourse owners are going to favour the bookmakers who give them the most income, and who can blame them?" John Morill, a veteran of the ring, says. "But the crux is, do the public and Parliament want to see a betting monopoly operated by the conglomerates, because we are gradually seeing the demise of the on-course bookmakers and the ring is being fragmented."

It is the Levy Board which has now been given the task of resolving the war of the ring. Their decision - which is legally binding - could shape the future of British betting. The punters who fund the Board, but have no official representation on it, can only hope that they get it right.