Vultures put to flight by Sunday trippers

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The Independent Online
T here are lies, damned lies and the things bookmakers say when they want to get their own way. Items at present on their agenda are a reduction in betting tax, moans about the incursions the National Lottery is making into their profits, and yet more criticisms of the Sunday racing programme for apparently failing to fill their betting shops to overflowing.

This takes place against the background of the purchase by Corals of the Arthur Prince chain of 114 shops, not exactly a doom-laden gesture in the circumstances. The question of a reduction in betting tax will be decided by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, next month, but even if the bookies' lobbying proves successful, they have already stated that the full reduction would not necessarily be passed on to punters. And now they are even more at odds with the British Horseracing Board, trying to get it to alter next year's Sunday racing fixtures despite the fact that they have already been agreed and published.

When you stand in a dark, cool corner and remind yourself that the bookmakers exist only thanks to the money we donate to them on a regular basis, all this begins to look like another gross example of the tail wagging the horse.

Britain had the chance to fund racing properly when off-course betting was legalised in 1961. It's an old complaint, and a futile one, but had the Tote been established as the sole provider for that market, more of racing's profits would have stayed in the game. But the free-marketeers of their day won that argument, allowing bookmakers effectively to control racing's finances via the levy on their declared profits. So it seems particularly ironic that, having enjoyed the fruits of their last 34 years' trading, the bookies are now complaining about the betting market being too free.

It is time for them to stop whining and be constructive. Ladbrokes have initiated a new "win and show" bet which pays out if your selection finishes second - it's no big deal, but it is at least a response to the lure of the Lottery. If they all agreed to install Tote Direct terminals in their shops - at the moment only Corals do so - we might be closer to turning the Tote jackpot into the super bet which seizes the public's imagination.

To be fair, they are impeded here by the presence of Lord Wyatt of Weeford as Tote chairman, unfortunately one of the few men not to have been sacked by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard. Wyatt's capricious interference, frequently assigning the Tote Jackpot to a course not being covered by television, is not just an insult to the Tote's members but also a hindrance to its financial development. The BHB's takeover of the organisation, about to be delayed again, cannot come soon enough.

Which leaves us with the contrasting experiences of Sunday racing - the race-going public appears to love it. Last Sunday's two jump meetings drew more than 9,000 to Wetherby and over 7,000 to Wincanton. I was at the Somerset course, which was blessed with a ravishing autumn day. Regulars and whole families alike turned up to see the various trade stalls, the two bands playing, the amusement park and a display of eagles and vultures.

But the other birds of prey, the bookies, hated it - "Not enough people in the shops". And the Tote decided not to run the jackpot at either course - "Not enough horses running". But if they are not careful these curmudgeons are going to create the very monsters they fear most - people who watch racing without having a bet.

B Y TUESDAY we should know where the new Nat- ional Stadium will be located. A committee of the great and the good is deliberating over the weekend to assess the submissions of five cities - London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Sheffield - for a 21st- century stadium, suitable for national football and athletics events. It should also be seen as the potential centrepiece for Britain's putative bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008, a consideration which seems to sway things in favour of London's plans for a dramatic rebuilding of Wembley Stadium - though this would not be the case if the International Olympic Committee took the bold and humane decision to give those games to the city of Sarajevo as a declaration of peace and reconstruction.

Nothing I write can possibly influence the outcome, but I do hope the decision-makers make a bold effort to seize the future. I have always been partial to the idea of a San Siro of the north because it seems that is where our greatest passion for sports exists. But I can also see that Birmingham, with a greenfield site and good road and rail connections, and its deep-rooted links with athletics, has a strong case.

What can't be countenanced is the case for Wembley. It has terrific historical associations but they are to do with a century that is dying. So yes, keep it going for the Cup final and rock concerts, but let us give other parts of the nation a chance to share in our sporting heritage. If the pounds 100m from the Lottery fund does go Wembley's way it will only increase the suspicion - after grants to the Royal Opera House, Sadler's Wells and the Globe Theatre - that London's Earning.

T he confirmation earlier this week that the marriage of Nick Faldo to his second wife Gill is officially over - an alleged pounds 7.5m settlement provided the rubber stamp - reminds us of the price the families of sports stars often pay for our pleasure. Golf, one of the most consuming activities in terms of time and travel, has had its share of casualties over recent years, with Sandy Lyle, John Daly and the infelicitously named Fred Couples all shedding their marital partners.

Over the next year we can surely expect more break-ups as a newly enriched rugby union and an over-extended cricket circus make more demands on the time and attention of their competitors. And there will always be the usual quota of Premiership players featured on the front page of the News of the World for playing away when the kick-off was at home.

So why is it that these razor-sharp cookies in the sport management companies who handle everything including pensions, investments and endorsement deals for their clients cannot summon a touch of the Claire Rayners to advise them on their emotional rather than their economic status? Is it because they are all men, or is it because they are too interested in keeping the money rolling in to suggest that their high-profile stars should, just occasionally, spend more time with their families?

One sure-fire way for the rest of us to hit the marital buffers becomes available a week tomorrow - a satellite service showing all the horse races of the day live in your living-room, complete with early morning previews and betting updates. At just pounds 19.99 a month the service is a tiny fraction of the Faldo settlement and involves no lawyers or guidance counsellors. Subscribe now, say to your loved one, "I'll take lunch on a tray, pet, but hold all calls till after the 4.30 at Fontwell," and your quickie divorce is done and dusted.