THERE IS ONLY ONE DERBY

The Derby   Who could not enjoy the Derby? An iconic race on an unusual twisting track where the field drops into the straight and race downhill past rows of London buses. It’s one of the great British events. One of my favourite meetings of the year. buses On the eve of the Oaks, I was at Epsom to film a small fun segment for Channel 4. Hundreds of workers buzzing around, having meetings, preparing.  Epsom, whilst it is a great track, disappointingly only produces one meeting of merit a year. That’s not a comment meant to impugn Jockey Club. I think the reason being the unusual nature of the track makes running more premium events there difficult. I think that’s a shame. It also argues the importance to the track of a financially successful Derby.

Jockey Club Racecourses have a talent for organising large festivals. I’ve been behind the scenes on many occasions. It’s impressive. I don’t believe people realise how much is involved turning a racetrack that’s done nothing for months into such a showcase for the sport. Chairs, bands, bunting, car parking, food and drink. The organisation performs the same feat at Aintree for the National, Newmarket for the Guineas, Sandown for the Eclipse and of course Cheltenham, to name but a few. They know what they’re doing here. And I love every one of the aforementioned. I don’t want to suggest otherwise.

JCR are, of course, the commercial arm of the once rulers of British Racing. They have a debt book to manage and of course it is vital to turn as many events as possible to profit. That’s business. One of their most successful tracks commercially is Kempton, tumbleweed blows about the place and never strikes an ankle. A product engineered for the shops.  Little wonder Newcastle looks on with envy. The turf tracks such as Epsom and Sandown can struggle if their numbers dip

 

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The Derby, arguably, is the second biggest draw in British Racing. For the last century (at least) its traditional slot was the first Wednesday in June. This was changed to arguably more lucrative slot on a Saturday. I have a big problem with this. I fully recognise the commercial importance of the event to Epsom and I also understand the stance adopted by the BHA in favour of large betting concerns in supporting so many race meets on a Saturday and more generally. I have been at odds with them on this subject because I do not accept the Sport itself benefits from this arrangement, nor the volume of racing, as advocated by Ralph Topping or Andy Hornby. They are running the sport to their gain and our ruin. If it was the case our beloved racing was ‘furthered’ by so many meetings on a Saturday (8 of whom competed with Epsom) – we would surely witness LBO’s about the country pushing racing in their shop windows. However the opposite is most certainly true. Shop windows are dominated with banners pushing the machines racing has no financial interest in. Shoving FOBT’s down our throats with warnings about ‘responsible gambling’ – You couldn’t make it up. BlcYya1CMAArtbN

 

Mr Topping, shortly to retire from William Hill I’m glad to observe, led the pack of casino operators with an offer of 5/2 Australia to win the great race. After the flop of True Story in the Dante, William Hill were 4/6. £1 wagered netted £2.50 on the day of the race, yet would have won just 67p in profit the month before – a mere 32% drop in margin. Had Australia had one of his legs amputated I think the move would have been a fair one.Most business models would collapse at 5% drop in margin. Its a decision based on trying to suck customers away from rival firms  – and driving them to other products. It’s a Levy wrecking exercise because it drives the whole industry to offering an odds-on chance at 11/8 by the start time, an industry 18% worse off thanks to William Hill. Roulette wins- Racing loses. Yet they claim to be supporting the Sport? Tell me how is Racing advantaged?

In shops more famous for restrictions on Racing and Greyhounds, the margin in betting terms  on racing has collapsed, and let’s be clear on this – this is nobody’s fault but the Bookmakers. It’s a world dominated by pennies on exchanges and casino firms warring on market share. And it’s the latter that provides more liquidity, and therefore more price impetus. I’m suggesting alliances with such organisations are a waste of time if all they do is run the finances of the product to suit their own ends.

I don’t blame Paul Bittar for seeking a more convivial level with these firms. But I believe he has to recognise the realities in such a relationship. British Racing is a standalone product. The sport has become the conduit, the vital fodder such betting companies require to camouflage the presence of LBO’s proliferating our High Streets, as well as provide the background noise. There’s little chance of a fruit machine empire being granted free licensing by a worried government, but one that claims to be based on Horse Racing? Well that’s just British. At least it’s a British lie. Any potential profits from the Derby clearly sacrificed at the altar of market share. Should you care? Well for as long as betting profit funds the sport then the answer is yes. It happens at every festival, with rivals outdoing each other in offers so attractive they’re bound to be loss making. I’ll be glad when Ralph leaves, the firm might return to Bookmaking. I appreciate my view won’t be shared by Betfair, who have eaten King Ralph’s lunch for years..

The big story on the morning of the Derby – and the following morning, wasn’t Australia and his thrilling performance. The headlines were an England friendly. A French Open final won by a fox with nice legs. The Derby festival has competed in the past for critical airtime and exposure with England World Cup qualifying games and matches against Brazil. football

 

The same is true abroad, with their own sporting events in direct opposition to The Derby. Overseas markets are crucial to the success of British Racing’s commercial arm in selling Para Mutuel tickets and sponsorship. Our Sport also managed shoot itself in the foot by adding 8 other race meetings to the mix.  It’s all quantity. I hate using the term madness to such thinking, so I will use a different and less evocative term. Is JCR the only culprit in such activities? Absolutely not. York’s fabulous Ebor, Goodwood’s Stewards Cup. A couple of examples of races that are losing their identity.

I hear Channel 4’s Epsom figures as down 25%. That’s a very significant drop. Some would argue the format of the show as wrong. I’m no expert in television. I do, however, believe the network cannot be advantaged by forcing it to transmit in competition to so many other major sporting events, as well as air our sport in a more lucrative spot than Wednesday. I do believe Channel 4 should be beating on the door of British Racing to demand a better product to transmit.

Are such heritage events totally under the control of our racetracks as to when they are put on, or does the ruling body have to approve the change? I suspect the BHA has some control over such matters and if so I believe it’s time to resist further calls from tracks to move events to Saturdays where attendances gain, whilst the Sport unquestionably loses. I would go further. I think it’s time the sport restricted payments of Media and Levy to any more than two Premier Race Meetings on each Saturday. Broadly this means events such as the July Cup – would not be funded in opposition to Newbury and Chester’s big meetings on the same day. Is this so radical? Not really. Is it easily done in a BHA board with such a hefty racetrack bias? Ehm, er, well..

It’s time for a complete re-think on how we further the Sport both commercially, as in sales of TV rights and Betting abroad, and in its profile. Paralleled with providing improved midweek racing, to encourage traffic into our betting shops. We need to spread out the jewels – not compete for air time, coverage, newspaper space as well as for Betting by hosting The Derby on the same day as England vs Honduras. And yes, I’ll say it, less racing to deal with the issue of small fields. I don’t think people fully understand the negative impact on the sport when five runners set out to post.

And if you’re sitting there thinking the Oikball can’t compete with our Derby because we’re so fabulous? Bear in mind 1.5 Million watched Australia’s romp, and 7.5 Million watched the brainless ones flop about the field in a friendly. Let us not also forget sponsorship for the Derby was only recently saved by Investec who came in at the eleventh hour two years ago and doubtless saved themselves a few quid. Would a Wednesday Derby have been in the same boat for sponsors? Such investments prosper from sporting events from exclusive coverage and exposure.

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It’s time to stand up to the racetracks on this subject – and force these iconic sporting events to be moved back to their original midweek slots for a host of good reasons, contra their natural desire to profit more from a Saturday.  At the end of the day ‘ownership’ of the top races in the calendar carries a responsibility to produce more than numbers through the turnstile – although I doubt the Derby’s Saturday figures are that much better than when it was hosted on a Wednesday. I recall queues of traffic for the Derby. Last Saturday I breezed in. The race has certainly lost some of its mojo.

We should enthusiastically place Premier race events midweek with a rights and levy structure which encourages movement off of weekends. Why do we permit Chester, York, Ascot and Goodwood on one day and Leicester, Ffos Las, Windsor and Ripon on another? What are our expectations here? Would you walk into a store if the quality varied so much from one day to the next? Why was Newmarket for example permitted to move its July Cup from an unchallenged slot – to one where it competes and denigrated other fixtures, as is the case on ‘Super Saturday?’

Broadening the appeal of Racing involves dealing with the huge holes in the fixture programme left by top tracks abandoning midweek posts in favour of more lucrative weekend slot. Our winter and the great sport of National Hunt is dying on its feet, if you hadn’t noticed, with the smallest fields on record and a movement toward Cheltenham for the top horses which leaves months of high class, well-funded racing either subject to small ‘match’ races or worse simply won by lesser horses. Such issues are partly driven by a lack of control over racetracks and structures that permit horses to laze about in their boxes instead of being forced to compete in a qualifying number of races each season. We need tighter controls if we are committed to a quality product.

There’s only one Derby

 

Geoff Banks

June 2014

How Good was Friday?

