Politicians must be players

Politicians must be players. You give up a promising career in e.g. dentistry, teaching or accounting for a world where all but a lucky few will almost end in tears. However diligent and attentive a constituency MP you are, if the national mood swings against your party, you will be voted out of a job. Your party may be taken over by a domineering clique of head-bangers with views alien to your own. Even if you make it to the ministerial office, some ministerial 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 racing tips on the Today programme

But what the hell got into the heads of the conservatives who seem to have used inside information to bet on the election date? Didn’t they think about how it would be seen? Sure, I’ve had a few political bets in my time. Back in 1974 I took the 50-1 odds offered against Margaret Thatcher becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party. But it 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 that I had predicted any political outcome, accusations of biased reporting would quickly follow . How much extra damage the election-date betting Tories did to a party that has developed an unparalleled ability to damage itself is not my concern. What worries me is the damage to horse racing from the barrage of anti-gambling headlines that has followed, as if all betting – not just corrupt betting by people who knew they were onto a sure thing – was to be condemned.

Typically the image conscious BBC chose the ‘Gamblegate’ period to abandon the daily race of racing tips on Today program, a harmless amusement that briefly lightened the tone of his serious concerns. I doubt if those few seconds each day ever led a single soul down the road to perdition, but it’s all part of a picture: BBC bosses were only too happy to give up televised racing coverage back in 2012, although at least we still have the great John Hunt competition with verve on Radio 5. The worry is that a new government could use the current anti-betting climate to win some praise from tabloid-head writers by making life more difficult for punters. Whether we like it or not, racing’s future is tied to the gaming revenue it relies on.

Taking a week away from the sport in Frankie Dettori’s favorite Sardinia, I reflected on why Royal Ascot seemed so much more fun this year than the jumping mecca of the Cheltenham Festival, and the statistics provided an important clue. What racegoers like best are races with many runners and results uncertain enough to ensure that the winners come home at decent prices.

At Cheltenham this year, thanks to the dominance of Willie Mullins and some super-rich owners, five of the 27 winners were at miserable odds, while four more were 2-1 or less. But in Ascot’s entire 35 races, only one race had an odds-on favourite, which lost. Each of the races at Ascot had at least eight runners, allowing betting on each. At Cheltenham, 18 of the 27 winners in Ireland were trained, eight of them by Willie Mullins. At Ascot, by 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 not only dependent on betting revenue but heavily on Middle Eastern owners. At Ascot this year, five winners from the Middle East had three different Dubai-based owners; five were owned by Qatari interests; and two by Bahrain-based Victorious Racing. All of them were educated in the UK. With a winner from France and Australia, there was plenty of precious variety. For me, it’s 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 bother 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 instead of rushing them to the studs. We need more like him.

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

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