Sunday's open and shut case

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The Independent Online
Some people never know when to give up. Just as the team that tried to raise the Titanic started talking about a fresh attempt next year, so the racing industry continues to consider how to salvage Sunday racing as a vessel that off-course punters would be happy to climb aboard.

As the second year of racing on the Sabbath steers towards its concluding fixtures and the British Horseracing Board closes in on its planned full- scale review of the project, it is not difficult to guage how things are going: great, and er . . . awful.

For the racecourses, particularly those such as Pontefract and Chester where a commitment to marketing Sunday fixtures brought the reward of record crowds, it is a triumph. For on-course bookmakers it has been difficult, with big-hitting punters staying away and the new arrivals playing with small change. For high street betting shops it has been hell, with one man and his dog (and sometimes not even the dog) turning up to thank the manager and his staff for opening up for him as he gets a bit lonely on a Sunday afternoon and its nice to have somewhere to go for a chat.

The conversation probably turns to what other people get up to on the seventh day and how it was reported that over 32,000 turned up for Chester's card last month, the biggest Sunday crowd of the year. Yet one on-course bookmaker there, Mike Burton, representing William Hill, was able to say: "This will have been Chester's quietest betting day of the year. It is a typical Sunday, much worse than midweek and nothing like a Saturday." The reason: that the crowd that day, families in tee-shirts and shorts, generally preferred to set up barbecues on the course's infield rather than get a roasting from the bookies.

Back at William Hill's headquarters, opinions were similarly bleak about off-course business, with the firm's spokesman, David Hood, saying: "We have resigned ourselves to punters not having any enthusiasm for Sundays like this."

It is a situation that the major firms could have predicted as the campaign for Sunday racing gathered momentum through the last decade with the help of experimental meetings without betting. Never enthusiastic about the prospect of opening their shops on a Sunday because of the increased overheads and because many outlets were located in business districts with no passing trade on that day, the bookmakers nevertheless did not want to be excluded from the party. The logic was, and remains, that if racing is taking place then people will want to bet, and if they cannot do so legally in a betting shop then they will seek out someone making a book in a pub or club and return there during the week as well.

What has worsened the situation for bookmakers is that the quality of racing scheduled for the seventh day has often looked like unappetising leftovers from the rest of the week. Even when the fare was good enough to excite punters they often did not know that it was taking place as the 12 racing Sundays were scattered at intervals through the year.

That problem has been tackled, at least in part, as the BHB has scheduled next year's 12 days (containing 37 fixtures, rather than the 24 of the opening year) into blocks of three consecutive Sundays before a break.

It is a change welcomed by Coral bookmakers, who from the outset have been more receptive to Sunday trading than their rivals, despite the costs meaning that "Sundays are breaking even on only rare occasions", according to the firm's spokesman, Malcolm Palmer.

He remains optimistic about the project. "On the plus side more people are going racing and that means more people are betting. It's a positive sign that will bring long-term benefit."

While Palmer waits, he is in the thoughts of Norman Gundill, someone who has reaped rather swifter reward. Gundill is the racecourse manager at Pontefract and was behind the marketing initiatives that led to a crowd of 17,000 turning up for the West Yorkshire course's initial foray into the Sunday arena last year. Despite the novelty of Sunday sport wearing off a little this season and attendances going down, Pontefract has gone against the trend and attracted 18,000 this time. Of these, 13,000 paying adults compared with an average attendance of 5,000.

"I have my sympathies with the bookmakers," he said last week. "It will be five or 10 years before we all see the benefits. Sunday racing is an investment for the future.

"I want to attract families. I want children to come to the racecourse and if they spend all their time watching the circus or on the bouncy castle that does not bother me. The racecourse will become a familiar place, an enjoyable place. Otherwise we'll lose a generation to other leisure pursuits."

Palmer expresses similar beliefs: "Going racing on a Sunday as a family is part of a new culture and in the betting shops we're catering for the people who want to have a bet on a Sunday. We just haven't got that message sufficiently widespread yet. You can't change the culture of a nation overnight."

Keeping faith with the Sunday opening of betting shops means hoping for a cultural change that most of the country would find repugnant. It would mean that a large number of men - for let's not pretend that the smartening- up of betting shops has attracted any more than a handful of women through the new see-through doors - would turn their backs on friends and families for another day chasing their cash to and fro across the counter. Even, perhaps especially, hardened punters like to believe they can turn away from punting for at least one day a week.

Instead of suffering the excessive costs of Sunday opening while hoping for this cultural change, perhaps the bookmakers should be pulling the shutters down and lobbying the BHB to make the quality of Sunday racing so modest that the minority that might have wanted to wager would not bother seeking out an illegal bookie.

The big firms could leave the happy families at the tracks to small on- course bookies and the Tote while taking the long-term benefit of new racegoers being introduced to the sport. That is, of course, if the children playing before the distant cries of the bookies, ever take the trouble to find out what all the screaming is about.

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