I don’t agree with the whole Good Friday thing. Forcing folk to work on what has traditionally been accepted as a major holiday, one of only 4 days in the calendar free of Racing. Is it fair they get paid their normal rate for giving up crucial times with their families. And for those of you who’ve seen fit to blow off to me such arguments as ‘lieu time’ or ‘religion isn’t such an issue any more’ – I doubt any of you were mandated to work. If you did, I expect it was by choice. Just because your moral standards run to the commercial and nothing else but, hardly argues it right.

And that’s what the decision was. Commercial. Two of Racing’s major stakeholders railroaded the decision via a typically pliant BHA. The same organisation could hardly refuse such a call, having placed itself firmly in support of FOBTs. Nor was it ever likely to refuse Arena Racing and its promises, despite 8 of that organisation’s tracks resting at the foot of the table for prize money in the sport. Often paying as low as £1940, from media rights and Levy, that typically pay more than £7000 per race. We were promised guarantees by Paul Bittar before the decision was made, on prize monies, and on future funding for Good Friday. Have the BHA delivered on that undertaking? I think everyone’s forgotten that promise.

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Arena did promise to put on a million pound event. And that’s exactly what they delivered upon. The Bookies were supposed to foot the lions share of the bill. It didn’t happen, with William Hill, Betfred and Bet365, declining sponsorship. Arena therefore took up the prize fund slack. From where did they derivate such a pot? From what they didn’t pay elsewhere perhaps? Check out this table from last year – and the 8 tracks at the bottom.

http://www.racehorseowners.net/en/owners-resources/prize-money-statistics/racecourse-league-table-flat.cfm

I tire of proliferation of all weather racing which for the most part draws crowds so low – typically a few hundred paying customers, and plays to empty betting shops. Precisely what the shop staff are saying, in contradiction to the PR spin. As you and I know, they’re referring to the racing. Machines run themselves, plug and play. Race planning for five year olds, which has Southwell for example, appearing on a gorgeous spring day in opposition to 4 turf meetings, including majors Newmarket and Cheltenham. Who dreams up such fixture clashes and keeps their job? The holy grail of media rights has our tracks falling over themselves to produce rubbish. Neither penalises nor incentivises them for producing proper fields or competitive fare. In short – they’ve become lazy.Racetracks derive income between 30% of a large track to 70% in the smaller venues from Betting. Speaking as a Bookmaker, I’m not comfortable with handing over my fees if tracks continue in so many fixtures to fail to deliver on quality. That’s not accountability. We shouldn’t be handing over our money to racetracks to put on 4 runner races, No Sir – No Way.

In the meantime we’re boring the living daylights out of our fans. Have we forgotten we’re a sport? That we’re supposed to entertain and not drive custom to Football? Is anyone out there listening to the punters? It appears not.

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Of course to have an initiative for a series of races leading up to a championship day should be applauded. Would I consider the day a success? Yes, I would, but then I always knew I’d do well and people would come. And I think if well intentioned by Arena, it’s a very positive step towards a better class of programme. Too much of which is poor beyond belief, and riddled with highly questionable behaviour. A subject I’ve covered. Let’s not put our customers off by tacit acceptance of breaking of the rules of the sport.

What would like to see? An insistence on clear undertakings from ARC on prize money for the race series, and a guaranteed underpin for the finale, even if it wasn’t a million.An agreement to fund the rest of their programme more equably than at present. The group are found at the bottom end of returns. I would have a cap on the number of meetings ongoing for Good Friday at two. What came out of Friday most evidently, was that the lesser funded fixture drew a significantly ordinary crowd, despite the holiday period involved. We don’t need a bank holiday style Friday with 9 meetings.

Good Friday at Lingfield

 

Between Cheltenham’s outstanding festival and Aintree, Racing typically consisted of 75% all weather fare, and low field rubbish to boot. Fans don’t want this, the press won’t publish our cards, and we do not need to spend fortunes with Deloitte to establish the obvious. Newcastle, Catterick and Great Leighs want to turn to the lucrative surface, and that should be rigourously opposed. We hear Betfred keen to race Great Leighs once fixtures are assigned, on Christmas Eve. If the same arguments hold sway with the BHA as per Good Friday, are we now to see Christmas to be sacrificed to the altar of media rights?

Has Good Friday become ordinary Friday? Is this yet another weekend of Racing, Friday through Monday? Why in fact with most of the country on a four day break, do we need the fourth to provide yet anther day’s racing. Has it really grabbed the wider attention of the general racing public? I seriously doubt that.

A major positive from ATR, whose coverage was both lively and enthusiastic. Clearly it was a big day not both for the network, but its stakeholders Arena also. I felt sorry for Chapman trying to interview a sour faced Ryan Moore after Grandeur’s victory. Evidently Popeye dared to criticise Moore for a ride in the past, a huge no-no for reporters. The same attitude evidenced in a similar interview at the Breeders Cup. Get over yourself Ryan, you’ve become an insufferable bore, talent notwithstanding. Your business is to entertain, or have you learnt nothing from Dettori?

In bookmaking terms? More interest and turnover. It was profitable, despite three bankers obliging. Broadly the more competitive it is, the wider spread of bets I take.  It wasn’t a burster, more like a quiet Saturday in volume terms. Money for the Levy? Yes. But would we have taken the same money had the meeting taken place on the Saturday, or even the Sunday? Yes. But the machine take would have suffered. For Arena – a breakthrough event with a major bank holiday now opened up. Clever boys. I’ve never said racetracks weren’t smart. They do, however lack a cohesive plan to deliver on a sport of the highest quality possible, it’s all too disparate. I want – I get.

Yes there were 9000 there, and that’s a success, even if driven by two for one deals – entrance to the Premiere at £11. Somewhat less than Musselborough’s £20. Racing was competitive, prize money was excellent, exactly what we’ve been asking for.  Surely though we cannot strip the programme elsewhere to produce such events, to base a whole industry on festivals and Saturdays. The all weather typically delivers but a few hundred paying customers for most of its fixtures. There simply isn’t the appetite for the product, and I struggle to understand why it requires more fixtures. Of course we cannot have super competitive racing every day, but we certainly can deliver on a better product and field sizes if we do not spend our time bending the knee to Coral Racing – and their calls for racing every ten minutes from midday to 9.30pm, to feed their little empire. And we do not need the all weather in opposition to major meetings. Truly pointless – and never the intention at the outset of sand.

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One final point reserved for one of our finest tracks on Good Friday. Musselborough is a smart little venue, but managed just 2800 on Good Friday, despite location next to the major city of Edinburgh. That’s a very poor return. Before we all run around slapping ourselves on the back and adding another two tracks to the melting pot next year, bear this in mind – if the racing isn’t competitive, full field and decent prize money, then the people won’t come in any force. I’ve seen plenty of enthusiasm for the event from reporters, and I can respect that, however I wait to evidence the general public outside Surrey’s green belt embracing the day,and if the same public has an appetite for four days of it in a row over Easter

Without the million pound event, it becomes just another Sunday. For how long will Arena support what the Bookies won’t put in?  Is this a sea change in our thinking- a commitment to quality over quantity. Because if that’s the case- sign me up, although I struggle to see the need to race on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and so forth.

For the healthy future of the sport, we have to commit to quality and lose some tracks, horses, Bookies and reduce the programme. Not substantially, but at least to redress the current drive away from quality. I’m not asking for a draconian cut. 150 fixtures – 2 meetings a week. We can deliver that, and harvest a better return. I do not accept we have to fund bad horses in poor field events, to keep a small band of owners standing in an empty paddock holding a fruit bowl and a betting ticket. I’m part of a syndicate – and I enjoy my ownbership. I do not have to invest hundreds of thousands to enjoy the sport. My syndicate uses top trainers, Hannon, Haggis, Charlton, Hobbs and the like. The horses run at Newmarket, Ascot and York. The argument small time owners cannot enjoy the sport if Wolverhampton fell into a giant hole in the ground has no merit. Let the ground subside.

We do not all have to live our lives from the gospel as according to Coral Racing. Nor do we have to hope their machines do well. If a few shops and a few tracks close down, that’s simply natural selection, and we don’t need to wail at their loss. Corals influence over this great game has become unhealthy and not in the best interests of Racing. To my mind, their influence is driving the sport very much to the dogs.

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http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2013/jan/22/lingfield-all-weather-meetings

 

 

The 2014 Cheltenham Festival – With apologies to no one

Two things I absolutely cannot abide, – gloaters and past posters. Me? I truly fancied Lord Windermere and Very Wood  – I just couldn’t get on. Never mind though, I won an awful lot of money on Friday, you’ll be thrilled I know. Can’t wait for the girl at the Bank to ask me where I found it, like they always do. Love a bit of amateur detective do the Banks. Taking a break from fixing the Libor rate I guess (Go on then, make my day, sue me!).  ‘just closed a big arms deal’ my normal response always gets a laugh from the people in the queue as they crane their necks to find out what I’m doing. Typically the tellers look a little nonplussed, moaning that the heads aren’t pointing the right way whilst people tut and nod.

