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Horse Racing: Minister says sort it out after levy rollover.

Byline: By Howard Wright

SPORTS minister Gerry Sutcliffe has told racing and bookmakers they have eight months to find a solution on how best the betting industry can provide the main source of funding for the sport.

He described the two sides approach to funding as a "nonsense" that "must not happen again", but both racing and bookmakers yesterday voiced their disappointment at a levy determination that met neither of their demands.

The Levy Board expects to raise an estimated pounds 97.5 million from bookmakers in the current scheme, and the government's determination of the 2008-09 levy scheme, which starts on April 1, involves a rollover of this year's details, with adjustment for inflation, as forecast in the Racing Post on Tuesday, Sutcliffe revealed he was calling a meeting under the auspices of the All-Party Racing and Bloodstock Industries Group "to initiate discussions on a wide range of issues".

A commercial alternative to the levy system will be top of the agenda at the first meeting - the date and constitution of which has still to be decided - when Sutcliffe himself will take the chair normally held jointly by Labour's Jeff Ennis and Tory John Greenway.

"We can't be in the same position again this year; the gap between the two sides needs to be closed," said Sutcliffe, who replaced Richard Caborn in July, in Gordon Brown's first reshuffle as prime minister, and was immediately pitched into the prospect of having to make a levy determination after the October 31 deadline for agreement by the Levy Board.

The inevitable duly happened, and yesterday Sutcliffe said he had not been wholly persuaded by either racing's or the bookmakers' submissions, nor had he been able to reconcile their starkly contrasting approaches.

Barely disguising his extreme frustration, he said: "People did ask for a rollover and a review, but when it came to the deadline, they dumped it on our doorstep. Then they threatened all sorts of legal action. It's a nonsense, and it must not happen again this year."

With the transfer of the National Stud from the Levy Board to the Jockey Club due to be advanced in parliament today, and a decision on the sale of the Tote expected "within weeks", according to Sutcliffe, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is anxious to clear racing from its desks as soon as possible.

Sutcliffe accepted the levy will not be sorted in the short term, but he said: "This is not where government wants to be. It's up to racing and the bookmakers to get together to agree a way forward.

"We understand betting is a competitive industry, and racing has done a lot to modernise itself and there is a positive feeling out there about the sector, but that enthusiasm has to be turned into positive action."

Sutcliffe admitted that getting the two sides to agree on a process would not be straightforward.

"The problem is that while people are nice to each other in public, behind the scenes they are cutting each other's throats. That's not the way to behave."

However, he said there were positives to be taken from the process, while he also waved a well-used stick at the betting industry, by revealing he was asking the Gambling Commission to examine whether gaming machines in the category covering FOBTs were triggering problem gambling.

Reflecting on the "new considerations" introduced to the determination process by the BHA and the Bookmakers' Committee, he said he had reached a view on some, but all would be issues to be put on the table in front of the All-Party Racing Group.

He saw no real justification to accept the BHA's plea to change the way levy is charged on betting exchanges, and on the BHA's reference to a fair return to racing, he accepted the cultural and economic value of racing but said it was implicit in the initial creation of a statutory levy scheme.

On the BHA's call for an increase in levy to take account of extra costs from staging more fixtures, Sutcliffe said the increased meetings had not resulted in any commensurate growth in horseracing betting, so there should be no adjustment in the level of the levy.

Turning to the betting industry, he dismissed the idea of allowing some offset from the levy to cover Gambling Commission fees.

On the issue of TurfTV, Sutcliffe left the door most widely open for commercial negotiations, saying he could accept that subscriptions were "a commercially based flow of money to racing," and therefore may have a material effect on bookmakers' ability to pay and racing's needs.

However, there were widely divergent views on the status of TurfTV and its impact on the level of the levy, though "in time its full economic impact on bookmakers, racecourse and horseracing generally may become clearer".

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Gerry Sutcliffe: "It's up to racing and the bookmakers to get together"
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 21, 2008
Words:817
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