FeatureLee Mottershead

'Please, please, carefully consider the damage you are going to do to the racing industry' - Middleham's plea to Rishi Sunak

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Lee MottersheadSenior writer
Rishi Sunak has held a government reshuffle
Rishi Sunak's government is seeking to formalise affordability checks – and racing fans, punters and professionals in his North Yorkshire constituency are not happy Credit: Daniel Leal

They did not know it at the time but the man knocking at Catterick's door was a future prime minister.

Rishi Sunak had been selected to stand as Conservative candidate for the ultra-safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire. Short of expressing public support for Lancashire County Cricket Club, the investment banker was a shoo-in to replace William Hague as the rural constituency's member of parliament. Sunak knew he was heading to Westminster. He came to Catterick wanting to meet some of those he would soon represent.

In the office of clerk of the course Fiona Needham, Sunak was given a cup of coffee and education in racing. Needham and the track's chief executive James Sanderson spoke to the prospective parliamentary candidate about the sport's structure and outlined their views, needs and fears. They were not alone in doing so. Prior to the 2015 general election Sunak introduced himself to trainers in Middleham, where they shook hands with an individual about to sprint up the United Kingdom's political ladder.

As chancellor he watched horses exercising on Middleham's High Moor and revisited Catterick to open the £2 million Dales Stand. More recently, and now as holder of the highest office in the land, he last year attended the Bedale point-to-point.

Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, opens the Dales Stand at Catterick
Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, opens the Dales Stand at CatterickCredit: Catterick racecourse

In Sunak, racing seemingly had a friend – although some might say that with a friend like that, who needs enemies? For it is Sunak's administration that plans to formalise affordability checks, the Gambling Commission-originated affront to civil liberties that are despised by punters and, according to the BHA's latest forecast, set to cost British racing £50m a year.

After more than 100,000 racing fans signed racing's petition, MPs will hold a parliamentary debate on affordability checks on February 26. The government has insisted the most severe level of checks will only be implemented when they can be carried out frictionlessly. Yet will a mechanism for doing that be found before a general election Sunak says will take place this year? 

Polling suggests the election will most likely result in Sunak's exit from Downing Street. A few votes among his racing electorate may already have been lost.

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Trainers in need of help not harm

Catterick's leaders are far from the only racing folk to know Sunak.

It was just three months ago that Middleham's top trainer Mark Johnston met the prime minister at his constituency office in a Northallerton business park. Alongside Johnston was Andrea O'Keeffe, the wearer of numerous racing hats, including as wife of Middleham trainer Jedd O'Keeffe.

"One of the issues we wanted to raise was affordability checks but Rishi raised it with us," said Andrea O'Keeffe on Thursday. "He reassured us he is 100 per cent behind the industry and said any checks brought in would be frictionless. After agriculture, racing is the next biggest employer here. Rishi knows that."

He must also know his government's plans for gambling regulation threaten to batter racing.

"I think it's really serious," said Jedd O'Keeffe. "Affordability checks are something else to stop people getting involved in ownership, staying involved or increasing their involvement. We need to be encouraging people. We don't need anything that might put them off."

The O'Keeffes undoubtedly do not. They bought a 30-box yard, house and two fields in 2017. Later that year they built another 30 boxes and watched Sam Spinner win the Long Walk Hurdle. Things were going well but then along came Covid. They now retain 36 boxes, renting the other 24 to neighbour Ed Bethell. Two of their last four runners have won but times are exceptionally tough. 

Jedd and Andrea O'Keeffe fear for the future of their Middleham training business
Jedd and Andrea O'Keeffe fear for the future of their Middleham training business

"We are on the cliff edge," said Jedd O'Keeffe. "That's how precarious things are for us now. There is no point trying to pretend things are better than they are. That won't help us or the industry.

"We would be devastated to go out of business because we love what we do and want to protect the jobs of the brilliant people in our team. We wouldn't ever want to go bankrupt because we don't want to owe people money. If we get to a point where we have to stop, we'll do it while we're still solvent. I don't think that point is far away but we plan to struggle on for as long as we can, hoping for an upturn."

Asked what message he would send to Sunak, Jedd said: "Please, please, carefully consider the damage you are going to do to the racing industry if having a bet becomes difficult or even impossible."

Bethell's ability to have a bet has been severely curtailed by account restrictions.

"I can barely get a tenner on," he said on a windy Friday morning while driving to the Low Moor. "I know people who could send me down the black market route but I wouldn't want to do that because it's no good for racing."

Betting's underground firms have been given a major boost by affordability checks. Sunak, who has known Bethell's parents James and Sally since becoming their MP, should be well aware of the link.

"We do know him but he's pretty difficult to get hold of at the moment," said James Bethell, who handed over the licence to his son towards the end of 2020 after 46 years as a trainer. Like so many in the constituency, he and his wife are staunch Conservatives – "I'm a neutral," insisted Ed Bethell – but the couple are not entirely supportive of the prime minister.

