Tuesday, 7 October 2008

I bet on a horse at ten-to-one and it came in at half-past five

The Western Mail reports today on the unnoticed success that Wales is enjoying in the world of horse racing. Wales currently provides four of the top ten National Hunt trainers. Surprising though this is, the piece fails to mention Sam Thomas winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup this year, Carl Llewelyn's successful move into training or the amazing return from injury of Christian Williams.

The article does draw attention to the importance of the horse racing industry to rural communities. South west Wales, home of two of the four trainers, is fast becoming a horsey hub. Alongside Wales's first horse hospital at Narberth, the new racecourse at Ffos Las, near Trimsaran, will be completed next August - the first new National Hunt racecourse to be built in the UK for 80 years.

While horse racing may help rural communities, the betting industry that it spawns is turning some urban areas into pockets of uniformity, feeding on the dreams of those who live there. On a recent half-hour walk through Grangetown, I passed at least six betting shops.

About a year ago the applications process for new betting shops was relaxed. Previously, the bookmaker had to prove that demand in the area was not already fulfilled; last September this requirement was removed. As a result, councils can turn down an application only if they are able to prove the bookmaker is not "fit and proper", unfair to punters, a source of disorder and putting children or other vulnerable people at risk.

It is not only horse racing that draws in the punters, of course. Each betting shop is allowed four 'fixed odds betting terminals' - electronic touch-screen roulette and blackjack machines. The Guardian estimates that they produce £2000-2500 of profit per week and notes that they have been dubbed 'the crack cocaine of gambling addicts'.

The Gambling Commission survey of 2007 found that most people in the UK (68%) take part in some form of betting. If we remove the National Lottery from the results and examine all other forms of gambling - casinos, bingo, horse racing, etc. - around 1,000,000 more people placed a bet in 2007 than in 1999. Indeed betting on horse racing jumped from 13% of all betting to 17% over the same period and was the only form of betting that both men and women did more of. There are over 250,000 problem gamblers in the UK, mostly from low-income backgrounds.

The rash of betting shops spreading across our towns and cities not only removes a little more of their individuality, it also facilitates the proliferation of poverty in what are often already deprived areas.

[I should point out that I like a bet (and was gutted when Thomas won on Denman as I was on Kauto Star). Unsurprisingly there are no betting shops in Pontcanna.]

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