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."