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Punters are the casualties in TurfTV wars 21/04/2007
Greg Wood Saturday April 21, 2007

There were 17 people in the William Hill betting shop next to Victoria station at 1.40pm yesterday. Three were playing on the roulette machines and six more were watching them, mesmerised by the flashing lights and oblivious to anything else. Most of the remaining eight, however, had had a bet of some sort on the first race at Newbury and many faces wore an expression of bafflement as the runners set off with the main screen showing an empty dog track.

For 20 years, punters have known that, whatever the result, if they had a bet at a major meeting they would be able to see where their money went. But not any more, for the moment at least. Yesterday's meeting at Newbury was blanked out in 95% of Britain's betting shops and many punters were taken by surprise.

"It pisses you off, doesn't it?", Tony, who goes into the shop "most lunchtimes", said. "I'd heard it was happening, but I didn't realise it was starting today.

Turf Tv
"You bet so that you can watch, don't you? Everyone's used to it, you just take it for granted. Next time I might find somewhere that's got it all on, because there's not much point if you can't watch."

And as luck would have it, Tony and the other punters of London SW1 do have a choice. An inquiry in another Hill's shop two streets away as to whether they would be showing the Newbury card brought an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders from the manager, but some helpful advice from one of his punters. "Go to the Better shop up the road," he said. "They've got all the racing on there." The manager gave him a thanks-a-bunch stare.

The big bookmakers are hoping that their regulars will not notice that races from major tracks and meetings have dropped off their schedule. Or, if they do notice, that they will not care enough to hunt down one of the 600 or so shops in Britain and Ireland that currently subscribe to TurfTV, the racecourse-led channel that had the exclusive betting-shop rights to yesterday's Newbury card.

Better, which operates 14 shops in London, is one of the few firms in the capital with TurfTV, and yesterday they were making the most of it.

"From our point of view it would be a nonsense not to be showing Newbury today, it's just a no-brainer," Conleth Byrne, Better's marketing director, said. "We see it as a great marketing opportunity and we've had people outside our competitor shops at all our locations today, handing out leaflets letting people know that if they want to see the best racing, they need to go to one of our shops.

"The argument is basically about the supply of a product but that's no reason to pass the problem on to our customers. If a supermarket falls out with one of its wheat suppliers, it doesn't stop selling bread until it's sorted out."

As the Better punters settled down to watch uninterrupted live coverage of the racing, a nearby Ladbrokes had a tractor ploughing the track at Monmore as the field set off for Newbury's 2.10. Nor were their announcers doing much to ease the pain. "It's always a great card, this one," one of them said. "One of my favourites of the whole year."

The bookies can still show races that are broadcast on terrestrial television, so four of the main events at Newbury today will be watchable wherever you go. Some of the bigger "independent" chains - such as Paddy Power, who signed up at 11pm on Thursday night - are also preparing to subscribe to TurfTV, but there is no sign as yet of any nervous twitches at Hill's, Ladbrokes, Coral, Totesport or Betfred.

The clincher may be Royal Ascot in June, the biggest racing event of the year in turnover terms. "Racing needs betting and betting needs racing," Byrne said yesterday. "But they both need customers."