"He seems so anti people doing things he thinks they shouldn't, like smoking and vaping," said James Bethell. "It worries me he has so many agendas like that. He is probably very anti people gambling, for all I know, although I definitely think he cares about racing."

At this point his wife intervened.

Ed Bethell watches two-year-olds exercising on Middleham's Low Moor
Ed Bethell watches two-year-olds exercising on Middleham's Low Moor

"I'm not sure," said Sally Bethell. "I think racing is slightly alien to him. The old defence secretary Ben Wallace is really keen on racing and understands it in a much broader way than Rishi."

To avoid accusations of bias, it should be noted that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer enjoys a day at the races and attended last year's Derby.

"On the whole, racing has always done better under a Labour government," noted James Bethell, whose son created plenty of his own momentum in 2023 when breaking his Group 1 duck with Regional. The reaction to that success was perhaps symptomatic of racing's financial situation.

"I had a very good year and did think one or two people would be knocking on the door but I've had no-one," he said. "I bought a lot of horses on spec and it has been quite hard to sell them. I do have huge concerns for the sport but I feel we have to be positive. There are so many young people in this sport doing incredible things."

When anything incredible happens in Middleham it is invariably linked to racing, which is why Hayley Clements operates Middleham Racing Tours alongside her role as racing secretary to Micky Hammond, one of ten trainers in the town.

"If Middleham didn't have racing, it really wouldn't exist," said Clements. She did, however, have a warning. "Yards are generally getting smaller. I think most trainers would say they have fewer owners and horses."

Hayley Clements: "If Middleham didn't have racing, it really wouldn't exist"
Hayley Clements: "If Middleham didn't have racing, it really wouldn't exist"

Clements was among those who met Stuart Andrew, Sunak's minister for sport and gambling, when he came to Middleham late last year. Also there was punter Bernard Henry, who was back in the racing heartland on Thursday.

"Affordability checks could be one of the last straws for racing and punters," said Henry. "I'm only a £5 and £10 each-way punter but I've been restricted. I had one account closed because I won £38 over a three-year period. The size of my stakes means I've only been caught up with affordability checks by one bookmaker. I definitely didn't send any documents."

Will Sunak give racing his time?

As one of Britain's biggest racecourse bookmakers, Keith Johnson has not been directly hit by affordability checks, whose scope does not extend to the on-course market. However, Johnson – one of Sunak's constituents as a resident of the beautiful market town Hawes – is animated on the topic.

"Affordability checks could wipe out centuries of British history," he said last week. "They will lead to a reduction in levy income, less money going into racecourses and less prize-money, which will impinge on the number of horses in training and the number of people who want to be owners. 

"In my opinion, though, the main argument against them is it just isn't right for the state to dictate how anyone should spend their hard-earned income."

Keith Johnson: Lincoln day is not what it was for a bookmaker
Keith Johnson: "Rishi might support racing's campaign but not actually fight for it"Credit: David Carr

Johnson is another to have met and communicated with Sunak on several occasions.

"I believe his inclination is to support racing but I'm less convinced he will spend his own time or parliamentary time on this subject," he said.

"This is an election year, so Rishi might support racing's campaign but not actually fight for it. In order to get the issue towards the top of his action list there needs to be a lot of pressure put on those beneath him in the parliamentary hierarchy. It needs to be a done deal before it gets to Rishi's desk."

Nothing immoral about gambling

It is entirely possible Paul Jackson, Jacko to his friends and the former professional at Richmond Golf Club, has gone into battle with Johnson on tracks across Britain, but at noon on Friday he was contemplating potential wagers in William Hill's Richmond shop.

"I've had shares in horses, run syndicates and had plenty of winners," said Jackson, whose winners have come as an owner and punter.

"I log all my bets and have done for 20 years," he explained. "I had one year when I won £45,000. I backed Katchit to win the Champion Hurdle at least once every week. I ended up with 89 betting slips with his name on them. I also had him doubled with Celestial Halo at 20-1 for the Triumph. That all happened before I retired and when I used to have a proper bet. Nowadays I just fanny about and bet a pound or 50 pence."

As usual, Jackson was seeking to solve the daily puzzles alongside friend Tony McGough, a long-time racing employee.

"I worked for more trainers than Mark Johnston has horses," said McGough, who is no fan of affordability checks. Nor is his mate.

Betting shop friends Paul Jackson (right) and Tony McGough are no fans of affordability checks
Betting shop friends Paul Jackson (right) and Tony McGough are no fans of affordability checksCredit: Lee Mottershead

"I don't like to be told how to spend my own money," said Jackson. "Are they going to start policing how much money we spend on alcohol, chocolate and cigarettes? Why are they picking on gambling? I think the reason is some people have a misconception that it's evil or immoral to gamble. For me, it's a bit of craic. Tony and I come here every day. So does Simon and Barry will be in later as well. The betting shop is a community. It always has been. We wouldn't get that anywhere else."

