Monday 15 May 2017

More Fabulous Festivals, the Remarkable Roodee … and the Scary FOBTs

A fairly short blog for the mid-month, as we’re in the middle of racing festivals. We were down at Newmarket for both days of the Guineas meeting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Tremendously impressed by the nonchalant win of Churchill in the 2000 Guineas, and clearly Ballydoyle is firing on all cylinders at the moment. Their run of form continued into Chester last week, notably with the first three home in the Chester Vase. During the trip to Newmarket we had a morning in the Palace House Museum & Art Gallery. This is the original palace used by Charles II, and has been renovated superbly. The exhibits really bring to life the fabulous history and legacy of racing, and some of the artwork is truly awesome. An excellent time was spent there, and well worth a visit or two.

You may know that Chester is my home town, and my interest in racing was really kindled there. I had an uncle who was very keen on racing, who always used to go to the Chester Cup meeting. The grammar school in Chester was just round the corner from the Roodee and, particularly when I was in the sixth form, we had a lot of private study periods which meant I could easily bonk off and go racing. I used to keep one eye on the form and one for teachers who were doing exactly the same. If I enjoyed Chester as a race track then, it is absolutely incredible the way facilities and quality have improved in the intervening 50 years. Not least, it is probably one of the most progressive tracks in the country when it comes to the owner experience, and can only be congratulated for the £500 appearance money that is now paid to owners for running there. This is a model initiative that should be vigorously fought for by the ROA and the Horsemen’s Group. As an absolute minimum owners ought to be able to recover the costs of supporting all the key revenue streams associated with the racecourses and the betting industry. Also the quality of food and hospitality in the owners’ marquee is absolutely second to none. All in all, Chester is a course that you really want to go to.

At the other end of the scale I also saw an encouraging note about Newton Abbot, which is now promising over £1m of prize-money during its summer racing. This is a notably well-run racecourse and it just shows what can be done with enthusiastic and progressive leadership. They are also very supportive of owners and one of the few courses where entry to races is free. They also have the best free cake for owners of any course that I know in the country.

On a completely different subject, I saw a positively scary analysis done by Landman Economics earlier in May on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I’m a huge critic of the betting industry, particularly the retail bookmakers. Just consider this analysis:
  • £45.5bn has apparently been staked on FOBTs since their legal status was clarified by the Gambling Act, 2008.
  • Punters have lost £11.4bn in total during that period. The average lost by every FOBT player in the UK is £8,000.
  • Almost 40% of the losses are from an estimated 300,000 “problem” FOBT players, who have lost an estimated £15,000 each.
  • The study estimates that the loss of that money and its impact on the families concerned has cost 186,000 jobs over nine years.
There is very little that I would agree with in Labour’s Manifesto, but I’m definitely in favour of one of the recommendations whereby they want the stake on FOBTs to be reduced to a maximum of £2. At the moment, the machines allow customers to bet / lose up to £100 every 20 seconds on the likes of electronic roulette. This is a social issue that really must be addressed. True to form, the antediluvian Association of British Bookmakers described the report as “pure fantasy”. So much for the meaningless and trite statement that the bookmakers use in their marketing materials of “when the fun stops, stop”. If only the retail bookmakers would stop, reconsider almost the whole of their strategy and start rebuilding betting with a committed emphasis on innovation and fair play. Not much sign of that!

Which is another reason why I’m such a fan of Chester: they were the first course to set up their own Tote, and I’m really hoping that the whole of British racing gets behind the initiative to set up racecourse-owned totes, so that the profit from them can be invested in British racing.

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