Was this an outstanding Cheltenham? Well, I suppose it was in many ways. I’m not going to blow sunshine up JCR’s backsides, because their cheques stopped arriving. However, they do seem to have a clue about putting on a classy event well and not over charging. I don’t see £35 in advance as draconian for such an event. Of course, there will be a few cheapskates who think they should charge a tenner. (Could stand on Cleve Hill for free?)

There are a few gremlins, like a big screen in the Centaur that keeps breaking down and clears the place quicker than a fire alarm. Or the catering mob that doesn’t appreciate the Champagne bars are full of nobs- and they don’t do plastic at £83 a bottle. Minor gripes aside, it’s an extremely well ordered event. Take for example the race starters, I don’t think anyone could fault the skill involved in wearing a trilby like that in the wind, whilst despatching 20 runners off, when someone’s always trying to jump the gun. Professional gripers moan there’s too many races, and – or  people there, which is an odd complaint. Could always go to Kempton of an evening if it’s space you crave, and tumbleweed you like to see through the betting ring

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What’s it like being a Bookie? I know you lot think it’s a doss, we turn up and win, but the reality is considerably tougher. Sure, Cheltenham is riddled with Bookies – that’s what the people come to engage with in the main. Midweek Racing, however, is dying a death. Crowds are very sparse and by extension so are the Books. Personally I haven’t attended a midweek event other than Ascot, which is but a mile away. If I can’t turn over a minimum of £1000 a race, it’s not worth me standing, and it’s down to £300 midweek at some events. You see people expect me to lay them a fair bet, and compete with firms following exchanges to £20’s. It’s a recipe for failure. If I opened my shoulders as a layer at most of these events, there’s no amount I could and would lose. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, I’m just trying to put you in the picture. http://www.justgiving.com/racetrackbookie.org.mugs

It’s true a lot of people bet on their phones, and it may also be the case that the new signals will make that easier. What’s the outlook for the track Bookie? In truth it’s poor. It isn’t helped by tracks doing deals with remote gambling outfits like Bet365 with free wi-fi for their customers. Before you lambast me for appearing to lag behind the times, let me give you a reality check. Major Bookmakers and Exchanges bettin remotely, ie not at the track, paid Cheltenham to provide free fast internet so people at the track could bet with Gibraltar. The same amount in fee terms as 15 racetrack Bookies. Indeed racecourse Bookmakers contribute to JCR’s coffers in pitch fees alone over £400,000 a day through the Festival. And a lot more if you include their entrances, marketing fees and so forth. Should BetVictor get the same privilege for the same consideration as 15 little Bookies? I’ll let you decide. Were we consulted before the deal was struck, or our fees reduced to compensate us? No. Going forward, I believe tracks ought to consider very carefully the long term implications on Betting for every penny of revenue they seek.

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On the plus side, I’ve always found JCR a thoroughly professional outfit, and I mean not to unfairly single them out. It’s true they have invested a great deal in wifi, and all things have to be paid for, and their profits stay in the sport, which is praise worthy. But if it’s a revenue exercise, then we shouldn’t be paying so much when we’re taking record low monies. JCR were the first to employ a senior manager who’s brief is to look at just such matters, and to understand and engage with us. They were also the first group of tracks brave enough to assist us in standardising the each way terms, in banning pitch linking and renting. These are positive steps, and I’m a fan of their style. In raising the subject, I’m looking for all tracks to involve their Bookmakers in every commercial deal they undertake. If that is, they value their betting rings and the valuable income we both generate and bring in.

Anyway, what’s with these jockeys? You know the ones, the jumping types with the easy life, the show offs – crashing through rails, flying through the air into hedges, diving onto tarmacs, then leaping up declaring ‘I’m fine, just a few broken bones – where’s the horse?’ I mean Jacob tries to walk back to the weighing room, rattling – what’s that about heh? As for Walsh, deliberately rolling under his horse, a party trick for the legally insane. I’m a bit of a horseman myself, I fancy I would have rolled away artistically and waved to the crowd. As for McCoy hobbling around on the telly – he’s just trying to get the odds up. I’m on to your game 🙂  Seriously though, we are rewarded with bravery and commitment of the highest order out there, the last two years ample proof of the value of these pilots.

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I did the morning line on Friday to get the free breakfast, and for those of you who were watching with the sound down, I told you I loved handicaps, I do my own hair, and I was going to rob you senseless that day. Can’t be fairer than that in a Cheltenham, that needs moving to Christmas thanks to the Casinos. I mean my Old Man and Bookies like him turned the place into a hell on earth for punters. What happened to our ruthless streak? Horse Race traders at the big firms must be pulling their hair out at the hefty margin erosion from money back specials, as they follow the orders from clueless Marketing types. In what other industry would we witness such gifts?

Gold Cup day, fortunately, didn’t follow last year’s script, when you all got fat on me, giggling and laughing as you left. In truth, if Stevie Wonder took up Bookmaking – he’d have won on the Friday. The ambulance won twice. The Stewards panel,  backs to the cameras for their big TV appearance on the Gold Cup enquiry, had the Bookies on tenterhooks hoping a 20/1 chance actually won a Gold Cup. Over the next week I’m sure we can look forward to Bookies PR reps, telling us they won 12 billion this week, – in £10 bets. That’s nearly a hundred wagers.

I want to talk to some of you about your dress sense. It’s not just that you get dressed in the dark, it’s that you shop in TK Max with a blindfold on too. I know you’re potless and the thought of buying a pair of strides over £20 fills you with horror, but I say this – if you’re poor, try not to show it. As for the rah rahs in tweed? Haven’t ANY of you realised why it’s always in the sale? One day you’ll notice people prodding each other as you strut past.

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As for the berks wearing the Guinness hats on St Patrick’s Day? Or the equally delightful and tasteful orange scarves the fillies give away for free outside? I wouldn’t have them as cat litter, but that’s just me. You enjoy. People love a freebie

Chump Bookie award of the week goes to Greg Hughes who bets number one on the rails. He’s paid a fortune to bet in the best pick, which should afford him to bet well. Instead he delights by offering exchange odds. Odd business plan. He managed to clear out the top 8 firms below him on Friday, all departing to various corners of the track to escape this particular terrorist. And yet, he would have cleaned up on Friday, doubtless spent the evening telling his Missus ‘mine is de only way.’   To clear up all doubt, every Bookie won, even the daft ones. Good luck Greg.

Ride of the week goes to Rishi Pershad of Channel 4, who trained for months how to cling on to a racehorse – after the saddle has slipped. Rishi won’t be using his balls for anything other than ballast for the next 8 months..

A brief plug for the BHA. Fudging the only contentious issue which could mar the great event – taking a 12% punt on Last Instalment not winning the Gold Cup. That would have made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Thanks also to the punters in the excellent Centaur, many of whom came up to shake my hand and take me on , bet with my lasses, fart and leave. It really is the smelliest place I’ve ever been in. If anyone is going to Japan in the near future can you bring me back those little white face masks they rock around in? We took a little over 2000 bets a day, a little less than usual because The Lord decided he’d give us sunshine and wreck my turnover inside. Thank you God, normally you’re a Bookie aren’t you?

A mention for those same punters for the good spirit in which they handled adversity, and for not a single instance of anyone short-changing us. When you take nearly 10,000 bets that’s something to say for the honesty of folk. Fine, I came off best this year, I’m sure none of you would begrudge me that? (Except the heckler at the back – yes, you!) Remember though, many Bookmakers jumped off the Grandstand last year when 4 favourites obliged on Gold Cup day. As to those of you who came up to me and asked after Faugheen, Sire De Grugy and Balthazar’s King had all won at short odds how much I was winning? I think the slates have definitely fallen off of your roofs.

A mention to my ‘Betting Babes’ – Naomi, Kat, Jenny, and Vicky for their hard work in extracting, with a smile, every penny stitched to each punter, some by force. – I thank them for their hard work. Yes, sex definitely sells – stand and oggle away. At least we don’t look or act like a machine, and you get a real life horse to cheer on. Surely better than 3 lemons.

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Well done to all the ‘lesser’ trainers for their success – deserved for sheer enterprise, especially the Moore’s for their guts in taking on Sprintre. I hope we see more horses going their way, because the practice of cotton wooling and avoidance tactics which has characterised this great sport over the last three months deserves exactly what it got at the Festival. Failure. Short field Arkle’s aren’t my thing.

To all my pals in the gambling commission, – yes the mob who think it’s fair game to back a dead horse in running, now on their annual 11 month break before it gets around to billing dopes like me, I want to give the following assurances on my compliance. Yes, I asked everyone if they were drunk, if they were putting on a bet for anyone else, and if they might be inebriated. I went even further than that though, – I made sure I had a pile of self exclusion forms, so anyone who was doing his cobblers could ‘wave the white flag.’ I’m a good boy.

Yes, Cheltenham is THE Festival – See you next year mugs

Cheltenham – The bee all and end all?

Cheltenham – The Bookies Eye

The National Hunt Festival is the one event in Racing’s calendar which means the same to the Bookie as it does to the Punter. It’s about the gambling, pure and simple. Of course there are a few folk running around in tweed, they can’t wear anywhere but Cheltenham. You know the type, they drift out to watch Sprintre Sacre defeat a field that doesn’t include Simonsig and think it’s splendid. To the real afficianado, fed a diet of odds on chances for months, they couldn’t care less. If it’s not a race they can bet in, it’s a procession.

