For 200 years racing in Britain has been run in the manner of a guards' regiment by an all-powerful Jockey Club. Its members, by tradition, have been horsemen. Most of them also have been very wealthy, and as generation succeeded generation, there developed a feeling among these aristocrats that the sport perpetuated itself solely for their pleasure. The gentlemen of this rigid Establishment bred the best thoroughbreds, raised and raced them. Their runners were the finest to be found anywhere in the world, and castoffs from their stables were widely sought as prospective foundation studs on the Continent and in America. It mattered little to a Jockey Club member if the attendance at an English track was up or down. His relationship with his jockey and trainer was one of lord to servant. As for the English racing public and press, should they have the temerity to question the action or motive of the Establishment, the reply was a deafening silence. Too bad, laddie. Hard cheese, old boy.
Its stubborn complacency caught up with the Jockey Club in the last few decades. Attendance decreased sharply. Racetracks shut. The offspring of English stallions and mares sold abroad returned to trounce British-owned stock in the classic races, even in the Epsom Derby. Bookmakers made fortunes out of racing and were putting virtually nothing back into the sport.
Four years ago the British finally realized their once-glorious racing was no more. But even with that, Jockey Club members probably would not have bestirred themselves had not Lord George Wigg appeared on the racing scene. Late in 1967 Wigg (who earned his title—he began life as a farmer-soldier's son) received a political appointment to be chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board. His job in the Labor government was to shore up racing's sagging financial structure.
Wigg is a bear of a man. When he strides into a room, he seems to fill it. His long nose is not far behind a strong, welcoming right hand. His large ears loom like two full-blown spinnakers. A whirlwind follows Lord Wigg, a stormy fact that racing—and the Jockey Club, to its dismay—soon discovered. It was immediately apparent Wigg would not be a do-nothing officeholder like his predecessor, Field Marshal Lord Harding, about whom someone wrote, "He was tolerated by the Establishment because he, like they, could talk on any subject for 20 minutes, at the conclusion of which you would wonder what on earth he had said."
February 7, 1972
Wigg had become nationally known in 1963 during the Christine Keeler affair. It was he who ferreted out many of the sordid facts of the case that were ultimately passed up to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. "Nothing happens in Russia without reason," Wigg says, as he recalls the scandal that shook the British Cabinet. "I became suspicious of Evgeny Ivanov, the Russian captain, because he was acting atypically. He spoke impeccable English, drove fast, fancy cars, dressed well and played a fine game of bridge. After John Pro-fumo, who was Secretary of State for War, resigned, I found myself basking in publicity that I didn't ask for or want." Wigg, at the time, had a position "relating to defense and security."
However, on taking the Levy Board job, Wigg discarded his low profile, realizing that publicity would be a useful tool. He made his entrance into racing spraying buckshot at everyone in sight, including members of the Establishment, without whose cooperation he knew he could never achieve success.
Of the Jockey Club he said, "It resists everything and is made up of Establishment people who decide the answer and then look for a reason. They are honorary members of the Flat-Earth Society, with the sort of spirit that lost us the American colonies. If they had won, there would today be a royal enclosure at Aqueduct."
Of bookmakers he said, "They have no standard code of conduct between one another and toward their profession as a whole. They are not very intelligent. Neither was the dinosaur. The dinosaur got stuffed, and if they're not careful, so will the bookies."
He also berated jockeys: "Here are young men whose bodies are not as fully developed as the average male of the same age, probably because of lack of protein in their forebears. It is quite likely that if their bodies are not fully developed, then their I.Q.s will not be very high, either. They have developed the business of 'covering up' or disguising an attempt to lose into something close to an art."
Now, four years later, most Establishment members agree, though some with reluctance, that Wigg has brought fresh life to British racing. By the end of 1971 his Levy Board was extracting $11 million a year from the bookmakers. And prize money in Britain had more than doubled to $4.5 million. Many British race programs have added a seventh race and, largely for the benefit of television, starting times at courses holding cards on the same day have been staggered.
However, Wigg has not yet managed to whip two basic problems in English racing—the insanely low taxation rate on a wager and the bookmaker's traditional role. At 71, and with just nine months still left of his term in office, time may be running out. Nor will a successor with Wigg's power and persuasion be easy to find. Yet it is unlikely that the Conservative Party, now in office, will extend the appointment of Wigg, a Laborite.
