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Kevin Smith

Grappling with the New Dea

6 May 2002

What appeared to be a promising future for horseracing in Britain just last week has turned to uncertainty and more tension among bookmakers and track owners.

On Thursday negotiators with the Racecourse Association and the Confederation of Bookmaker Associations said they had reached an "in principle" agreement on how pictures and video feeds could be used in betting shops.

"The concerns of Northern Racing and Arena Leisure had swayed the Racecourse Association negotiators into a totally inadequate arrangement."
-Jim Furlong
Racehorse Owners Association

Neither side was willing to make the details of the agreement official, but one of the leaders for track owners is urging his members to not sign the deal.

Jim Furlong, president of the Racehorse Owners Association, described the betting-shop pictures deal as a "disaster for the racing industry" and warned of "industry action" if the deal is allowed to stand.

Furlong, who is also a director with the British Horseracing Board, the governing authority for horseracing, came out in opposition to the agreement Thursday upon learning the two sides reached a compromise. He feels the deal plays favorites instead of looking out for the needs of the industry.

"The concerns of Northern Racing and Arena Leisure had swayed the Racecourse Association negotiators into a totally inadequate arrangement," he said. "As the owners of relatively small courses, they stand to gain much more from a charge based on races or fixtures."

John Shepherd, a spokesperson with the RCA, said Furlong's opposition to the deal didn't shock him.

"He has a reputation for being rather vociferous with his views," he said. "This is a great deal for all parties involved."

The previous contract, a 15-year deal allowing bookmakers to carry live pictures from all 59 U.K. tracks, expired Wednesday.

Things looked bleak for the country's off-course punters Tuesday, as they faced a blackout from the major tracks following a unanimous vote at the Racecourse Association's annual general meeting against accepting the bookmakers' latest offer for picture rights.

"This is a great deal for all parties involved."
-John Shepherd
Racecourse Association

The two sides were able to hammer out an agreement, though, on Thursday and reported back to their respective delegates with the details of the compromise.

It was then that Furlong raised is opposition to the deal. Determined to send the negotiators back to the table, he called on "the whole industry" to unite to stop the deal.

"Here we are again with the race courses selling off racing for less than it is worth as they did with the SIS (Satellite Information Services) contract," he said in a statement. "Owners take the view that the deal is handing control to the bookies. Those race courses that sign, we should look at their fixtures and decide whether we turn up. We should consider selecting those courses for some kind of industry action. It's a nightmare."

He said he believed the Jockey Club and its subsidiary Racecourse Holdings Trust should condemn the deal on the basis that their major courses will suffer.

"The major race courses, which have the great majority of terrestrial television coverage, are strongly disadvantaged because the bookmakers need not pay for this," he said. "Nor can the big independent racecourses be happy. I would like to have the true reaction from the likes of Ascot, Newbury and Goodwood, all of whom I imagine stand to lose substantially."

Ascot chief executive Douglas Erskine-Crum told The Racing Forum that he was in no position to give his reaction to the deal.

"I have seen nothing in writing," he said. "There are a lot of rumors flying around, and I don't comment on rumors."

Furlong said payments for pictures should be made on a comprehensive per-shop basis.

"It should be made abundantly clear that owners, trainers, jockeys and breeders will not accept a position that will inevitably have an adverse effect on racing's level of funding," he said.

Despite Shepherd's take on Furlong's stance, BHB Chairman Peter Savill released a statement calling for track owners to turn down the purposed deal.

"The agreement reached is a betrayal of racing's interests and race courses should not ratify it," the statement read. " The deal grossly undersells the value of the picture rights and is also on terms which will cause huge damage to racing in the longer term. Based on a fee per fixture, it effectively hands control of the Fixture List to the betting industry in the way that the greyhound racing industry has done with BAGS."

Savill also feels the negotiating team that was supposed to be representing track owners quickly folded to the demands of bookmakers.

"The race course negotiating team has caved in to the bookmakers and reached an agreement without consulting all of the courses they purport to represent and without gaining the support of the wider racing industry," he said. "Those racecourses with the most terrestrial television coverage will be severely hit and Epsom, Aintree and Ascot cannot be happy that they will be getting absolutely nothing for the Derby, Grand National or Royal Ascot.

"The agreement reached is a betrayal of racing's interests and race courses should not ratify it."
- Peter Savill
British Horseracing Board

"The price the RCA has negotiated is almost half of what they were asking for two days ago," the statement continued. "That alone tells you how weakly they have negotiated. They were urged to roll over the existing SIS contract for 30 days but instead hit the panic button."

Keith Brown, chairman of the RCA, released a statement of his own, chastising BHB officials for attacking the deal without reading the fine print.

"The chairman of the BHB has come out publicly against the picture deal without having seen the details and his comments are as unhelpful as they are inaccurate," he said. "These picture rights belong to the racecourses and it is their individual decision whether to accept, and not to be told what to do by the governing authority. The RCA is also highly conscious of its responsibilities under competition law."

While both sides continue to spar publicly, the details of the deal remain a mystery to those outside of the negotiating process. Officials with both the BHB and the RCA said the details probably won't be released until Tuesday at the earliest due to a bank holiday in the UK on Monday.

Officials with both sides are hoping the long weekend would give all parties involved enough time to study the agreement.

Grappling with the New Dea is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith