Thursday, 14 June 2018

THEY NEVER SAW IT COMING


" Bookmakers- Do They Owe Us A Living ?" was the headline on the cover page of the June 1988 edition of Pacemaker International, also billed as the Royal Ascot issue.

For the timeworn who were bitten by the racing bug during the dizzy 1970's, 1988 does not feel like thirty years ago, which is a big dent in most lifetimes. Yet when you digest the article relating to the headline, you are left feeling pretty glum on realising how the racing landscape has changed for the worse.

The article was penned by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, known mostly as a political journalist. He takes the reader through the legalisation and development of off-course betting, suggesting that an opportunity of an off-course Tote Monopoly, which had been called for by many within the sport, had been missed.

At the time, the then 'big four' controlled 56% of turnover from the off-course market. Wheatcroft argued that the LBO cash betting industry was not suitable for privatisation and called for full Tote control but ends his piece  with,"So obvious, so rational is this answer that you can be sure it will never happen."

What is so eerie about the article is that there is no mention of any lurking threat from the betting habits of punters switching to other sports. In fact, so cocksure were all that Horse Racing would continue to be the truly dominant sport for betting, no one had any real notion of the scale in which changes would happen.

During this time racing held 85% of the betting market. Football fixed odds still had an open long list of a minimum of five selections. There was a short list of a minimum three but that was made up of the tricky fixtures. On the long list, it was customary to have Aberdeen and Liverpool as banker homes but that still left you with three or four to find.

In Tennis and Golf there were no betting markets outside of the majors. The cricket markets too were far away from the crazy amounts now wagered on the shorter formats of the game along with any England home test series. All very understandable when you consider that the wall to wall Sky Sports coverage was a few years off its birth.

The struggle racing now faces compared to 1988 is mass, with threats from more angles and in an era where we have a generation of young fathers who themselves have not been weaned on racing and view Football as the main betting sport which it undoubtedly now is for the under 35's.

Compare the blase approach of those that pulled the strings in racing in the 1980's with the leaders in the modern-day US Golf industry, which is the heartland for that sport.

They've been panicking! Nike's decision to stop making golf clubs was viewed by some as a shot across the bows for the sport, allied with a trend of less of the public playing the game.

But look closer and you will see that it is a sport holding its ground well in the tier of major sports. The number of youths playing the sport has increased and many people across the whole age spectrum who have yet to play the sport proper are using the indoor chain of Topgolf facilities, which suit working families whose luxury time is limited.

In addition to this, crowd attendance figures on the PGA Tour have increased, and the introduction of Golf to the Olympics is helping develop the game in the likes of China, India and Brazil, the first two named countries having already shown they can produce winning players on the main two tours.

So in Golf, we have a sport looking inwardly and fretting, seeking to reverse possible trends that could be bad for the sport before they take hold. Compare this to racing in the 1980's. An attitude of we are all fine and dandy apart from being able to arrive at a long term compromise of how much each sector of the industry should receive of the punter's money.

With FOBTS soon to be neutered and significant LBO closures certain, the most telling statistics going forward are from remote gaming. This method of betting will eventually take over as the main source, being the method used almost exclusively by the emerging generations. At the latest count this form of betting accounted for over a third of all gross gambling yield.

Breaking down the gross gaming yield from remote gambling into the different sports, Football has gone into a clear lead over Horse Racing and is opening up a gap. True, there is then some distance back to the rest but soon, that group clubbed together will catch up with racing.

Unlike these other sports, racing relies on betting to survive. It cannot continue on its present scale without the punter's money. That is an agreed fact.

Trainer George Baker was the other day bemoaning that racing has been left behind by clinging to tradition, no doubt not taking time to think that maybe the chipping away at the old customs and traditions of the sport are actually demeaning it and slowly taking away one of its unique attractions.

Baker commented that new racegoers see people in trilby's and feel they are back in Victorian times. Regrettably, such quaint sights are rarer than in the past.

Such a spectacle would be the norm in the 1970's. There were far more 'Majors' and 'Captains' amongst the training ranks. They prefered to be addressed as such. There were more grumpy looking trainers, even more with ruddy complexions and drink problems, and of course, the customary nicotine stained hands to go with the chain smoking.

Now, the archetypal trainer will be called by his first name, does not smoke or drink excessively, eats lots of fruit and has his cholesterol checked.

Well, in this depressing modern day existence where an increasing number of young people speak to one another in silly MTV presenter style tones and ridiculously call each other 'bro', first time visitors to a racecourse would hopefully be fascinated by the sight of the licence holders who still adhere to the old fashioned dress codes.

They may even take time out between visits to find out who these people are and what horses they are connected to. There still exists an attraction of going back into a time warp, away from the quick fix banality of the present.

When you contemplate some of the ideas put forward to increase the popularity of the sport it provides scant hope for the future and makes people of a certain age feel sure that they have seen the best of it.

And from now on it's all a downhill journey save the odd blip.

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