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The Howard Wright Column

Take aways leave sour taste in racing ranks T

o mangle a passage from the Book of Job, the Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth. So, too, does the government, and the BHA board come to that. A crazy couple of months have proved both points, and no single entity, least of all the corporate body of British racing, appears to have emerged unscathed. The government takeaway involved Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), with sports minister Tracey Crouch, egged on by her new boss, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport secretary of state – and MP for part of Newmarket, if you had forgotten ­– Matt Hancock, caving in to public opinion by reducing the maximum stake from £100 to £2, despite advice from the Gambling Commission and Responsible Gambling Strategy Board for a range of up to £30. So much for consultation, although when such disparate forces as the Daily Mail, The Times, The Guardian and BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme You and Yours are lined up alongside, bookmakers surely knew the game was up. A sense of morality, not science, won the argument. The gambling industry did itself no favours. Retail betting firms have long been on the back foot in getting across their message about social responsibility, and lack of a cohesive voice, or even a strong individual leader, enabled casino and gaming operators to exploit an opportunity to split what should have been united ranks. Racing had an awkward balancing act to perform. Not wanting to be branded anti-social, its leaders still needed to keep betting shop operators on side because of media deals that relate directly to the number of outlets, many of which have relied on FOBTs for profitability. This element of the sport’s funding model has been refined

Public opinion won the FOBT debate as the government caved in

over several years, as FOBTs have assumed greater importance, and until the moral element came to the fore, I cannot recall many critics of the principle, only of the spending priorities. However, what is given with one hand is being taken away with the other, for the government’s gambling review also provided for a rise in remote gaming duty – from the present 15% level to what, and when, has yet to be decided – in a bid to balance the Treasury’s books. As analyst David Zeffman pointed out: “Those operators who are purely online may legitimately feel aggrieved that they are bearing the burden of their retail counterparts’ behaviour.”

“A sense of morality, not science, won the argument over FOBT stakes; bookmakers knew the game was up” Racing’s pre-review position was further influenced by its desire not to upset a government that had granted largesse through a new levy-funding mechanism, backed by Hancock no less, which extended its reach to the offshore online community for the first time. This, too, is sure to be the subject of give and take, and the black hole being dug for racing from imminent betting shop closures has already been estimated at up to £60 million a year. Except, of course, secretary of state Hancock, who since the May pronouncement has immersed himself more in the Digital, Culture & Media elements of his job, has promised to do his best to cushion racing’s shortfall. Which brings us on to the BHA and Chairman Steve Harman. In a remarkable example of take and give, he is being removed from office prematurely but has been given the role of racing’s go-to man in negotiations with government over extending the levy to bets placed in Britain on overseas racing. Those with longish memories will recall this element was dropped from the bookmakers’ charge sheet when Peter Savill thought he had a data rights’ deal wrapped up, only for the European Court of Justice to take a different view. The circumstances behind Harman’s exit from a board whose members he largely hand-picked will probably remain unexplained publicly. After all, someone who during the saga employed at personal cost an expensive London lawyer, Mishcom de Reya, and a PR whose company profile lists its specialities as “issues, crisis and litigation” is not likely to unburden himself willingly. Even more extraordinary, though, is the fact that no-one was nominated to step into Harman’s shoes, not even Atholl Duncan, the BHA’s senior Independent Director. That tells you something about the sad situation. But what, I’m not sure, except that it’s a shambles.


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28/06/2018 13:25

Profile for Thoroughbred Owner Breeder

Thoroughbred Owner Breeder  

Incorporating Pacemaker - July 2018 July's issue features a fascinating interview with Chasemore Farm's Andrew Black who is making his mark...

Thoroughbred Owner Breeder  

Incorporating Pacemaker - July 2018 July's issue features a fascinating interview with Chasemore Farm's Andrew Black who is making his mark...