Paul Bittar’s departure leaves racing in same doldrums as Ladbrokes | Greg Wood

The bookmakers’ struggle for profits is a reminder that the British Horseracing Authority’s much-needed restructuring and reforms will be hit by the wait for a new chief executive

Ladbrokes is not the force it was in the bookmaking business. Along with William Hill, its history, reputation and brand recognition gave it a 10-length start on most of its rivals when betting went digital but, while Hills has pressed on and made the most of its advantage, Ladbrokes has dropped back into the chasing pack, weighed down by profit warnings, technology problems and the loss of its betting-odds director, Jon Thompson, scarcely a year after his arrival from a minor operator in Antigua.

But its name still had sufficient clout to get front-page treatment in the Racing Post earlier this week when the firm’s chief executive, Richard Glynn, used his announcement of Ladbrokes’ disappointing first-half results – operating profit down by 33.7% – to complain about “the seemingly inexorable rise in costs for racing, for both content and the levy process”.

Glynn added: “Horse racing as a product continues to decline. Concerns continue to mount within the industry around the costs related to horse racing and the provision of racing content.

“While the racing industry continues to pursue strategies to increase its revenue from betting, the value it delivers continues to decline. This new reality needs to be understood.

“Constructive dialogue which places a proportionate value on the role bookmaking has in keeping horseracing as a viable sport can then take place in the right way to ensure a vibrant and growing product.”

Glynn’s observations were, of course, mainly for the benefit of Ladbrokes’ shareholders, who have seen the value of their investment drop by up to 15% since his appointment in April 2010. The “cost” of racing is an easy target for bookmakers even when business is thriving, and even more enticing when it is not.

But his comments are a reminder, too, that the modern, commercial structure for racing, which has been a stated ambition of a series of senior administrators for at least two decades, remains a distant prospect, more distant than ever, perhaps, now the British Horseracing Authority is in limbo, awaiting the appointment of a chief executive to replace Paul Bittar when his contract expires early next year.

When, or if, racing ever sells itself commercially via betting, the sport’s customers will be the punters, not the bookmakers, and the idea that bookies have a duty to pass on a percentage of their profits to racing will be obsolete. Instead those who want to offer betting on racing will do so because it is good for their business and they have a clear incentive to promote it for the same reason. It will not be a question of how much they “give back” to racing but instead how much racing lets them keep for handling the betting side of the business.

The outline of a structure which could make it happen, with the best racing separated out from the day-to-day betting-shop product, was established years ago. Bittar, meanwhile, helped to broker a commercial funding agreement with Betfair early on in his three-year tenure which offered a glimpse of how future deals with bookmakers might look but there is no guarantee that his successor will move things any further along or, for that matter, that a commercial future remains one of the sport’s principal ambitions.

Bittar’s job is often described as the “most powerful” in racing but the real authority on the turf still resides in the Jockey Club, whose members own most of the best horses, large chunks of Newmarket and also, via Jockey Club Racecourses, most of the best tracks too. Nothing will ever change significantly without the Jockey Club’s consent.

His decision to quit came as a surprise, for while his time as chief executive had its setbacks and crises – the most obvious being the Godolphin doping scandal and the woefully inadequate BHA investigation which followed – he was, by fairly general consent, a smart, engaging and effective leader for a sport with well-established factional divisions.

Perhaps he had a better offer, or simply wanted to return home to Australia. Or perhaps – and this is pure speculation – he had tired of a role which offered regular opportunities for disaster management but not the authority to effect positive, meaningful change. Whatever the reason, his successor has a difficult act to follow.

Contributor

Greg Wood

The GuardianTramp

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