Robin Oakley

The turf | 28 September 2017

The moral crusaders have gambling in their sights but if FOBTs go, racing’s income stream will shrink

The turf | 28 September 2017
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Racing is an expensive sport to stage. Courses and grandstands have to be maintained, health and safety regulations have to be observed. Human and horse ambulances have to be provided, turnstiles have to be manned and, to maintain the ‘integrity’ of a much gambled-on sport, stables have to be guarded, and photo-finish and race-patrol cameras have to be provided. Recognising this, as they sought to clean up gambling laws in the 1960s, our politicians introduced a rare example of ring-fenced taxation: they sanctioned a levy system on bookmakers to make them responsible for producing a significant contribution to racing’s costs.

By 1978 the Gambling Commission was complaining that racing had become ‘addicted to subsidy’. Both sides disliked the system, but nobody could find anything better. Bookmakers complained that they were being forced to prop up a sport with an ineffective business model. Racing’s administrators moaned that the sums emerging from the annual round of haggling were neither sufficient nor predictable, particularly when the bookies starting taking their online gambling business offshore to evade the levy. With the levy now morphing into a ‘racing right’ to funds derived from that offshore business, there should be greater predictability, but racing is not just run to provide our sport.

Thanks to its dependence on gambling income, it is also run to boost betting. One of several drawbacks in that is the potential loss of quality: the bookmakers want as many race meetings as possible to keep the business churning through their betting shops, and as many races as possible with the eight-runner minimum fields that encourage each-way betting for a 1-2-3 place as well as a win. The sport’s aficionados will happily watch a quality race between four, five or six exclusively bred and expensively purchased Classic-race aspirants; the bookies would rather have a dozen low-grade handicappers kicking sand in each others’ faces round an all-weather track. Even as an enthusiast I find it impossible to keep up with the sheer volume of racing, and much of it is sheer dross.

There are other penalties associated with the sport’s dependence on gambling. The media currently resembles the Hollywood leading lady of whom it was once written: ‘She was beside herself… her favourite position.’ Compared with the current portrayal of betting shops and their fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), William Hogarth’s snarling Gin Lane caricatures are a model of benignity. The moral crusaders have gambling in their sights and FOBTs, which currently allow maximum stakes of up to £100, have become the sharpest focus of their outrage.

No rational racing fan would fail to acknowledge that gambling addictions sometimes afflict those least able to afford a loss, but racing’s problem is that FOBTs, also used appropriately by thousands of small-stakes punters for an occasional flutter, have become a mainstay of high-street betting shops. If a government desperate for diversions decides to heed the baying social-media mob, and wrecks the FOBT business with new restrictions, then high-street betting shops will close, jobs will be lost and racing’s income stream will shrink. Racing’s administrators know well the sound of the bookmaking industry crying wolf, but senior and sober folk are taking this threat seriously.

Thank God, then, for racing days like Newbury last Saturday. By this time of year I am yearning to get back to the National Hunt horses, jumpers we have come to know over the years, fighting it out tenaciously over obstacles. But there is an exhilaration, too, in sheer speed, and in the Dubai International Airport World Trophy Stakes Take Cover burst from the stalls like one of Kim Jong-Un’s better-class rockets, shot across to grab the running rail and then lowered his head in determination as Cotai Glory and Muthmir tried to get past him.

We often moan about top-class Flat horses retiring at three or four, and sprinting should be a youngster’s game: the remarkable thing about Take Cover’s success in this Group Three race, after two Listed wins this season, was that at the advanced age of ten he is better than ever, a tribute to his young trainer David Griffiths, who noted: ‘He doesn’t lie down when they come at him. He would go through a brick wall for you.’

There was a reminder, too, of the bright young faces coming through in the training ranks when George Scott’s James Garfield won the Group Two Dubai Duty Free Mill Reef Stakes by just three quarters of a length from James Tate’s Invincible Army. Married just a week before to owner Bill Gredley’s daughter Polly, Scott was winning his first Group race, a feat achieved earlier this season by James Tate when Invincible Army, who was somewhat knocked about in the Newbury race, won Sandown’s Sirenia Stakes. James Garfield and Invincible Army look like two horses to have on your side next season and the same goes for the two advancing young Newmarket trainers.