The government has once again raised the prospect of selling the Tote. The Independent’s racing correspondent Chris McGrath feels this is the chance for racing to get its house in order and buy the Tote and take the fight to the bookmakers.
Fell off the back of a lorry, I suppose. Whenever the Government starts talking about selling off the Tote, as it did once again on Wednesday, you wonder anew whether there has ever been a more barefaced case of handling stolen goods. But in these austere times, it is surprising the Treasury hasn't already melted down the gates of Buckingham Palace. Certainly, it would have no compunction about hawking the Tote at a car boot sale, never mind to the vultures circling over some complex, ambiguous "open market process".
The very next day, the British Horseracing Authority announced a formal partnership, Racing United, to reiterate unanimity among the sport's various stakeholders that they are not getting "a fair return from the betting industry". This felt a bit like the scene in Groundhog Day where our man punches the insurance salesman: it might feel as though you have done something to redress your frustrations, but the bottom line is that it's still Groundhog Day. In other words, it's that time of year again, when the BHA and bookmakers stand glowering on different sides of the Levy abyss.
On Wednesday, then, racing found itself jumping up and down in a helpless tantrum, wishing that life was not so bally unfair. And on Thursday, it jumped up and down in a helpless tantrum, wishing that life was not so bally unfair.
The BHA leadership is often accused of lacking gusto, but there are limits to what they can do. The recent negotiation of fixtures directly between racecourses and the Horsemen's Group must give them intimations of irrelevance.But before they ride off into the sunset they should recognise their big cue.
If it's the last thing they do – and, if they don't succeed, it might as well be – they must get the Government to recognise the Tote as the Trojan horse by which to lift the bookmakers' siege at last.
Though trousering 13.5 per cent of the win pool – never mind up to 30 per cent in unique exotic pools, such as the Scoop6 – the Tote routinely manages parity with the prices returned by bookmakers. By cutting deductions to 10 per cent, or even less, they could presumably under-cut not just the bookmakers, but the betting exchanges as well. If racing could organise itself to pay off the Treasury, it might never again have to worry about getting a "fair return" from the betting industry. It would be the betting industry.
Punters would benefit, too. At the moment, racing has an invidious stake in bookmakers making money out of mugs. And it is infuriated by the new, smarter exchange generation. All that could change overnight. And what about the untapped, global potential for pool betting on other sports? (A betting exchange, after all, is itself just another type of pool wagering.)
It's not that simple, of course. The Government would have to prolong or protect the exclusive pool-betting licence. You would presumably have to write off Tote Direct, a vital conduit from other betting shop chains into Tote pools. The Tote's existing staff and infrastructure would bring their own burdens.
But handing over the Tote to predatory interests would replicate the original, disastrously myopic state decision to legalise betting shops in the private sector. There are businessmen close to racing's corridors of power who clearly consider the Tote a sleeping giant. And this is where you need a body like Racing United. Because if the bookmakers really are making all this dough, and won't share it properly, then the sport's stakeholders know just what to do. If you can't join them, beat them.