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I first started working for my Dad at Cheltenham, when I was 16. Taking bets over the rail, as you do when you think you know it all. Too late to take his license off him for that little offence! In those days the main betting ring was rammed with bettors, tic-tac men and Bookies. He refused to price up until a half hour before the first, despite the fact many of his peers had been at it for two hours. He wanted them to tear it up first, before entering the fray to more serious wagers. For an fledgling Bookie, it was a serious buzz. The bets came thick and fast, averaged £50 or more. The Old Man was adjacent to the likes of Colin Webster, Stephen Little, and in his later years the Gentleman likes of David and Willy Power. Wagers to lose ten thousand or more were routine. Unremarkable.

It might surprise you to learn, that whilst he had an opinion, John Banks made little study of form. He built a legend out of being braver than most of those in the ring about him. If something represented ‘value’ to lay, he wasn’t afraid to lay it lumpy. Sometimes stepping back into the market to lay it again, if he felt its contracting price improved his overall lay odds and gut feel. He was more of a gambler than his opponents, challenging them to match his opinion of odds over their convictions and wallets! Hedge bets were never recorded, although he might wager for himself, he never reduced his risk by backing a horse back. And I do mean never.

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Of course, even with his great skill in ‘reading’ the market, he probably wouldn’t have survived the nonsense of modern exchange driven fare. Exchanges are the ultimate number cruncher. There are no false favourites, and everyone is betting to a hundred percent book, and creating tiny margins from backing horses back. A cycle in futility. The ultimate fiddle. He’d have got bored of the flashing boards with the same odds and the weakness of the modern ring a long time ago.

Rails Bookies, in those days, didn’t have LED boards. Prices were off his card. Cardboard tickets sufficed for the punters. Clerks were highly skilled, and disputes were very rare. It was an exciting place to be. So, there I stood, green as the grass, looking into ‘members’ whilst my Father looked into the main ring, where the vast majority of hefty trade action was to be found. I knew precious little, other than what he had schooled me on. Coupled odds, and such. A novice, having a ball, wearing his trilby and stealing his bins. Son of the Father 🙂

So this day, a slightly built Irish fellah appears through the throng at the rail and asks me what price the favourite was. Peering at my card, ‘9/2’ I says.

‘Twenty’ he says.

‘Ninety pounds to twenty’ I call to the clerk, readying the ticket. The man smiles, no antipathy, a pleasant and patient type. ‘No Son, twenty Grand’

‘Oh’ Panicked, I turn to the Old Man, surrounded by a throng of tic-tacs and workmen. ‘Dad, this guy wants 20 grand on !?’

He turns round, smiles, not at me – ‘Hi JP. Yeah you got that.’ JP, doffs and walks on to Webby. The Old Man casts me a baleful look.

An education or what? It got beat – I avoided a bollocking.

You’d expect as a Son, for me to say my Father was a good man, and he was. To many of his customers he was the kind of Bookie they respected. Everyone called him John. They got their bets every time. He never cussed when he lost. These are the facts, and I make no bones in telling you these truths about the man. To me though, in business, he could be brutal in advice. The game was tough. If I was to take over one day, something he was fervently against, I had to learn the hard way. So getting it in the neck was a fairly common occurrence, and he didn’t mind who heard him! It worked though, because I’m still around, and it’s no longer exactly a license to print money.

Cheltenham was more than just a series of races, a betting cauldron. The whole event was a gambling emporium. Nightly poker games supplanted racing. I remember when I was older, had started betting for myself. I found myself less of a genius than when I was sixteen.. We stayed in a hotel in Tewkesbury, and a game of 7 card stud poker was the standard order of business on the Monday before the festival. I remember the characters in the game, fearsome gamblers. Jimmy Caldwell from Scotland, a long time pal of my Father’s. Dudley Roberts, Johnny Lights. A hefty punter who went by the pseudonym of ‘Chinese Dave’. who didn’t last long in the Webster-Little-Power-Banks era.

I declared myself ‘in’. Stuck my £50 ante in and waited on the first hand. 7 of clubs, 3 of diamonds, jack of hearts. What to do? Could hope for three more jacks?

Stack.

Cut a long story short, the first ‘pot’ was six and a half grand. My eyes were like saucers. The Old Man was trying to chase a few away with a pair of 6’s. Sometimes you can bully the pot, but not this mob. Desperadoes. He turns to me and asks if I really want to be in the game. ‘ehm, no’ My bravado only extended so far, and everything I had was for gambling the horses. ‘I’ll have a dollar in the pound with you Dad.’ (25%). I took myself to bed. I was all chat in those days.

Gets up in the morning and as I close the bedroom door, Jimmy Caldwell emerges from an adjacent room, eyes on the shag pile. ‘What happened last night Jimmy, how did Dad do?’

‘I dinnae Ken’ Jimmy says. Odd, he was in the game? He’s got a mark on his shoe methinks.

I head down to the breakfast room. All the suspects are at breakfast, but nobody looks at me. I’m the best looking by miles- what’s the game? I sit down and wait for the Ayatollah to come down.

He walks in, sees me sitting there and grins. Genuine mirth.

‘Obviously you lost, cos nobody will speak to me – what was the damage?’

‘Ten’ he says, still smiling.

‘What? You can’t have lost ten grand??’

‘No,  that’s what YOU lost.’ The rest of the table bursts out laughing. An education. Nobody seemed to care I’d managed to do my tank in whilst asleep in my bed

As a postscript to this tale of pre-Cheltenham tradition, I will, in my defense, say that I learnt my lesson and only took a dime in the pound the following night. (10%)

That cost me 3 grand.

Business at the Festival has dropped off significantly from the days of John Banks. But the impact of the meeting never really diminishes. In years past, when I was sent from the Rails to the nearest Tatts firm, it was a labour of Hercules, the Ring was a crush of punters. Unlike most major racing festivals, it remains the one almost pure betting event, despite racetracks unfortunately appealing more to boozers than bettors. The atmosphere is created by the nature of the course, the size and pace of the fields and because people are there predominately to beat the Bookie. Punters still haven’t worked out things that bolt up at Kempton flop at Cheltenham. I bet in the new Centaur arena. They sell a lot of Guiness in there. People come to bet, fart and leave. I never turn down a bet, I could do without the smell though. The wagers are a lot smaller these days. Of course I’m there for the crack, as are my punters, I’m going to give them some stick if I can and stand every favourite for its nuts. Most punters I find deeply honourable. They press crumpled cash from their pockets, stinking of chip fat, into your hand in a sea of bettors. Some must be tempted to leave you a tenner short, but they don’t. There’s the odd villain in the pack, but I take a rather sympathetic view of such souls. Need to get one over on me for £10? You enjoy yourself. The majority of customers are good natured, they don’t expect to win, but they will enjoy their day out. And I will put the fun into betting along with my betting girlies!

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These days the Festival is a vehicle for high street and internet ‘casino’ operators to poach clients from each other. Outdoing themselves, and their own bottom line, with unsustainable money back offers. Unsustainable that is, if we are only talking about their Racing profits. But of course we’re not. Other products erode Racing’s share of the products to such an extent they’re fully prepared to throw to the wolves what used to be a premium betting week. For firms like my own, leading very much on service and a fair bet at all times, it pressurises the organisation. You can’t ignore their prices and keep your clients happy too. The good news – many customers still prefer service over ‘free bet’ offers. Most of which are a cheap sham. Take for instance one firm who last year offered their first 10000 customers even money Sprinter Sacre for £10. Punters are bamboozled by such deals, forgetting they’re walking round the corner to save themselves 6 quid (if it wins!) – subjected to a lifetime of invasive e- mails and texts. Other firms run FOBT promotions through the week, encouraging their staff to flow customers to their addictive product. Who can blame them with profits of £960 a machine- and 4 to a shop? Fortunately for me, most of my customers want more than a fiver on, and we discount their payments when they lose. That’s cold hard cash. It’s not a here today – gone tomorrow offer. More’s the point, we don’t make our clients feel like they’re literally ‘begging a bet’. Know what I’m talking about?

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I’ve watched, disappointed, as this National Hunt season wilted in a sea of poor fields and avoidance tactics amongst major players. This despite racing taking place pretty much throughout the winter on ground more often than not, good to soft. Three trainers carve up the sport. Ireland’s top man, for example, doing his best to present his leading charge, Hurricane Fly, with an open goal in the Champion Hurdle, likely placing his better horses in other events and feeding us, and presumably his owners, a diet of lame excuses. The likes of Un De Sceaux (who couldn’t take on any other target) the brilliant Annie Power, or Quevega, a mare never allowed to dine at the top table – taking the selling plate every year. Nicky Henderson adopts similar policies, to the detriment of owners, who seem unwilling to challenge his authority. To be fair, Paul Nicholls often opposes his charges, and I feel understands his responsibility to Racing. The Festival last year suffered from small fields in Championship events, 7 in the Arkle, 9 in the Champion, 7 in the Queen Mum, 8 in the Ryanair and only 9 in the Blue Riband event. You know, it really doesn’t matter if Bobs Worth does, or does not end up winning the Gold Cup, – if we don’t see him for months. Somebody will win, and it will always make headlines for the right reasons. Arkle ran 9 times in 1963. He survived.

