Reino Unido: O glamour do Derby contrasta fortemente com o lado negro do setor das apostas no Reino Unido

In an important, disturbing and often distressing investigation for the Guardian last Tuesday Tom Lamont laid bare the grim reality of daily working life for the staff in many...

In an important, disturbing and often distressing investigation for the Guardian last Tuesday Tom Lamont laid bare the grim reality of daily working life for the staff in many of Britain’s 9,000 betting shops. He detailed violence, intimidation and long, unsociable hours, often worked under the modern regime of “single manning”, which leaves staff, often women, to face everything the high street can throw at them with just four, cash-rich FOBTs (fixed odds betting terminals) for company.

The many staff who spoke to Lamont made it clear that in the modern betting shop racing turnover has been pushed to the margins by the gaming machines. “Privately, informally,” he wrote, “staff divide the modern class of betting-shop punter into two broad groups: the Older Gentlemen (in for the horses) and the Machine Gamblers.” The inference is clear. Racing is for the generations on the way out. Slowly but surely a 250-year-old sport – and industry – is on the wane.

The sights and sounds of Derby Day this weekend, however, suggested the polar opposite. There is no formal count of the crowd on the Hill in the middle of the track but 100,000 is the usual estimate and the main enclosures were a sellout. Nor is it just the size of the crowd that gives cause for optimism. In terms of age, social class and gender this was surely the most diverse audience for any sporting event all year.

No one could claim that everyone there was interested in the racing or even the big race itself. There were punters having their brains scrambled on white-knuckle rides as the Classic field was going into the stalls. But the Derby itself was both competitive and compelling and Harzand and US Army Ranger, the winner and runner-up, are names that at least some of the crowd can look forward to following as the season continues.

It is not just Epsom that is more than holding its own. Racing’s major meetings – Cheltenham, Aintree, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood to name but four – are prospering too in terms of attendance and prize money. A spectator sport whose fortunes were traditionally pegged to those of the economy has ridden out the financial crisis surprisingly well.

Yet away from the track, betting turnover is declining and the television viewing figures are static at best. The peak audience for Channel 4’s final broadcast from Epsom was 1.4m, a slight drop on last year’s figure but 550,000 short of the 1.95m who watched C4’s first Derby in 2013. Twelve months before that the BBC’s coverage peaked at 3.3m viewers.

The move to ITV next year should improve the viewing figure, since ITV can cross-promote its racing coverage more effectively to a core audience which is, in any case, much larger than that for Channel 4.

The disparity between racing’s on-course success and off-course decline, however, seems likely only to increase. The rise of online gambling, which has much lower overheads in terms of staff and premises, has played its part but Lamont’s investigation makes it clear that many betting shop staff are very clear about who, or rather what, is to blame.

The historic idiocy and poisonous consequences of the 2005 Gambling Act, which legitimised FOBTs in betting shops, have been a recurring theme in this column for nearly a decade. Even Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary who steered the legislation through parliament, now seems to concede that it was a mistake to unleash hard-core gaming on to the high street at £100 a spin, three times per minute.

Yet the machines are still here, transforming our high streets into a series of mini-casinos. Since 2005 the betting on racing and other sports that was the lifeblood of shops has given way to the bleak, mechanical relentlessness of gaming. At the same time many of the senior executives in major gambling businesses who had a background in bookmaking have been replaced by a new breed, that cares only about maintaining the supply of fresh meat for the machines. Their salaries and bonuses depend on it.

Betting, and off-course betting in particular, underpins the entire racing economy. If the racecourse is the sport’s stage, the off-course outlets are, in a sense, its shop floor.

So how has racing responded to the arrival of gaming in its high-street heartland? Shamefully, it has lent its support to the bookies’ claims that stronger regulation or an outright ban on FOBTs would lead to hundreds of shop closures.

Racing does not fear a drop in the betting levy on off-course business so much as the big hole that could appear in media rights payments to racecourses. These deals are done per race and, crucially, per shop. It is one of the reasons – among several – why tracks like Epsom, Ascot and Cheltenham are doing so well.

From the operator’s point of view, gaming is risk-free. It requires only one member of staff to switch on a FOBT in the morning, empty it when necessary during the day, and then switch it off at night. It is both more difficult and more expensive – in terms of staffing in particular – to make money from sports betting.

Source: The Guardian