Neoliberals frighten the horses

In its mania for more competition, new Labour now threatens the future of racing

There are few things in the early 21st century that we can say Britain does best. Our postal service may once have been the envy of the world with its thrice-daily deliveries, but if you receive your first (and only) post by noon nowadays, you can be considered lucky. The country that invented the railway now has easily the worst mass transport system in Europe, while the problems of the NHS have been well documented.

But one thing in Britain that still works in 2003 is horse racing: no other country in Europe can quite match us, either in quantity or quality. We have the most racehorses in training (nearly 14,000) and the most trainers (about 700). Our 59 racecourses are more, per capita of population, than in any nation bar the Republic of Ireland. These range from homely Kelso, with its real open fires, to swish, metropolitan Sandown; from the Victorian delights of Pontefract to the Arcadian splendour of Goodwood. Britain may be hard for rail travellers and for those who need a hip replacement, but for lovers of the turf there is no finer country to live in. And racing continues to thrive: last year, 5.5 million people attended meetings in Britain.

You would think that with so much to put right in Britain, the government and its agencies would not want to interfere in one aspect of our national life that actually works well. You would be wrong. Earlier this year, the Office of Fair Trading published a preliminary report on racing in Britain. Its con-clusions - which have a real possibility of being implemented - would make British racing a "dead duck" in four years' time, according to David James, chairman of the Racecourse Holdings Trust.

The OFT concluded that the powers of the British Horseracing Board - which governs racing along with the 250-year-old Jockey Club - breach new Labour's Competition Act 1998. This is because: a) they limit the freedom of racecourses to organise their racing; b) they fix the amounts that racecourses can offer owners; and c) they monopolise the supply of race and runners' data. The OFT wants the British Horseracing Board and the Jockey Club "to open up the market for potential competition from alternative suppliers".

This may sound rather thrilling to bright-eyed graduates of Harvard Business School - but it is based on a misunderstanding of how horse racing operates. The "producers" of racing in Britain are not the racecourses, as the OFT seems to think, but the racing authorities, who plan fixtures so that we get a balanced programme. Under the OFT proposals, racecourses, instead of being allotted fixtures by the racing board, would be "freed" to run races as they wished. There would be nothing to stop Sandown Park running its own Grand National or Haydock Park its own Derby. The planned programme of races for the flat season - designed to ensure that the tests for the best horses are held at well-spaced intervals - would be destroyed and a free-for-all would ensue.

The bigger courses, and those owned by chains such as Arena Leisure and Northern Racing, would no doubt cut a deal with the bookmakers and survive in some form. But the smaller independent tracks, the ones such as Hexham that make race-going such a rich and varied experience in Britain, would soon go to the wall.

Other sports have sold their souls to the money men over the past decade and, in doing so, have lost much of their charm and appeal. That racing has managed to hold out longer owes much to its administrators and, in particular, to the Jockey Club, which is now making a spirited fight against the OFT proposals.

The Jockey Club has always been a popular target of the left for being elitist, which it undoubtedly is. But it has never forgotten that, despite the commercial activities associated with it, racing is still first and foremost a sport. In the US, sport received an exemption from competition rules more than 40 years ago. In Britain, sports governing bodies are treated in the same way as Dixons and BT.

That the OFT was investi-gating racing in the first place shows that some still don't understand that neoliberalism and its competition dogma cannot, and should not, be applied to all aspects of life. Far from helping "competition", the OFT's proposals, like so much of the "free market" prognosis we have heard over the past 30 years, will be good news for the big and bad for the small, with the loudest cheers coming from Britain's bookmaking chains.

Neoliberalism has destroyed too much that is of worth in this country. Let us hope sanity prevails before it claims yet another victim.