Why Sunday racing is thin end of wedge

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UNLESS the House of Lords can demonstrate a firmer grip on reality than their lesser brethren in the Commons, sport is going to be forever saddled with making the most telling contribution towards transforming Sunday into a day fit for heathens.

Since MPs voted 290-189 to support legislation that will throw open the doors of every betting shop in the land on the Sabbath, the outcry voiced against it has been based mainly on religious grounds and on concern for workers in the betting and racing industries. However, you do not have to be religious to appreciate the benefits of a traditional Sunday or to want to see it defended as a day of respite from some of the demands and temptations of the other six days. There are other considerations - like, who the hell wants Sunday betting shops anyway apart from those who will profit from them?

I have the pleasure of numbering among my friends many who are as devoted to the cosy clouds of their local gambling emporia as other men are to their wives. Only one of them was pleased at the prospect of Sunday betting and that was because he works on Saturday and feels deprived. The others had neither clamoured for the change nor have they been turning cartwheels since the Commons vote. They merely reacted with a shrug to the news that they are likely to lose their one day of rest from the beckoning hand.

They know more than most what to expect, and certainly more than those 290 MPs, few of whom would know what a betting shop was about. Be not swayed by talk of a few race meetings a year being transferred to Sunday; there will be dozens of them. And they will not confine their opening hours to the time when our horses will be on duty. There will soon be Sunday morning greyhound racing for the devoted, trotting races will be summoned up from obscure parts of the continent and, praise be, there's already cricket, football and rugby league to bet on.

There will be racing from Ireland and France and, no doubt, from other parts of the world. The sun never sets on the British wager. You can depend that enough bookmaking meals will be made of this piece of legislation to make the miracle of the loaves and fishes appear a minor accomplishment in appetite satisfaction.

The marvel is that a government who deliberately scuppered a Bill for disabled rights should feel justified a few days later in devoting valuable parliamentary time to the dubious cause of betting shop deregulation and that members of all parties should embrace it with such crusading zeal. The disabled should find out what the bookies do to attract such sympathy.

At least when the Thatcher government attempted to push a similar Bill through seven years ago they had a more tangible reason, unworthy as it was. Their determination to bring in Sunday shopping had met with so little success they seized upon the Sunday racing lobby as an opportunity to get around the opposition. If they could get the betting shops open, there would be a good case for opening everything from knocking-shops to haberdashers.

The ploy failed miserably. These days, of course, the Saturdaysation of Sunday has progressed to the extent that big stores and supermarkets are now permitted to open for up to six hours. With the government in a mood to deregulate everything in sight, the Sunday racing lobby revitalised their efforts. But they must have been surprised by the ease of their victory and I suspect that Labour members, led by the redoubtable Robin Cook, fought for the Bill under the misguided impression that they were striking a blow for the lower orders whom they purport to represent. They seemed particularly concerned that racing was being discriminated against as the only sport not to be allowed on Sunday.

This was one of several bits of nonsense being peddled in the House that day. Horse racing has been just as free as any other sport to stage events on Sunday. Indeed, the Jockey Club experimented with meetings at Doncaster and Cheltenham in 1992 and at Lingfield last year. All were well-

attended and successful, and there wasn't a bookie around, unless he was at the end of a telephone line.

There you are, said the racing fraternity, that proves what would happen if we only had racing with betting. It proved the very opposite - that people will turn out for Sunday racing without betting. Perhaps they appreciated not having the fag of queuing for the Tote or wandering along the bookies looking for a decent price.

But even if we allowed those who attended the racecourse to be able to bet, the supporters of Sunday racing would have none of it. Robin Cook actually said that his preference was for on-course betting to be allowed 'without necessarily allowing off-course betting'. Then he trotted out the biggest nonsense of all - that this would encourage illegal off-course betting. The idea that there are bandit bookies waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting punter is so ridiculous as to be laughable.

Then was expressed the sentiment that Sunday racing would benefit the family. Alas, for every family picnicking amid the buttercups at Goodwood, there would be at least 10 waiting for the breadwinner - or in most cases the breadloser - to come home from the betting shop.

Perhaps the most pathetic argument of all was that if you were able to buy a lottery ticket on a Sunday you should be able to bet on a horse? You can't imagine a man calling to his wife: 'I'm just popping out to buy a lottery ticket, luv,' and coming back three hours later, skint.

I am a fan of horse racing. I am a keen, if not reckless, betting man on all forms of sport. No doubt, if betting shops are allowed to open on a Sunday, I shall find myself part of the congregation. Like all weak people, I shall resent its invasion and the way it subjects the gullible to a sequence of betting opportunites that will have nothing to do with the beauties of horse racing on whose back it would have arrived.

It is not too late. Their Lordships may well apply the wisdom of their calling and reject the Bill. Regardless of what happens to racing, the opening of betting shops will leave nothing about Sunday that is sacred.

AS a former editor of the Millwall FC programme and a one-time devotee of Harry Cripps, my view on what happened at the New Den the other evening may be suspect. But it is surely obvious that the way not to fight the remnants of hooliganism in football is to punish the clubs who have the misfortune to be most prone to the attentions of local thuggery.

Millwall are one of the first to have what was thought to be the panacea of an all-seated stadium. But, as I warned, you can lead a fan to a seat but you can't make him sit, and Wednesday's trouble began with fans who wouldn't sit down. When they were standing, it was easier to contain them.

The idea that punishing clubs makes the wrong-doing fans feel chastened will get the game nowhere. Clubs with supporter problems should get protective assistance from the FA. Scrapping the inflammable play-offs would be a start. The race for promotion should be either a marathon or a sprint - it can't be both.