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Pitch battle looming as bookies bridle at new Gambling Act 21/06/2007
Paul Weaver

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 teeth.

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.

Rails Bookmakers’ Association
Rails Bookmakers’ Association
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 compensation claims."

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.