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Web could ensnare the golden goose; The levy system will soon have as much relevance to the funding of racing as the longbow does to modern warfare.

IN ANCIENT Rome, one of the muckier jobs was that of Haruspex, a man who predicted the future from studying the entrails of freshly eviscerated animals. Speculation that Victor Chandler may be about to sell his business to Joe Lewis's ENIC group prompts me to reach for the sharpest knife and rummage around in the chicken's innards.

If the rumours are true, Chandler, an individualist and innovator, is about to be absorbed by an individualist on a far greater scale. At a reputed pounds 70 million, the asking price for Chandler's long-established family firm represents milk-bill money for Lewis, who is worth in excess of a billion pounds and probably the best part of two.

That Chandler might be sold is no surprise, but that the business could be snapped up so soon after his move offshore, announced in May, comes as a shock and an indication of how fast the landscape is changing.

Furthermore, it confirms the inescapable conclusion derived from studying the broiler's intestines for clues about racing's future-that we face a period of rampant uncertainty fuelled by ever-accelerating changes in the way the world works.

One theory about ENIC's absorption of Chandler is that it may be used as the core of a global online betting business, a grail that is already being pursued by several fledgling organisations.

And it is the internet, the realm of dot-com, with its vast e-commerce potential and rewriting of all the rules of communication, that will change the world and racing along with it-because racing remains a tiny part of the real world, even if we sometimes behave as if we inhabit a planet of our own.

At some stage, and probably soon, there is going to be a massive quake in the value of US internet stocks, which have largely driven the recent equities boom over the Atlantic. All the technology stock indices have lost value and acute nerves led to a raft of internet flotations being aborted in America last week. Some will call it a 'correction', others a bubble bursting or a crash.

I prefer to describe it as a 'reality-drench' and, while it may engender market uncertainty or even leave short-term financial turmoil in its wake, it will do nothing to halt the pervasive spread of the internet and its attendant incursion into everyday life. A correction of stock values is just that-it will not be the reversal of an unbuckable trend.

The move offshore by Chandler, Stan James and, eventually, the Big Three-unless they can extract massive concessions from Government-represents the building of a coffin for the way racing is financed. Online betting will provide the lid and the nails.

Of course, this depends on the penetration of computers into the average home. The over-40s think it will take decades, but it won't, because every school in the country has the technology and teaches the know-how. Each crop of school-leavers is more genuinely computer-literate than the preceding one.

Ten years ago, the mobile phone was rare. It is now commonplace and that will prove the template for a similar democratisation of the internet.

In a prescient piece in Saturday's Post, my colleague Paul Haigh analysed the impact of offshore betting and began to intone the last rites over the levy system. I repeat his words: "The way things appear to be heading at the moment, only fools, or those who simply enjoy the atmosphere, will bet in shops in the future."

The levy system has not failed as such, but it is in the process of being bypassed by progress and transformed into a piece of fiscal history, alongside Pitt's Window Tax.

It will soon have as much relevance to the funding of racing as the longbow does to modern warfare.

As online betting develops, there is the potential to bet direct with scores of sites around the world, none of which need feel the moral (or PR) requirement to donate some of the profits to racing as Victor Chandler does. And this will usher in competition in terms of prices and concessions that will give the big bookmakers a major attack of apoplexy.

We may be some way from a computer in every council house in Kirkby, but that remark was probably made about the microwave, the satellite dish and the now ubiquitous mobile. It is an illusion that things change slowly. When change is driven by technical innovation it can be breathtakingly fast, and the argument that current leaps forward may do as much to change people's way of life as the industrial revolution is sustainable at the least.

Governments like betting for the simple reason that they can tax it, but from Vegas to Vladivostok, Dundee to Darwin, the golden goose of gambling is about to migrate on a permanent basis.

The worldwide 'take' from betting is beyond calculation and the potential profits boundless. An electronic site, based in some tax-friendly third-world shelter, could operate round the clock, offering prices on all conceivable sports to punters from every country on the globe.

We have the technology and it is only a matter of time before betting begins to go global-and begins to become ungovernable.

It is early days, but with a Chandler deal edging closer, a large stone is on the point of being thrown into the pond. Ripples will follow.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Down, Alastair
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Aug 9, 1999
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