Turf Account

Blinkered vision

The threat to racing’s future

For a multi-billion pound industry largely funded by businesses renowned for cold- hearted ruthlessness, racing is astonishingly naive. The sport is facing an existential crisis. For years there have been worries about poor prize money, small fields, declining media coverage and animal rights extremists.

These are all important, but they are as nothing compared to the threat posed by so-called “affordability checks”, a euphemism for having to hand over your financial details before having a bet. Anti-gambling campaigners have spent years attacking racing, which is funded to the tune of around £90 million a year by bookmakers. Take away that support and racing will be effectively over as a sport.

In April I wrote about the government’s craven backing for affordability checks before it passed the idea over to the Gambling Commission.

Now the seven new commissioners have been revealed. They are experts in law, regulation, health, the financial sector and the civil service. Not one member of the Gambling Commission has any knowledge of gambling. It is important to keep sight of the facts. According to Public Health England, just over three per cent of people who bet on racing have a problem.

Yes, those affected need help, but even on the PHE’s (disputed) statistics racing is a minor issue. Their figure for online slot machines, casinos and bingo games is 8.7 per cent.

According to the British Horseracing Authority, racing generates £4.1 billion in direct, indirect and associated expenditure annually for the British economy. It’s not an insignificant minnow that has to beg for whatever crumbs of attention it can get.

The issue for racing isn’t what percentage of punters are targeted — it’s who exactly will be “narrowly targeted”

But instead of shouting loudly and proudly about racing’s status and contribution and highlighting the joke that is the Gambling Commission, racing has been behaving as if it is being threatened by a heat-seeking missile and the best it can hope for is that the people firing it don’t actually intend to cause lasting damage. The BHA has launched a petition, and that’s about as far as the fight has gone.

Last month, the Racing Post (which has been brilliant at highlighting the Gambling Commission’s anti-gambling fanaticism) published a letter from the Prime Minister to Catterick racecourse in his constituency. Rishi Sunak wrote that: “Enhanced checks should be narrowly targeted. The checks will also be frictionless for customers, and based on data sharing.”

There was not a word in the letter which deviated in any way from anything that has come before, including the usual vague promise of “frictionless” checks, which few believe.

And yet it was greeted with relief, as if we should somehow be grateful that the PM at least understands racing, when the letter was nothing more than a pro forma statement by an MP to a business in his constituency.

But even as that, the letter showed the scale of the imminent destruction. The issue for racing isn’t what percentage of punters are targeted — it’s who exactly will be “narrowly targeted”.

Racing’s funding is dependent on punters who bet over £50, which is significantly more than the majority do. These people, by definition, make the greatest contribution to funding racing through the bookies’ levy payment, and they also fund the vast bulk of the £117.6 million that racecourses receive in media rights. As one bookmaker has put it: “It is the 20 per cent of punters who fund 90 per cent of racing who will be seriously affected.”

When Stuart Andrew, the minister responsible for racing and gambling, told a Westminster debate in October “I have heard these concerns and take them very seriously,” the Racing Post headline read: “If he keeps true to his word, Andrew might find himself the darling of everyone in racing.”

He wasn’t going to announce that he doesn’t take concerns seriously. As my teacher used to put it when I had said something idiotic, “If my grandmother had a pair of balls she would have been my grandfather.” Naivety hardly covers it. Racing is about to be royally screwed, and all it can manage in response has been to grasp at whatever straws it thinks it can see.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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