If you don’t see this situation as unhealthy for the sport, you must gorge on apathy. This situation is wrong. Further, I can’t see it a positive for Racing if we are treated to a daily diet of sycophantic reports or interviews with these trainers. Where are the dogs beating down the doors of the BHA demanding results, rather than sound-bytes? An organisation with a race planning department that year-on-year subjects us to the same races, at the same meetings every year. Blinding stuff. The gravy tastes too good for some Hacks. In fairness – and probably in no small part to folk like me having a go, I’ve seen some great articles from Muscat, Mottershead, and the entire Guardian crew of late. Boyce, Chapman, Yates, Hislop, Cunningham all deserve a positive mention, and whilst Luck strikes some as ‘stiff’ – he remains one of the best anchorman in sport.

Less so for Simon Mapletoft, reporting for ATR, with a thoroughly inept interview with the trainer, John Butler, unloading Stand Guard, who that morning had pronounced Racing ‘crooked’. Did he ask for clarification of his remarks, as any self respecting journalist would? Did he hell. Two minutes later the ‘match at Southwell’ degenerated into another head banging farce.

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Channel 4 pull few punches, despite the carping about its format. I enjoyed an excellent interview with David Walsh discussing the Fenton case and describing Racing as condoning integrity breaches routinely. Credit to the programme for letting the segment run over. What’s wrong with facing the truth? Questioning the authorities?

Less so from the embarrassing Millington, the champion of FOBT’s. ‘what’s the point in re-examining the Zarooni affair?’.  A Racing Post editor who sees the biggest doping case in the history of the sport as something to be tidied away. Yikes.

Back to 1990, I recall Victor Chandler’s men coming down to back a horse with my Father, New Halen, 66/1, in the Midmay Of Flete, last race on day two of three in those days. The bet? £50,000/£750 each way. Total liability £62,500. Chandler was a hefty punter in those days – fighting a long running, if mutually respectful battle with my Father. I remember his expressionless face as it won. Losing the best part of sixty grand in 4 minutes. He talked normally and almost casually in the car on the way back to the hotel. We were now behind at the meeting

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By the fourth race on the Friday, and from a hefty losing position at the meeting, he’d won the fifty grand back, and more. Bolstered particularly by standing what was, in his view, a non stayer – Desert Orchid, in the Gold Cup, for nearly 40 grand, when he was losing 50. The man had balls the size of grapefruits.

My worst moment at the Festival? Whilst by no means the most expensive –fairly light at a £40,000 swing, it was the ‘victory’ of Salsify in the Foxhunters. Beat like a rabbit over the last, and with my rep in my ear telling me we were safe from his challenge, we watched in horror as Jane Mangan’s mount jinked at a tape rail and deposited the exhausted pilot on the deck. I hanged the rep  for opening his mouth too early. It seemed the right thing to do. He’ll get over it.

To a Bookie, – that’s the National Hunt Festival. Buy a ticket. Have a bet.

Barney Curley or Big Bucks?

When the office calls that early, it’s usually bad news! Something overnight, typically a multiple up on NCAA basketball colleges I’ve never heard of. This time was different. A new client just popped up – with a Trixie bet. Three selections covered in doubles and trebles on the All Weather at prices.

Ok, so what?’

ehm, well it’s the system flagging the second wager on the same three selections in the last 4 minutes.’

er, ok, tipping line stuff?’

‘No, – Curley’s mob up to something, all ex Curley.’

That’s how it goes in the world of private client betting. I fancied the same conversation taking place in trading rooms about the land and on the Rock too. All around 10am. Everyone laying the same 4 horses- of which we caught three. The rest is, as they say history. In truth, we lost pennies as a firm on the affair. Far less than a couple of grand. For which for a Bookmaker like me wouldn’t result in the cancellation of the sweet course. Barely an irritant.

Let me dispel some myths. I know there are a lot of people in and outside the betting world who speculate on said matters and would appreciate some insight.

‘The linemakers should have spotted these 4 ex Curley runners and priced them up conservatively’

Well, apart from the obvious, these particular animals barely beat the ambulance home in 47 races prior to CurleyGate, they were also spread over three yards and two codes. If compilers spent their time watching for such activities and pricing up a 6/1 chance at 4/5, just in case, we would be laughed out of court as well as removing huge percentages from our books at a keystroke. That’s to say we would be guessing ‘today is the day’ and accepting no stakes on 15% of the book in this example. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Imagine if Waitrose were to remove 15% from their turnover how long they would survive? That’s of course if they wanted to compete. Since there are well over 50 gambling yards sprinkled about the country, we would be endlessly ‘going with’ runners and accepting an unsupportable loss in turnover and margin. It doesn’t compute. Instead as a community we react to the weight of money. Of course in doing so, we have to accept a seriously unbalanced book we’ve no hope of redressing. In other words stories of 2 million + losses on these horses would, in my view, be on the conservative side.

‘The Bookmakers simply plough the money back on Betfair and sit back and make a profit, whichever the result’

Yes, I know I’ve covered this in previous reports, but on the basis we have a few trolls out there who think the kind of liabilities proper layers build up could ever be traded on Betfair, allow me to invite you to view the average liquidity- the biggest exchange at around 11am daily.

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It’s not going to cover it, is it? You see the ‘layers’ on Betfair for morning price activity have all but dried up over the years, they’ve basically done their brains laying live horses and struggling to lay the non triers. (Yes folks, there are non triers.) The trading Bots don’t start spinning until liquidity comes on board.

‘These horses all had the form to win such races, with such as Eye Of The Tiger having won a Group 2, rated 112, and now running in a class 6 maiden off 56’

This is a fairly old argument, and one as a Bookmaker is literally impossible to determine. At what point, as a layer, does one become a backer on such animals whose form is so evidently masked by continuing poor performances? Take one of the races where he would have been off 75 at Newbury for example, at the attractive odds of 50/1? Was that the day to be with? In fact he was tailed off, just as he was during 2012. Or Indus Valley, whose form under Des Donovan in 2011 and 2012 matched that of Eye Of The Tiger and barely beat anything home. One wonders at the pre race conversation from Barney Curley to TP Queally as the ‘Tiger’ was virtually pulled up at Haydock, or any of the other efforts that year, ‘jump on the ambulance if you need to lad’. So as a Bookie it’s thoroughly impossible to determine the moment when apparent no hopers suddenly encounter money and their ‘fortunes’ so dramatically turn about.

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Above photo – the Racing Post’s take on Indus Valley’s forecast odds and the line of ‘form’

 

As I watched the whole affair unfold, I was properly incensed at the very nature of this coup, and I said as much at the time. Describing it as Racing’s shame. That’s strong words I know. Long ago my Father told me if I chose the difficult career path of Bookmaking that the inevitable consequences would be the stigma unfairly attached to the profession, that we were less than savoury. Those who really knew John Banks as their natural ‘enemy’ in gambling came to know him as a Bookmaker of the highest order, who never turned down a bet. That he would conduct his business with them in a thoroughly honourable and respectful manner. To pay with a smile, to engage, and even entertain. He was viewed as a maverick by the establishment. Openly critical of the Jockey Club, their lack of commercial nous, and the insular manner of a Club that’s never welcomed a Bookmaker as a member. They’re not Gentlemen you see.

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The Club had their day with my Father, drawing up charges with no foundation or any evidence whatsoever and warned him off for three years. Of course, we always knew it wasn’t Dad they were really after – but other upstarts, particularly jockeys, in the sport who were ‘untouchable,’ simply because to charge them for their wrong-doings meant risking the very good name of the sport. Rather like today, it’s often the middle to low pegs who feel the wrath of the BHA.

The modern day Jockey Club is divided into two clear groups. The Racetrack men, led by Simon Bazelgette. He sits in an open plan office working alongside the man who organises the ticketing. Their management characterised by a shrewd bunch of individuals, evidenced by the quality of business they run. Successful and ordered. This group of reformists are currently bent in helping Bookmakers like me improve the lot of the Betting Ring. Precisely what it needed. And in spite of archaic efforts of the FRB to block both JCR and the sensible majority of Bookmakers asking for their assistance. Once I have persuaded JCR that Bookmakers and Betting Exchanges shouldn’t be inextricably linked on track, my work with them is done! I’m constantly impressed by racetrack management from Musselborough to Ascot. I watch fellahs like Charles Barnett, Johnny Weatherby, Edward Gillespie strolling around their domains, engaging with customers in their Silver Rings, affording their customers there the same respect they afford their annual members.