The state-owned tote has always held an inferior spot in Britain. Bookmakers are paramount. They operate 15,000 betting shops in cities and towns and do business at the racetracks, too. Of the nearly $3 billion bet on horse racing in England last year, over 90% of it was handled in the bookies' off-course shops. Of the rest, which was bet on-course, the tote handled only 32%. In other words, only 3% of the $3 billion wagered went through the government-controlled tote machines.
The tote operates under tremendous handicaps, having to set up business at many scattered locations. There are 63 different racecourses in England, most of which operate only two-to five-day meetings. On Whitmonday, to take an extraordinary example, there are 31 race meetings, including point-to-points, running concurrently. Despite this splintered schedule, the tote must operate competitively with the bookmakers, who move about quickly with their satchels of money. Britain's is the only tote in the world that has to pay for the buildings it constructs on racecourses, maintain them, pay rent for the ground on which they stand and purchase admission for its staff. The last three items cost close to $1 million a year.
"What we need is the centralization of racing if there is to be any hope of competing with the betting shops," says tote representative Dudley Bartlett. "We should operate at some tracks for a long time. This would permit us to install more sophisticated equipment such as is used in the States. In France the tote has a complete monopoly, and in that lies its success. In Tokyo the Japanese Jockey Club owns the major tracks, the stables, many of the horses, the tote and the off-course betting shops. It amounts to a state monopoly of the industry. I remember on a visit to that country asking my host one morning what he estimated the attendance would be in the afternoon at a Tokyo track. He replied, '86,000 exactly.'
" 'How do you know it will be exactly 86,000?' I inquired.
" 'Because at 86,000 we will close the gates. We don't want to use any more pari-mutuel clerks today.' On some days when the Japanese don't close the gates the attendance goes over 160,000."
As a possible step toward centralization, Wigg's Levy Board has purchased three tracks—Epsom, Sandown and Kempton Park. At Sandown $3.75 million is being spent to rebuild the grandstand, hardly the kind of investment that would be made for the two-day meetings the track now holds.
But cutting through the centuries-old British tradition of betting with one's bookmaker and cutting into the bookies' profits—to provide larger purses and finer racing facilities—has by and large stymied even Wigg. "We are a nation of gamblers," he saws, jaw protruding with emphasis. "We have never pretended not to be. I don't want to suppress betting, but I want to control it through taxation. We simply must siphon off some revenue for racing's good."
To which a typical bookmaker, Charles Layfield of the William Hill organization, replies, "Bookmakers are on the same team and are prepared to play under the captaincy of a Lord Harding or a Lord Wigg. But if the captain of any team makes it play three times a day, don't the team members become pretty exhausted?"
Balderdash, says horseman Tim Vigors. "The malaise of English racing is simple. The 6% tax that now comes out of a wager is ridiculous. In the U.S. and France the tax is around 15%. Some places in the U.S. the bettor is having as much as 17% taken out of his wagers, though that is gouging. But the English think 6% is too much. The British government could get $250 million annually and give racing half of it if the sport were conducted with a 15% tax. As it is now the bookies are collaring the whole lot, and therefore a tote monopoly is the ultimate solution. Through Wigg's interest in the problem the government ultimately will recognize this, and then perhaps the law will be changed. If the law is not changed, maybe the only solution will be to stage a strike. France has funneled the money properly, and see what is happening there. England has 65 million people who bet—and the bookmakers take it all."
While officials of the tote believe England will eventually have a tote monopoly, the bookmakers probably would not be eliminated but operate as agents of the tote. Meanwhile, the Old Guard is standing pat. "There won't be a tote monopoly," says a Jockey Club senior steward, Major-General Sir Randle Feilden, "because our tradition says, 'I'd much rather defeat you as an individual than a machine.' That's just the way we are brought up."
The argument rages widely. Lord Wiloughby de Broke, president of the noted jump meeting at Cheltenham, declares, "I am not against Wigg, I am just against some of his ideas. But he is obviously right trying to get more money out of the bookmakers. In England we have 15,000 betting shops, compared to 4,000 tote shops in France. The turnover in England is three times what it is in France, and yet our receipts from racing are only one-sixth what they are in France. French prize money is four times what it is in England, and admission fees are a third of ours. Doesn't this show that our system of collecting money from betting makes no sense at all? One way would be to charge each betting shop so much per race per day, and you'd get millions more a year in no time at all."
So Wigg has convinced some Establishment members about some things. He remains, however, a politician of a party that they feel has no rightful place in racing. Many Jockey Club members resent the power he has been given, knowing he may use that power to do things contrary to their tradition.
Wigg has a mild retort for those who fault him. "Like others before me," he says, "I believe in respecting tradition. But I shall not be strangled by it."