Yet a line would be drawn if Jackson were asked to hand over personal financial information.

"There's not a chance I would do that," he said, an opinion echoed by McGough.

"I could take you to Wetherspoon's now and show you six or seven people at a table who go there on the piss every day," said McGough. "Is anyone checking their affordability?"

A warning to Sunak from his local racecourse

Just a ten-minute drive from Richmond's cobbled market place is Catterick racecourse, where on Friday racegoers and brothers Gary and Stephen Patrick expressed views no less strong than those held by the betting shop pals.

Brothers Stephen and Gary Patrick were critical of affordability checks on a visit to Catterick last week
Brothers Stephen and Gary Patrick were critical of affordability checks on a visit to Catterick last weekCredit: John Grossick

"I don't agree with Big Brother dictating how I spend my money," said Gary Patrick.

"It's obscene. I got caught up in the checks about eight months ago. I went through five or six losing weeks in a row but that's because I tend to back bigger-priced horses, so I can go a long period of time without a win. When I do win, I catch up. I was told my account had been suspended and I needed to contact the bookmaker. I haven't dealt with them again."

His brother, a vocal critic of "pathetic" bookmaker restrictions, has also abandoned an account after being asked to supply bank statements.

"It's intrusive and unnecessary," he said. "We know how much we can afford to bet. Why should anyone be allowed to dictate that to me? I'm just enjoying a pastime I love."

Bookmaker Jo Vickers has seen evidence of illegal bookmaking close to where she lives
Bookmaker Jo Vickers has seen evidence of illegal bookmaking close to where she livesCredit: John Grossick

Former amateur jockey Jo Vickers knows all too well what punters feel about affordability checks as the manager of independent family bookmaking firm Vickers, one of whose many sponsored races took place at Catterick.

"We're asking several hundred customers every day – and I would say around 70 per cent tell us they won't do it," she said from the racecourse boardroom. "I actually agree with them. It's personal stuff. What is happening is ridiculous. If I went into a shop to buy a pair of shoes for £500, nobody is going to check if I can afford them."

There were then more strong – and ominous – words from Vickers, whose business invests around £250,000 sponsoring races and jockeys.

"All this is going to do is increase illegal gambling," she insisted. "I know it's happening. I've seen it in a village close to where I live. There are pubs and clubs where they show racing on a telly and one person takes bets. The pubs don't do anything because it gets the punters in. That's a fact, unfortunately."

Further facts came from Catterick supremo Sanderson, who believes racecourses will be among the victims of the government and Gambling Commission.

"The financial decline is already stark," he said. "Operators tell us affordability checks are biting. They say they're afraid of taking any risks with the Gambling Commission and they also can't afford winning punters. This should be a concern for everybody. Racing is already desperately underfunded and if the £50m figure is correct it's a huge amount of money. Broken down for us, it would equate to 25 per cent of our income."

James Sanderson: "We're not crying wolf"
James Sanderson: "We're not crying wolf"Credit: John Grossick

Sanderson added: "I don't think there will be as many racecourses as there are now in ten years' time – and this is going to be a contributory factor. Affordability checks are damaging to us all but they represent a real threat to some courses. We aren't wealthy here but some other tracks are marginal. There are racecourses that are already on the edge.

"We're not crying wolf. I would say to Rishi Sunak that there might be a problem gambling issue but it isn't a racing issue. I think they are taking a sledgehammer to crack a small nut – and by doing that they are going to cause collateral damage."

The government response

A visit to Sunak's constituency office on Thursday led to a brief conversation with a member of the prime minister's local team, who advised that an emailed inquiry would receive a response. It came the following day via the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that is seeking to implement official affordability checks.

The quote, attributed to a government spokesperson, stated: "Horseracing is an integral part of British sporting culture and heritage, and we are committed to a sustainable future for the sport. This is why we have committed to reviewing the horserace betting levy.

"But it is important that we also take steps to minimise the risk of gambling-related harm. As outlined in our gambling white paper, we are introducing light-touch, frictionless checks to protect people from potentially life-changing losses.

"Industry-run financial risk checks are currently inconsistent, onerous and ad hoc, and our proposed checks are designed to streamline the process for the overwhelming majority of accounts."

A short trip to the prime minister's backyard provided a reminder that the overwhelming majority of racing fans, professionals and punters are anxious, frustrated and angry. The latest statement from Sunak's government is unlikely to change that.

Members' Club Ultimate subscribers can read more pieces from Lee Mottershead here:

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William Haggas: 'You've got to want to be champion, and I did last year, but I'm a realist' 

'Legacy is nothing, it's bollocks, nobody will remember me in decades to come' - inside the mind of Sir Mark Prescott 

Martin Pipe: 'I wanted to commit suicide. I really did, knowing the world was against me'  

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Published on 5 February 2024inFeatures

Last updated 19:48, 5 February 2024