The second arm of the Jockey Club, is the Stewards. Drawn from leaders of industry, breeders, trainers, Bankers and owners. Largely a Public School Club, its not unfair to say. These are the people who steward the sport, police it if you will. Do they understand Betting or include it in their analysis? More often than not it’s a no. It’s always been, to my view, totally at odds to the good name of the sport, not to properly monitor what happens in the betting market when we are talking about racing. Horses that go from 5/2 to 8/1 on Betfair, and who break out of the stalls at sometime double that quote-having done nothing wrong in emerging, other than somebody is profiting from insider knowledge. Does this type of thing go on? Constantly. Is it more or less likely under the exchange system than sharing information with the likes of John Banks and asked him to lay it for you? The answer is evidently the exchange system, because to facilitate profits from ‘lay to lose’ – you don’t need a compliant Bookmaker, you can do it yourself, lay it to the world, or ask your milkman to do it for you. And of course, where the rewards for winning are often far less than for losing, you have a major problem with integrity.

Of course, the modern day BHA structure pretty much mirrors that of the Jockey Club before it. The Chairman knows nothing about the Sport, by his own admission, and has been seen less in front of the racing public than Bobs Worth. I believe he made an outing at the Gimcrack dinner and the Leaders In Racing bash. Henderson’s star has made 3 appearances so far this season. I see no purpose in a Chairman who doesn’t thoroughly understand the product, or who is, in effect, invisible. Can you name him? Bet you can’t.

These days I am faced by an often difficult choice. Keep my mouth shut at what I see around me in support of those who errantly view silence as ‘for the good of the Sport’. In conscience I cannot allow myself to become another ‘yes man’, when I witness things which very occasionally I consider abhorrent. I love the Sport Of Kings and fight for a higher quality product, with less actual racing, more competitive and appealing events, and a strong and well funded integrity department. In spite of this, I accept that I shall never sit underneath Stubbs for lunch, I am apparently not a gentleman. No worry, I know I am. Further, my particular brand of skills has yet to be called on under the current structure in the BHA. That’s their choice, but it isn’t particularly wise.

In response to those, who would prefer I tow the line more often, I say this. First off, I’m no rebel.  I am determined, however, to see certain snobbishness I evidence, banished once and for all, for the good of Racing. The racing press is far too tepid. When one considers Racing against Football for example, or the Racing Post against the Daily Mail for critical reporting – Racing gets off almost scot free. That’s not healthy.

What puts me in the position to criticise the ruling ‘class’ of the Sport? Quite simply it’s the hard world of Betting, which underpins and finances Racing, which broadens your outlook every day you’re in it. It gives you a depth of understanding far greater than many who sit in the governance of Horse Racing. Am I better qualified than Paul Bittar – could do a better job? Absolutely. I grew up on racetracks, I’ve lived and breathed Racing for over 40 years now. I didn’t start off life as an accountant. In the case of Adam Brickell, the BHA’s head of integrity, we find a trainee solicitor, with three years experience in racing sitting in an office. He’s elevated, quite farcically, to responsibility for the good name of British Racing.

It astonishes me the BHA would choose to go into battle with experienced Bookmakers on levy with such as Ralph Topping without highly experienced betting advisors to get the best deal. The trouble with this attempt at engaging with the Bookmakers and Exchanges, wasn’t the concept. In that Bittar is absolutely right. The correct approach to do is to draw them into the fold; but you have to fully understand their business, if, that is, you’re going to negotiate for Racing. I would never have advised settling on any deal prior to point of consumption. Once these Bookmakers are forced onshore, you have a whole different ball game, and a more pliable deal can be struck. A betting advisor would have known precisely how they route a top punter from their London Office to Gibraltar at the flick of a switch, why Ladbrokes raised their telephone call centre minimum to £25, or why Coral seem determined to argue for Racing of such poor field size and competitiveness it defies any logic. The importance of their machines, bingo, roulette and even the virtual.

I’m not looking for a job at High Holborn. I am pointing out that betting people are often those best qualified to run the sport. As a betting man, I know the machines would fail without racing.

What irritates me with the BHA? It fails to understand or engage with its core customers, – the punters. It consistently refuses to include them in negotiations. Describing them as ‘disparate’ – not worthy of inclusion. Why? They are adding a hundred million to your sport. Worse, it refuses to tackle its regulatory duties responsibly. Preferring sound bites over results, an occasional example made of lower grade connections. Champion trainers, leading jockeys or top owners aren’t in their headlamps. To deal with such individuals, in their view clearly, risks bringing the sport to disrepute. Investigations into such as Godolphin conducted with great haste and pronounced as solved, despite many questions unanswered. In 2013, there were over 90,000 runners over 1464 fixtures. There were just 96 running and racing inquiries. Just a couple of non triers punished. How does the board of the BHA view this as effective policing of a sport underpinned by gambling? Either we don’t have the resources, or the will to keep this great sport clean. Preferring the TV licensing approach to enforcement – we will find you with our detector vans! Oh yes, I’m sure you’re outside my stable with a van..

What concerned me most about CurleyGate, round two, if indeed he was the chief perpetrator in this case, was the polarisation of views on social media such as Twitter. Whilst I was expressing outrage, not at losing clods of money, but at the fact that last to first place gambles seem completely outside the rule book, that the Racing Post failed once again to represent the views of those of us who would prefer a clean sport to bet upon, rather than what was good for a few insiders. That they chose to print such comments from Butler as ‘I know nothing about Betting’ without adding the banner headline, ‘what a bunch of bollocks’. At the same time, others were lionising the achievements of Messrs Donovan, Butler and Curley.

Let’s deal with that. Fine, I accept the old enemy approach. One in the Bookies eye. Especially given so many ‘major’ Bookmakers these days adopt a less than customer friendly approach to punters. Who cares if they suffer occasionally? But to canonise these trainers, and their organisation, because they can get a 112 rated animal to win in a race against horses rated 4 stone inferior? Oh please, spare me such nonsense. A bit like Manchester United beating up Scunthorpe. Of course, folk will talk from their pockets. I’m sure many of those praising Curley as the figurehead of this gamble,  won a score backing one of these horses at odds on, as they were for most of the day..in the meantime they were actually cheering on their own demise, as no question, the Bookmakers will close ranks on the product. If you moan you can’t get on, this gamble won’t do anything to help you out.

And who represented the views of the silly sods who backed these horses in the 47 races in which its fair to say their best chance of staying in front was in the paddock? Of course it’s not my responsibility to investigate these performers and whether or not they ran on their merits. That’s surely the role of the stewards. Fine, so where were the inquiries into group two performers finishing tailed off five times in a row? Very poor performance from the authorities and no mistake.

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For every journo, blogger or twitterati praising the perpetrators of this coup, there appeared an equal number of good folk expressing often serious reservations. I read Rod Street of Great British Racing and his comments that coup’s had occurred in the past and people still bet now. Surely he’s ignoring their concerns? Or perhaps as somebody put it, adopting the ‘glass half full’ approach. And Graham Cunningham of Channel 4 with the same view, this time using the Godolphin scandal as a bench mark.

Both of these views are totally wrong. Because the racing share of the betting cake has been in serious decline for some years now. That’s a matter of fact. Now, I accept there are often varying factors in play here, but to discount the importance of a clean sport to those betting upon the same, is highly dangerous. Would you wager on a roulette table if you knew it was slanted to one side? Such views, whilst I’m sure were meant to protect the image of the sport, and in respect of lawyers, in fact go a long way to convince those who share my view that the sport doesn’t take integrity matters with anything like the gravitas it should, and the press aren’t properly on their tail. To be fair to Cunningham, he was very much on the case for his network and despite the involvement of Dubai as a sponsor, in the Al Zarooni affair. Channel 4 Racing don’t shirk their responsibilities in any way, because they don’t answer to Racing.

I put Cunningham and McGrath in the same category as Hislop, Chapman, Wood, Muscat, Paley and Cook. Journalists who need letting off the hook more often for the good of Racing. One day they’ll invite me on ATR or RUK. Not for a second would it worry King Ralph or Breon Corcoran, because they know I speak for Betting. Would it be more entertaining than a fireside chat with Alan Lee? No odds there. Want more viewers? What are you waiting for?

It isn’t just the bettors who suffer and complain. We must consider the Bookmakers if we are too encourage them to promote Racing over a machine. Give me the option, as a businessman, between four gaming machines, guaranteeing a profit, or laying a bet on the nefarious activities which pervade the likes of Wolverhampton, with horses being ‘asked to be withdrawn’ and trainers requested to be strip searched  – I know which one I would choose. If we are to prosper as a sport, we must look to our responsibilities to providing a level playing field as far as humanly possible. This isn’t achieved by allowing a horse to go from 20/1 to 4/6 without a very serious inquiry and draconian punishments if found guilty.

I’ve detailed a few of the issues facing Racing. What are the solutions?

First off, it’s important to install a regulator at the head of the Sport who understands fully his responsibilities to reforming the good name of the sport. Who engages publically with all the stakeholders and conducts his affairs openly, not in careful press releases. They should have powers and staff no less than are the norm in such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club. A body who employ 240 integrity officers for 6 days racing a month and who tolerate no breaking of the rules under the most severe penalties. Counter that with the ten odd individuals the BHA employ.

