Obtaining the exclusive rights to operate pool betting in this country has long been regarded as the one remaining chance to put British racing on a sound financial footing.
While it has always been accepted that the British punter has a preference for fixed odds betting, many of us within the industry cling to the notion that the Tote, properly exploited outside of the clutches of government and using the global market, represents a wonderful opportunity.
Driven by this belief, the racing industry has spent many years engaging with various governments, first with the expectation that the Tote would be gifted to racing and then, when the spectre of European state aid legislation appeared, that racing could at least acquire the Tote for a sum substantially less than the open-market value.
So when the coalition announced a definite intention to sell the Tote, it first gave rise to optimism but then to a gradual realisation that the government – and more particularly the Treasury – would be motivated more by who would pay the highest price than by any moral or ethical arguments.
The recent news that the so-called Tote Foundation had failed in its bid to retain the business was therefore greeted with more disappointment than surprise. Certainly, racing had been clear in its support of this charitable foundation as a vehicle for the Tote, but, in recent weeks, it became apparent that the foundation was unable to raise sufficient funds, even when the half share of the proceeds that racing was promised was put into the equation.
Although, at the time of writing, there has been no official statement by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it became known in mid-April that the only two parties left in the race were the bookmaker Betfred and a consortium headed up by the former BHB Chairman, Martin Broughton.
Non-disclosure agreements make open discussion difficult but it is clear the government are walking a tightrope. Although they need to maximise the open market value, if for no other reason but to avoid a state aid challenge, they would also be keen to avoid stirring up hostility from the racing industry.
By gifting a half-share of the proceeds of the sale to racing, it may be the government believes it will have done enough to assuage this industry but nobody should have any doubts as to how much conditionality and longevity they will attach to the fulfilment of their pledge.
It is imperative that racing stays united if it is to extract anything from this messy and unsatisfactory situation. Whatever the differences between horsemen and racecourses in recent months, we need to put these to one side in agreeing where we should now be with the Tote.
We may have to accept that British horseracing is not going to own the exclusive pool betting licence, but the racing industry still has some strong cards left to play in influencing whoever eventually acquires the licence.
A shopping list of racing’s requirements should now be presented to the two parties left in the race in order to ‘buy’ racing’s support. This should insist that the Tote’s current annual contribution through sponsorship and racecourse payments are at least maintained in perpetuity; that the Tote’s current payments to the levy remain on the same basis as now; that racing has Board representation on the vehicle set up to run pool betting; and that there is an opportunity for racing entities and individuals to obtain equity share in the business.
I am certainly not in a position at this sensitive stage to speculate on which of the two remaining bidders for the Tote could meet these demands, but, if they are met, British racing will perhaps not look back on its failure to acquire the Tote with the remorse that still surrounds our failure to achieve an off-course betting monopoly in the early sixties.