Levy Board faces decision as new system awaits European commission approval

Chris Cook
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Lord Lipsey predicted that ‘this half-baked legislative scheme’ – the reformed levy system – would founder in a court-room.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images</span>
Lord Lipsey predicted that ‘this half-baked legislative scheme’ – the reformed levy system – would founder in a court-room. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

The first order of business for racing after Easter weekend will be to decide whether it needs to rein back on spending or carry on shelling out more than its income in the expectation of better days ahead. The Levy Board, which collects and distributes the money racing gets from bookmakers, will meet on Wednesday to determine prize money levels for June, knowing its reserves are ebbing away and future income has not yet been secured.

In very broad terms those reserves are now £20m while the board’s monthly income is around £4m. It is spending £6m per month to maintain prize money levels, creating an uncomfortable awareness among all those involved that this situation cannot continue for ever.

That would matter less if there were certainty about the reformed levy system coming into force some time soon, lifting the sport’s annual income by an estimated £30m. The new system, which will cover offshore bookmakers and which completed its progress through parliament last month, has not yet received state aid approval from the European Commission.

Racing’s powerbrokers had hoped that would be in place by 1 April, in time to capture profits made by all those taking bets on the Grand National. Repeatedly officials say they are confident approval is coming, that the only question is when and that the answer to that question is: ‘Not long.’ But the wait goes on and the Levy Board must now decide whether it wants to continue spending so much more than it earns.

“We are in a period of uncertainty,” said Alan Delmonte, its chief executive, this week. “But we are doing the best we can to provide as much short-term certainty as possible. While the board can continue to incur a monthly budget deficit for a period, it can’t do that indefinitely. It can continue this way on a month-to-month basis until such time as it feels it has strong grounds for doing something different.”

The likelihood is that prize money levels for June will be maintained, if only because that month includes the Derby and Royal Ascot, two events of enormous importance to the sport. Levy Board members seem likely to accept assurances from the British Horseracing Authority and from government that state aid approval is practically in the post. Officials stress the importance of continuity. “Racing is not just a tap that you can turn on and off,” they say.

But each passing week makes the topic more difficult and racing will not necessarily be out of the woods if the EC sends an unconditional approval that does not vary the proposed levy rate. At that stage there may be a challenge to the new system’s lawfulness from a bookmaker. In a recent debate Lord Lipsey predicted that “this half-baked legislative scheme” would eventually founder in a court-room and that racing would have to refund all payments made under its terms.

The possibility of a legal challenge to the new system and whether it would interrupt any part of racing’s income from bookmakers are among factors which the Levy Board will consider on Wednesday. Racing professionals must hope the caveats about prize-money levels printed in their weekly Racing Calendars will not turn into actual cuts.

Meanwhile hopes of a “home” winner of next week’s Scottish Grand National have been greatly diminished by news that the Borders-trained Seeyouatmidnight will miss the race, for which he had been prominent in betting lists at around 16-1. Sandy Thomson reported his stable star had knocked a leg, though the injury might yet allow him to race in France over the next two months.

There was further injury news from Godolphin, whose classy filly Wuheida has suffered a stress fracture that will take her out of the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks. Charlie Appleby’s charge was a Group One winner at Chantilly on Arc day.

Friday tips, by Chris Cook

Lingfield 1.40 War Glory 2.10 Cohesion 2.40 Ashadihan 3.10 Kimberella 3.40 Ennaadd 4.10 Second Thought 4.40 Absolute Blast

Newcastle 1.50 Thrifty 2.20 Van Gerwen 2.55 Kingsley Klarion (nb) 3.25 Final (nap) 3.55 Utmost 4.25 Gaelic Tiger 4.55 Poet’s Reward

Bath 2.00 Esprit De Corps 2.30 Chatoyer 3.00 Midtech Star 3.30 Hushood 4.00 Muthmir 4.30 The Warrior 5.00 Chagatai 5.30 Zac Brown

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