Connections should have no legal right with the courts to challenge the decisions of the regulators. There has to be a clear stipulation, you run under our rules and you accept them, warts and all, to the good of the sport.

Stewarding has to be centralised, and by professionals only. Reports from Kempton the other night of stewards ‘noting’ explanations, can and were only treated with total derision by those looking in on proceedings. If Eye Of The Tiger for example had problems with his legs and back, as was claimed, presumably he would have been undergoing treatment, veterinary or physiotherapy to deal with his issues. There would have been bills. Connections must be summoned to the BHA to provide exhaustive proof, and those findings shared openly with the betting public. If there’s clear evidence- all well and good. In the absence of proper evidence, and in the light of the rather obvious gamble, one can only reasonably conclude the horse’s performances in 2012 as simply down to being unfit to race, which is clearly against the rules of racing. The clues were clear in the betting, and shouldn’t be ignored. If local stewards can’t take the hard decisions, or bring the sport into disrepute because they are unwilling to police the same, or too familiar with trainers they meet every day, they should be removed from the proceedings, completely.

Paul Bittar- now in his final year as Chief Executive has to demonstrate, a willingness to fight betting organisations, racetracks and picture providers for a security budget commensurate with the 1464 fixtures they require of the sport. A view he openly endorses. They have to be prepared to meet the proper cost of policing the sport. If unwilling to meet the costs involved, the fixtures have to be cut to a level which both increases both prize monies to owners and funds a respectable integrity division.. If he is unprepared for this undertaking, and in the face of one security crisis after another in 2013,  he is clearly not the man to lead the sport, and should be dismissed. The confidence and image of the sport has to supercede any other considerations.

The All Weather programme has to be capped at its current level. Prize money has to increase dramatically at all ends of the sport. The engorged fixture list, averaging now less than 8 runners a race and riddled with odds on chances has to be cut now. The programme needs proper balancing, if a meeting consistently delivers low fields, it has to be redressed. Field sizes and quality are directly related to popularity of the events.

The BHA have to move out of unnecessary premises in High Holborn and invest the savings in integrity. The cuts in the budget for the security of the sport need reversing.

Blank days have to be introduced in the calendar to increase the appetite for Racing. The jumps season to be shortened and the All Weather season restricted to 9 months a year, excepting the evening programme.

Racing has to stop now supporting products which rival for the bettors money. Betting shops clustered together don’t add to the Levy. Picture rights incomes for racetracks, which they earn per shop, are subordinate to the Levy. Racetracks have to afford more of the circa £7500 a race fees they gain back to prize money.

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Football learnt years ago it had to look to itself to improve. It dealt with its hooligan issue of the eighties, built better stadia and seats and improved the experience for those attending. We have to learn from that lead. We cannot sit back and rely on the Ebor Festival as being sufficient when bettors turn to other products and newspapers dump us from their coverage. Let us not forget the BBC no longer involves itself in Racing as it did. Anyone notice they’ve gone? This has all taken place in the last five years. Thank God for Channel 4.

The sport doesn’t run the risk of a continuing decline in its market share in the Betting Shops, it’s a racing certainty. Should we continue to permit such brazen last to first gambles, without reasonable explanation, to go unpunished, because they were off the track for two years and we can’t cope with that? To allow any individual to put two fingers up to Racing?  To prefer instead a ‘cloak and dagger’ approach to stewarding, and an ‘it doesn’t happen’ approach? To rely on our great festivals to prop up the eternal midweek racing without people? Then I promise you guys, other sports, bells and whistles will replace racing as the betting medium of choice with Bookmakers and their customers. How will you fund it then?

Yesterday I watched a fabulous trials day at Chentenham, with some amazing finishes and the return of one of the biggest stars in the sport, returned to entertain us by our greatest trainer. I loved watching the whole day, win or lose. I watched bookies and fans struggle in howling gales to the betterment of the sport.

What will the press and Racing fans worldwide be remembering the most from this week though? Big Bucks or Barney Curley?

http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2011/oct/17/timeform-non-triers-widespread-jumps

47 MILLION AND CHANGE!

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Ok, so that’s what the big 4 operators have guaranteed in Levy. And of course it heralds a new era of co-operation between Bookmakers and Racing. We’re all friends now eh? 8 million agreed with Betfair – money they didn’t have to offer the Levy by statute. Leaders In Racing conferences with keynote speakers led by Andy Hornby of Coral, livening up that borefest with a call for Racing to support his FOBT’s. In doing so more shops remain in business, with the potential for more turnover on UK horse racing. We’re all very encouraged by the co-operation between the new Racing – headed up by Paul Bittar, and the representatives of the largest organisations funding it. Top marks to him heralding in a new era and spirit of bonhomie between the parties.

Yes?

Now, I’m a Bookie, and by nature an independent. I pay my taxes and Levy at the going rate, and my data is an open book. So you’ll take what I say with a pinch of salt perhaps, because such independent organisations as my own are rivals in business to the majors. But hold on a minute, this ‘guarantee’ of 51.5m is significantly lower than Racing has achieved from the Horse Race Levy for many a year. The 51st Levy scheme contained a guarantee of 45m from Hills, Corals and Ladbrokes. Two years on we add Betfred and get 2.5m more? Outstanding?

Let’s forget the Levy Board’s estimates. They can’t predict results and nor can the Bookies. Nor can they in any way determine how much business is lost by attrition offshore. The Levy, to include the independent input and Betfair, over the last 6 years has fluctuated between a low of 60m and a high of 115m.

What’s the crowing about a deal which adds 2.5m more with one more major player in the cake? In fact, why bother even considering it? If you want Bookmakers to co-operate with Racing, shut them out of racetrack sponsorship, TV adverts and the like. Turn to the Government for support. Racing vs Bookmakers with legs in Gibraltar. Don’t worry, they’ll come quietly.

The multiples are popping champagne corks, and drinking to Bittar and Lee. That’s not meant as a joke. Now if I were them, I’d take all my top losers to Gibraltar because I’d know my duty bill would be topped out at £450,000, and my Levy capped at 10m. The extra 4.5m between the parties per year is in effect the same bribe to Racing that Betfair volunteered. The new way, if they won’t pay the going rate, let them pay what’s comfortable. Racing is now ‘off the back’ of the big 6, because the deal is struck. No beating down the doors of Westminster to complain. And of course for four years, they can hive off as much racing business as they like offshore and pay 11 million odd each. Lovely biscuits.

Paul Bittar -The saviour of British Racing, or a plating class salesman whose business plan involves the lowest funding level, but ‘we’ve made a deal’? I care little about the stories of meetings over months, and coffee time buddying up – if this is the end product. Bookmakers and exchanges can pay more – because their offshore duties, tax and now levy are all so low. But of course they sponsor races, and run apps for the Racing Post. Oh I see.

Why would Racing go into battle against the Bookmakers for example with two racecourse Supremos? What was their role? I don’t believe Racetracks should be negotiating on behalf of racing when their most important sponsors are across the table. Perhaps the owners would have been a better choice. After all they are the primary benficiaries of levy.

No the BHA should have been going into bat with someone like me quite frankly. Not that I’m looking for the job, I’m making a point. There’s this incredible snobbishness which I find so counter-productive to the good of the Sport. The BHA is flush with Racetrack people, Data analysts, solicitors, owners, even trainers. Yet so many decisions hinge on the betting Product which underpins the finances. Not least of all finding the right fixture levels and putting on the best balanced programme. Betting isn’t the dirty side of Racing, it is, for most folk, very much what its all about. Finance is a critical part of any business, why does the BHA ignore it? I’ve heard the call for ‘Punter’ representation for many a year at High Holborn. But still no seat at the top table of Racing for them

As a leading expert in betting pointed out to me yesterday – the Fixture list has hardly changed but for a little bit of tinkering for as long as we can remember and within each meeting are quite often the very same races. The beginners chase at Sandown yesterday – won by Hinterland, regularly has small fields! The same course in January had a meeting where four of the races worth a combined £50,000 all with fewer than 8 runners. Small fields, odds-on favourites and poor over rounds aren’t fussy, every course is blighted. If only the courses reviewed such data, improvements could be made, races changed, to make it more attractive for trainers, owners, racegoers and betting shop punters. Isn’t it the role of race planning at the BHA to look at these issues? I’m assuming we’ll end up with the same ‘Super Saturday’ next year?

Final point, is the timing – less than a year before point of consumption comes into play we sign a deal. Nowadays, you can buy a cup of coffee made in the high street, served by British staff, sit peering out of the window at a red bus. In the meantime the duty for that transaction is paid in Holland. I don’t believe for a second point of consumption, if it gets through Parliament, represents the holy grail. Everything else is circumvented, so will this. Gibraltar won’t fall into the Mediterranean any time soon. Result for Racing? More, not less, of the best customers routed offshore. By extension more dependency on a ‘guarantee’ of 51 million. Consider this, what would have occurred had the famed Ladbrokes high roller who shored up the levy to its highest level in recent years, 115m, been routed abroad?

