Thursday, July 25, 2024

Politicians have to be gamblers

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Politicians pretty well have to be gamblers. You give up a promising career in, say, dentistry, teaching or accountancy for a world in which all but a fortunate few are almost bound to end in tears. No matter how diligent and attentive a constituency MP you may be, if the national mood swings against your party, you will be voted out of a job. Your party may be taken over by a dominant clique of head-bangers with views alien to your own. Even if you make it through to ministerial office, some departmental disaster created by others may have you hounded by the media until you are forced to resign.

The image-conscious BBC chose the ‘Gamblegate’ period to abandon the racing tips on the Today programme

But what on earth got into the minds of those Conservatives who seem to have used insider information to bet on the election date? Did they not think how it would be seen? Sure, I have had a few political bets in my time. Back in 1974 I took the 50-1 offered against Margaret Thatcher becoming the next leader of the Conservative party. But that wasn’t a bet based on inside information: it was my judgment as a young political correspondent at a time when my seniors regarded the amiable Willie Whitelaw as a shoo-in.

When I became political editor of the BBC, my day job when I started writing this column, I gave up political betting on the spot, aware that if it became known I had punted on some political outcome, accusations of partial reporting would rapidly follow. How much extra damage the election-date betting Tories did to a party which has developed an unrivalled capacity for self-harm is not my concern. What worries me is the damage likely to be done to horseracing by the deluge of anti-gambling headlines which have followed, as if all betting – not just corrupt betting by people who knew they were on to a sure thing – is to be condemned.

Typically, the image-conscious BBC chose the ‘Gamblegate’ period to abandon the daily brace of racing tips on the Today programme, a harmless bit of fun which briefly lightened the tone of its serious concerns. I doubt if those few seconds every day ever led a single soul down the path to perdition, but it is all part of a picture: BBC bosses were only too pleased to give up TV coverage of racing back in 2012 although at least we still have the splendid John Hunt race-calling with verve on Radio 5. The worry is that a new government may use the current anti-betting climate to earn some easy praise from tabloid leader–writers by making life more difficult for punters. Whether we like it or not, racing’s future is bound up with the betting revenues it relies upon.

Taking a week away from the sport in Frankie Dettori’s favourite Sardinia, I was reflecting on why Royal Ascot seemed so much more enjoyable this year than the jumping Mecca of the Cheltenham Festival, and the statistics offered a vital clue. What race-goers like best are contests with plenty of runners and outcomes uncertain enough to ensure that winners come home at decent prices.

At Cheltenham this year, thanks to the domination of Willie Mullins and some super-rich owners, five of the 27 winners were at miserable odds-on, while four more were at 2-1 or less. But throughout Ascot’s 35 races only one race had an odds-on favourite, which lost. Every one of the races at Ascot had at least eight runners, enabling each-way betting. At Cheltenham, 18 of the 27 winners were trained in Ireland, eight of them by Willie Mullins. At Ascot, on my count, 15 British trainers and four from Ireland had winners, and there were 25 different owners of the 35 winners.

British flat racing is dependent not just on betting revenues but heavily so on Middle Eastern owners. At Ascot this year five Middle Eastern winners had three different Dubai-based owners; five were owned by Qatari interests; and two by the Bahrain-based Victorious Racing. All of them were trained in Britain. With a winner apiece from France and Australia, there was plenty of precious variety. For me, it is a case of the more the merrier, with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani’s free-spending Wathnan Racing providing a welcome boost to our sport.

A special word though for Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum. Not only does he insist that ‘I never interfere with any of my jockeys or trainers’, he has vowed to keep two of Ascot’s more exciting home-bred winners, Rosallion and Inisherin, in training next year rather than rushing them to the breeding sheds. We need more like him.

One other aspect of Royal Ascot to note is that the north/south divide in jump racing’s results at Cheltenham over recent years (Scotland’s Lucinda Russell apart) was nowhere evident. Six Royal Ascot winners were trained in Yorkshire, two each by Karl Burke and Kevin Ryan, one by Ed Bethell and one by David and Nic Barron. Owners should note the words of the Middleham-based Karl Burke: ‘We can do the job up here as well as anybody.’

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