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Racing For Change's decimal plan signals end to the sport's old ways 5/01/2010
Greg Wood

A point to bear in mind when considering the first proposals from Racing For Change is that these are not, on the whole, designed with the sport's current audience in mind. If a certain idea also improves the racegoing or betting experience for long-standing fans, that is a bonus. The primary aim, though, is to recruit some new ones, and young ones in particular.

The idea of a racing club for "younger adults", offering a free introduction both to racing and ownership, is a very good one, although it is a pity that, for political reasons, the minimum age for membership has been set at 18 rather than 16. The concern is that RFC will be accused of encouraging under-aged gambling, though since the Government is already happy to sell lottery tickets to 16-year-olds, it should not be a difficult charge to answer.

Other proposals seem likely to be either positive or, in many cases, largely neutral in their effect on committed racing fans. The scheme to put money aside to give trainers and jockeys media training and then, presumably, push them aggressively to the mainstream media is a perfectly reasonable one, but anyone who takes their news from the Racing Post and their television coverage from Racing UK and the Attheraces channel is unlikely to notice the difference.

The on-course betting market, meanwhile, is already stagnating. The plan by the RFC, which was set up by the British Horseracing Board, to compel racecourse bookies to stop betting to unreasonable each-way terms is long overdue, but so much so in all probability that any improvement will be negligible.

The one obvious exception, though, is the plan to trial the use of odds, including starting prices, in a decimal format over a weekend in the spring.

The possibility that fractional odds, a relic of the days of pounds, shillings and pence, might eventually go the same way as the old currency itself will concern many punters. When you immerse yourself in racing, one of the first things you do is to learn to count in a whole new way: evens, 11-10, 6-5, 5-4, 11-8 and so on. Some backers still ask to "bet the fractions" at the track, to get 100-8, for instance, instead of 12-1, or 100-6 instead of 16-1.

Yet it is now nearly 40 years since shillings went the way of guineas, and these kind of odds mean little or nothing to the average 18-year-old. Even if they are unable work out £15 at 2.85 in their heads, they will have a mobile telephone with a calculator that can do the job for them with a minimum of fuss. When faced with £15 at 15-8, on the other hand, which is roughly the same thing, they might not know where to start.

It may be just for a weekend, but any move towards greater use of decimal odds will not sit well with traditional backers, who will see it, probably with good reason, as the thin end of the wedge. I, for one, will share their pain. Understanding fractions makes you feel like part of the gang.

But this, of course, is also part of the problem. One person's initiation ceremony is another's barrier to entry, and with so much competition in the leisure market, new fans need to be tempted in as painlessly as possible. If the drive to recruit a new generation of punters from the 18-24 age group will benefit from a general switch to decimal odds, then it is something that the rest of us may just have to swallow.

Flat trainers have set an example (of sorts). When 48-hour declarations for Flat races were introduced in 2006, the cries of anguish were long and loud, not least in North Yorkshire, where the leading trainer Mark Johnston did a fair impression of a firebrand preacher, convinced that the end of the world was nigh.

Three years later, racing is still here, and punters and racegoers have the considerable bonus of knowing what will be running where, a full 24 hours earlier than they did before.

Change often seems unpleasant and, from a selfish point of view, unnecessary. But the prospect is generally a lot worse than the reality, and may well have wider benefits that outweigh the negatives. Fractional odds are part of the fabric of racing, but the time may now be right to consider the alternative.