Turf's losses leave the field to Lottery

Greg Wood on how the freeze has dealt racing a losing ticket
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The Independent Online
If 1995 was the year when racing and bookmakers struggled in the face of competition from the Lottery, 1996 has so far been the year when the turf offered no competition at all. Tracks around the country are slowly returning to a raceable condition, but while the Lottery prepares for its first double rollover draw, the only alternative attraction for the punters' pound yesterday was a meeting on the sand at Lingfield.

Little wonder then that the British Horseracing Board yesterday announced cuts in minimum prize-money values, a move which was inevitable following the Levy Board's recent decision to reduce its funding to racing by more than pounds 3m. The minimum values of Flat races will be reduced by an average of 5.2 per cent, although the owners of jumpers will fare better, with purses remaining at or near their 1995 level.

A blank period in the racing schedule is never welcome, but it is difficult to imagine any time when the recent freeze might have done more damage. Bookmakers estimate an industry-wide loss of turnover of between pounds 90m and pounds 100m, with the loss of all 10 meetings on Boxing Day, for the first time since 1963, a particularly painful blow. Inevitably, this shortfall will eventually find its way to the Levy, too.

These losses, of course, cannot be retrieved. "Come Boxing Day and the few days afterwards, people are crying out for something to do," David Hood, of William Hill, said yesterday. "With no racing to occupy them they'll be straight to the sales, and I expect the high-street shops will have had a minor boom.

"Then there's the Lottery as well. We've done as much as we can to highlight the bad value of the Lottery and I think, generally, punters are aware of that, but at the end of the day if they haven't got racing to enjoy in their leisure time they're going to use their money on the Lottery instead."

Camelot's already vast advertising spend will be supported by huge free publicity in newspapers and on television in the run-up to Saturday's double rollover draw, and Hood is surprised that racing can offer next to nothing in response. "It would seem that all-weather racing isn't being used for its original purpose, which is as a contingency for periods like this. The last two weeks of December don't have any all-weather racing, and it would be better to bring everything back a fortnight so there's something covering the Christmas period."

Racecourses too expect to benefit from the "must get out" factor at Christmas, and many have lost their most valuable fixture of the year. At Chepstow, Rodger Farrant, the clerk of the course, was forced to call off the Welsh National meeting for the second successive season.

Like most tracks, Chepstow was insured against bad weather, but the cheque will cover only their expenses, and not the revenue expected from a bumper crowd. "It's a big financial blow to us," Farrant said. "We'd have hoped for a crowd of up to 12,000 and to take about pounds 150,000, plus all the bits and pieces like betting and catering."

The Welsh National meeting was, somewhat ironically, moved from February to its present Christmas date after it was lost three years running in the late 1970s. Farrant is understandably keen that history should not repeat itself, but he will be renewing the insurance policy just in case.

"The premium this year was considerably higher than last year, and I hesitate to think what it might be next time," he said, before adding, with optimism of which any punter would be proud: "Of course, I don't believe the gods could ever be so unkind to us three years in a row."