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A perfect occasion for a bit of justified lip-curling.

Byline: Paul Haigh

THE news last week that McDonald's will shortly be entitled to hand out MacAlevels raises depressing questions about the future of Britain - and of humanity in general. Why not go the whole hog? Why not eliminate the distinction between commercial activity and academe? Why not dump non-money-making subjects such as history, literature and philosophy, and organise kids to throw cold chips and coleslaw at anyone who wants to study them?

'Let's not get snobbish about this' say all the commentators as preface to their snobbish thoughts on the subject. But why the hell not? When was there last an occasion when a bit of lip-curling was so obviously justified? What it reminds us is that everything in the world is still in the process of being dumbed down, and the process is continuing because dumbing-down works.

Look at TV. I don't mean that literally. I mean, look at what has happened to TV. A couple of decades ago pessimists advanced the then implausible idea that soon we'd have 500 channels, and nothing to watch on any of them. How nearly right they were. If it weren't for sport, and maybe Jon Snow and Jeremy Paxman, you might as well set fire to your TV, or just see if it floats. That which is dumb gets better viewing figures than that which encourages, or - biggest crime of all - requires thought. That's not a theory. It's a fact.

So what is racing doing about this? To what extent are we following the iron laws of economics by making our sport more 'accessible' (revolting word) to those with slack jaws and room-temperature IQs? Sweet Football Association is the answer. Here is what we should be doing. We should be making our essentially cerebral sport much less complicated. We should be banning all interviews with people who speak racing jargon. We should be eliminating form study, that bane of the innumerate and the intellectually challenged. We should be running races that last no more than 30 seconds, so that attention spans remain as far as possible unstretched. Hang on a minute, though. The bookies have already done it. Welcome to Steepledowns.

"British racing is the Titanic . . . and I'm just the first one into the lifeboat," said Nigel Shields explaining why he has moved his operations. He doesn't mind identifying the iceberg. It's the offcourse bookmaking industry. We had the choice between prize-money and the right to bet with bookmakers, and we made the wrong decision. Still, no going back now. In other countries, things are different. The tote monopolies have their profits skimmed by only government. So horses run for proper prizes. So Nigel's gone to America, where bookies go to jail.

It's not as though all bookies are bad eggs. Far from it. Many are excellent fellows who love racing as deeply as you or I. But their loyalty has to be to their shareholders. There is no advantage to their shareholders in allowing racing one penny more than is squeezed out of them for the levy; no advantage at all in promoting top-class racing while dross serves the turnover process just as well. Don't blame them. Understand them. What's harder to understand is why many sets of owners (though not Nigel Shields) will send horses out for a prize that will cover only a couple of months' training expenses if they win it.

SHIELDS is a computer man. Another computer man was lost to racing last week. Alan Woods was allegedly the most successful punter of all time. When he died in Manila, surrounded by the Filipina lovelies who made his declining years agreeable, he didn't know how much money he had, or in how many different currencies. Rumour suggests the equivalent of about half a billion sterling.

Woods had three things going for him: an extraordinary mathematical mind; a willingness to work very hard not just at form but on everything that might affect a horse's performance; and a country, with huge betting pools and a small horse population, where he could know that integrity was as near absolute as man can make it. The way integrity is imposed in Hong Kong is draconian. Even a slight whiff of corruption loses a licence.

There are all sorts of reasons why Woods could never have worked in Britain, but the most important is that here there's never been a successful prosecution for corruption in racing, and now there probably never will be. We should all rejoice that the innocent walked free from the Old Bailey, but perhaps our joy should not be unconfined. There's another iceberg on the horizon, and it even has a name. It's called Carte Blanche.

Big Mac and fries please - and a PhD in Burger Flipping while you're at it. You can never have too many qualifications these days.

'We should eliminate form study, that bane of the intellectually challenged'
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 3, 2008
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