1464 Fixtures.
Some key statistics.

January to March – 21% of all races, spread evenly between both codes, contained an odds on favourite. 24 races worth £5000 or more in January had less than 8 runners.

June, July, and August 15% of all races involved an odds on chance. A third of which were worse than 1\2, only 2.6% of Handicaps contained 16 or more runners -8% Percent of all handicaps had either 3 or 4 runners! 41% of ALL handicaps in those months – less than 8 runners! Handicaps I said..

The effect of odds-on chances? In August 35% of races returned an SP of 2% a runner or worse. In September – 30% of all races returned the same. Attractive? In June, July, August and September, there were only 4 days not containing an odds-on favourite.

Let’s look at the Chief Executive’s arguments on fixture levels. He says 1464 is the right level for Racing. This argument backed up by such as Andy Hornby of Coral, who argued, with merit, that to put on a third meeting daily midweek ‘increased his turnover by 30%’. We’re talking about shop turnover here. In the same speech, I invite you to listen, he then muddles the word ‘profit’ into the same argument, at the same level. In other words he argued a third meeting every day would represent 30% more for the Levy.

That’s a distortion of the facts. To argue that turnover equals profit directly simply isn’t true, it might be true in the case of Waitrose, because turnover is more directly linked to profit. It’s a mistake King Ralph for example would not make, but then he never ran Boots. I can assure you folks, in Racing the same is most certainly not the case. If you put on low field sizes, with odds-on chances riddling the events, they are a Levy minefield. There are bad races. Punters simply do not like wagering in races containing odds on favourites.

Levy income is directly related to quality, competitiveness and field sizes. Punters don’t groan at 7 the field – they embrace it. Hornby’s wants Racing every ten minutes, because it adds to the vibrancy of his arcades. He wants a customer to walk in at lunch (when nobody wants to go Racing by the way) and sit on his machines generating £900 a week whilst the Racing provides the background noise.

So here’s Bittar’s thesis. Get into bed with these organisations. Openly support their machines and provide fixture levels they demand. In doing so he keeps the shops actually in business and increases the pot. Even going so far as to introduce racing on good Friday in support of the LBO’s, religion and decades of history matter little when the machines are running. The argument for which will prove to be a sham in less than a year. ARC will be fortunate to pull in a million in sponsorship, it’s hard enough to find a sponsor for the Grand National. I don’t doubt they can afford the gamble though, given many of their races run for £1940.

There are 28 shops in Newmarket. Shops are literally yards apart. Do we need that many to service Racing in one little town? So what if we lose a few mini casinos? Racing isn’t the focus. Perhaps we should be about making it exactly that, with measures to improve field sizes and margins in the sport? I have argued for a substantial cut in the level of fixtures, I’m not going to get that. Racing has become boring too much of the time. I rarely pass a shop every day without sticking my head in. For large parts of the programme they’re empty. British Racing is littered with fun festivals and events and cracking racing. But let’s cut the programme by just 100 fixtures and monitor the effect on the sub cards. Hardly a slash and burn is it?

The regulator.

So let’s deal with integrity. For many of you I appreciate this is a new subject. Certainly if you buy the Racing Post every day, you’re unlikely to find exposes on this important area, except in the odd letter. And if the leading trade paper ignores the subject, it’s hardly at the forefront of most people’s minds – especially if you don’t bet.

Does integrity matter? The Sport is underpinned by bettors. What is hugely underestimated, and certainly not understood, is the damage caused to customers’ confidence when they see something drift from 6’s to 16’s or greater and run down the park. It’s treated with derision in the shops. I tell you plainly, this is not happen-chance, although just enough drifters win to cause doubt. Equally its utterly routine to watch a horse backed from 12/1 to 9/4 hose up in spite of dire recent form.

Condoned?

Trawl through the list of enquiries taking place at the BHA and you’ll find a glaring hole. Non-triers. It’s like the subject simply doesn’t exist. Oh sure, we get the odd case running through, and the sentences are generally harsh. It’s the spin. British Racing will react with vigour if you break the rules. You get the idea.

If its the regulators role to police the sport, then Bittar is clearly failing in his duty of care to the image of this same by not grasping the nettle. Heralding from a state notorious for calling out Jockeys and trainers in this department. He must wince at how weak we are by comparison. Look at Hong Kong – they are red hot on integrity and employ 240 people to look after a programme that races 6 days a month. How many do we employ for 1464? 10?

They take holidays don’t they? Can they cope with 7 day, 5 night programme servicing 1464 fixtures? Not for a second. Without Betfair tipping the hat to them from time to time, they couldn’t turn over an egg. Staffing levels are so poor with budgets cut, it’s an impossible task.

On arrival in the UK, Paul Bittar stated, ‘if you have low funded Racing, you will have a problem with the integrity.’ That’s an entirely accurate statement. So what’s he done about it? In the recent round of negotiations first with Betfair, and then with the Bookmakers, did he argue on behalf of the sport for a substantial increase in funding to support the fixture levels they demand? Is that not part and parcel of any deal?

There are several horses a month – all with similar profiles, exceptionally poor performances in lead up races, some beaten by margins approaching an incredible 80 lengths, heftily gambled upon, but with historical form that suggested they were well capable of winning races, masked by a series of poor outings. Check the reports into inquiries at the BHA how many of these horses end up being sanctioned, or their connections. What’s happened with the referrals we hear about? Or was it all just a big happy surprise? Customer confidence demands the regulator takes measured steps to ensure any unusual gambles are fully investigated. If a horse with form figures of 8,8,7,0,7 suddenly goes from 33/1 to 9/2 it demands urgent action to find out why, for the good of the sport. Sky News seem more interested than the BHA into some of the shenanigans going on routinely. Is it now condoned to prop your training fees up by planning transparent gambles and slapping each other on the back? Was the backbone knocked out of the regulators with their failures over the Top Cees case?

Jockey changes, withdrawing horses, horses drifting substantially, shoring up of morning odds on Betfair with amounts as low as £51 – all part and parcel of such gambles. Horses laid in running as the tapes go up at far greater odds than their SP. Isn’t the BHA failing in not investigating any strange movements in the market? We need far more draconian rules and most certainly no recourse to the courts to second guess decisions. If you run them under our rules, accept them warts and all. This should be a first step for the lawyers to push through.

If Mr Bittar doesn’t start to appreciate the importance to Racing of the smallest cog in the wheel – that of the humble punter, and his confidence in the betting product, – then we have a problem of leadership. Because to me, it’s of paramount importance. The customer must have faith in the product. We run the risk customers funding the whole deal through betting feel their views on integrity don’t matter to those running the sport. That’s a dangerous position to be in. How do we deal with it? Stop using the expression ‘we can’t discuss it’.

What about recent cases involving connections through the BHA hmm? Let’s brush over the Godolphin saga, it’s way too complex. However, what was with the Chapple-Hyam penalty. £3000 for misleading investigators by doctoring telephone records? Equivalent to one month’s training fees for a top horse. Cloak and dagger regulating with Frank Sheridan’s horse – Bert Trick, at Wolverhampton- being quietly asked to withdraw it after reports it had run in flapping races and following a collapse in price from 14/1 to 5/2? A top jockey called before the stewards to explain dropping his hands at Kempton, who simply denied it, which the stewards ‘noted’, or a horse at Hamilton in July which managed to improve 67lbs according to Timeform, with the trainer declaring he ‘didn’t think it would improve’. Again accepted by the stewards. What is going on with stewarding these days?

I recognise many of the problems outlined above were in place well before the arrival of the Australian. Fixture levels for example have remained a constant since 2003. The major independants whose business focus on Racing, have so far been excluded from any discussion on fixtures, planning or Levy. It’s all about the casino operators. I’m uncomfortable with getting into bed with large organisations if the result in so doing is to sell the whole product well short of its value and it’s a tool to market other products. Signing for a record low level isn’t laudable, it’s a sell out. Finally, if its the BHA’s choice instead of tackling sometimes rancid events head on, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen, then I feel it’s time for stronger leadership.

Bittar, contrary to popular folklore, didn’t sort out the whip two seconds after his arrival, more like a horrified Paul Roy rushing to clear up the mess created by a sub-committee formed to examine the whip issue. Roy had his critics, but he worked hard for racing and at least was far more visible than the incoming Chairman, and not afraid to take on Betting companies, patterns, or the establishment. Give him his due, he wasn’t a yes man.

The new chief-executive however, strikes me as rather like having a Scottish Chancellor. Everyone thinks its refreshing to have someone who doesn’t speak in polished tones. To my mind his obsession with large concerns has gone well beyond what is productive. When the Chairman of Coral starts eulogizing about the head of the BHA for striking deals and supporting fobt’s, we should, in my view, be deeply uncomfortable with what’s going on here. Unless that is, you consider Coral are more in love with racing than they are their machines

The honeymoon is definitively over.

http://www.geegeez.co.uk/bha-stewarding-review-must-look-at-non-triers/

http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/feb/01/british-horseracing-authority-stewards-non-triers

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/horse-racing/15328393