30 December 2001

Brough Scott says a rift between the BHB and bookmakers could have serious implications for the industry

By Derby Day racing will have taken a reality check and this time it will not be anything to do with this year’s three-year-olds and the little matter of a mile and a half round Epsom. Racing will know what it’s worth.

From May 1 bookmakers will have to pay the British Horse Racing Board 2.5 per cent of turnover to show pictures and use data from the 49 principal racetracks in the country. At last, there will be a direct business link between betting and racing as opposed to the perennially fractious Levy Scheme, where a government board agreed a compromise deal between what racing wants and what bookmakers are prepared to pay, ending up with racing getting far less from betting than any other major player. By the time the Derby is run on June 8 we will know the sort of money coming through.

Or will we? At this turn of the year the racing and betting industries are into a giant game of poker with neither of them wanting to blink. The BHB are adamant bookmakers, turning over some £4 billion, can afford to pay the 2.5 per cent, especially as the Government recently conceded tax-free betting to punters to counter the “leakage” to bookmakers setting up in Gibraltar and other off-shore locations. The main bookmakers organisations adamantly say the charges are too high and they will not pay. Both sides have felled whole forests to provide the reams of paper and statistics to support their case.

Nothing new about such big business poker games. After all the name calling (and in this case an appeal by bookmakers to the Office of Fair Trading), a deal is done, and both sides then join in promoting the activity which unites them. But recently a new edge has come into the rhetoric. The end game is that the BHB would like life without bookmakers, and that the betting business is prepared to exist without the BHB. And it has got further than talk.

The BHB, with the new £304 million TV deal which their 49 associate courses have agreed with the Channel 4/Sky/Arena Attheraces consortium, believe the 8,000 betting shops will quickly go bust without the pictures and the future is not with the shops but with interactive TV. Bookmakers claim they already make 55 per cent of their profits on other things than British horse racing and they have 10 minor British tracks signed up which, with other live racing from Ireland and South Africa, excluding greyhound racing and numbers betting, can more than keep them in business.

It is a very dangerous stage. At risk is the whole status of British horse racing in the sports arena. With continuing Channel 4 and BBC contracts guaranteeing network coverage, its place on TV is guaranteed in the short term, but the same cannot be said for newspapers. The fact the utterly phenomenal Tony McCoy could not even make the final six in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year poll tells us something brutal. The reality is racing needs all the friends it can get.

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