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|Pitch battle looming as bookies bridle at new Gambling
Damon Runyon, who described life as a six-to-five-against bet, said
the softest thing about one of his characters, Bookie Bob, was his front
That's the way it is with bookmakers. It is difficult to think of
a body of people for whom we have more contempt than those who have been
described as pickpockets who pay you the courtesy of allowing you to use your
own hands. But these are tough times for the small, on-course bookie. They
could soon lose their pitches, purchased by private treaty or public auction,
to the racecourses. One of the great features of racing in this country, and in
Ireland and Australia, could be lost.
The 2005 Gambling Act, which will
come into force shortly, will allow Britain's 59 racecourses to take over
ownership of these sought-after sites in 2012, before renting them back to the
people who bought them.
Robin Grossmith, chairman
of the Rails Bookmakers' Association and a director of the Federation of
Racecourse Bookmakers, said yesterday: "We always believed we owned these
pitches in perpetuity, even though we have given an undertaking that no land
rights are involved. In other words, if the racecourse closes there can be no
Grossmith, 58, was speaking from his pitch close
to Ascot's winning post but he sounded dangerously close to the losers'
enclosure. He said: "I've got a friend of mine, a publican, who has just sold
his pub and two pension funds to buy pitches, what he thought were assets for
life. There are people out there in great distress. One of my guys has just
remortgaged to invest £180,000. If he loses his pitches he and his young
family will be homeless. This is a social problem as well as a business one."
Barry Johnson, also 58, recently spent £1.25m to buy 34 pitches
in the south and midlands. "I didn't win the lottery," he said. "I earned this
money in business throughout my life. Now the theory is that we have to bid to
get our own property back. It's bizarre.
"Our game is difficult but
everything is manageable, workable. These days margins are tight but I can make
a living, if not a fortune, for myself and the seven people who work for me.
But this is something else. I bought a pitch at Cheltenham 11 months ago for
just over £200,000 and it will take me seven years to get that money
back. Now I'm told that in 2012 it will have gone. It's ludicrous - I just
can't believe it's happening."
Grossmith has been told that the sports
minister, Richard Caborn, will contact him this week. "I've been told that
there has been a mistake in legislation - or that it has been misinterpreted -
and that this will be put right. I have been told that those who voted in
favour of this act had no intention of putting people out of business."
But if there are no encouraging words from government sources the
bookies will take the legal route and the going, you might say, will be heavy.
There is, predictably, little sympathy from the racecourses. David
Thorpe, chairman of the Racecourse Association, said yesterday: "We don't want
to lose the on-course bookmakers. It is important for everyone that they will
be allowed to continue to earn a livelihood. But there is no reason why they
cannot continue to use the pitches at the proper commercial rate. We have a
period of transition until 2012. The Act was passed in 2005 but it was mooted
back in 2003, since when bookmakers have continued to buy pitches. But I am
sure common sense will prevail."
From the point of view of the bookies,
Thorpe's "common sense" means nothing less than grand theft, and this Royal
Ascot has already been a difficult meeting.
Grossmith said: "Crowds are
noticeably down and we made a slow start on Tuesday. It helped that Cockney
Rebel and George Washington didn't win. Today has been steady but no better
than that. Personally, I'm just a little bit ahead today, but just a bit."
When bookmakers lose money the only tears shed tend to be of the
crocodile variety. But, for once, they deserve some sympathy.