YESTERDAY it was announced that William Hill had bowed to the inevitable and had followed totesport, Coral and Ladbrokes into signing a deal with TurfTV – exactly as I predicted they would all have to do in this column as far back as May 27 last year.
The vast majority of betting shop punters will now be able to see live racing from every British racecourse for the foreseeable future, which made yesterday a memorable day for the people who really keep racing going – the punter, the customer, you. The big bookmakers – with the exception of Betfred – have now all seen sense and agreed deals with an organisation which fought them courageously and won. It brings almost to an end a sorry saga which has besmirched racing, with court actions and public slanging matches across the industry.
As long as TurfTV's owners deliver on their promises to improve coverage of racing – and feed a goodly proportion of their profits into the sport – their victory will be seen as a long-term triumph for British racing. It is also a big bloody nose for the bookies, especially William Hill who, rightly or wrongly, were seen as the most implacable opponent of progress.
Most importantly, it is a triumph for punter power. The bookies really believed they could do without half of Britain's courses on their screens until such times as TurfTV folded. But the reality was very different. The Government let their displeasure be known, some media people like myself campaigned to change the bookies' collective mind. Above all, the big chains found out they just could not do without horse racing, and the march of the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals is temporarily restrained, though not halted.
And it was the punters 'wot won it', as The Sun might say. Last week I happened to wander into Glasgow branches of Britain's two biggest bookmakers, Ladbrokes and an adjacent William Hill. The Magic Sign's branch was busy with punters. The William Hill shop, even though it had better facilities, was almost empty. The reason was not hard to find – Ladbrokes were showing the racing live from Musselburgh on their own television channel, while William Hill had still not signed a contract with the racecourse-owned TurfTV, one of whose 31 member courses is the East Lothian track.
On Friday night, William Hill signed with TurfTV, an organisation they had sworn to oppose last year. The name of William Hill was once a byword for British bookmaking, but I wonder if the present owners and operators of the company really know just how much they are the inheritors of a great man's legacy. In a week when Hills have had to issue a warning that their internet betting operations are letting the rest of the company down, this giant plc seems to me to be ignoring its own past. Over the decades, Hills have been as innovative as any bookmaker, and their sponsorship of various events such as the Sports Book of the Year is highly commendable.
On the company's website, they almost grudgingly acknowledge their eponymous founder. It's almost as if the plc doesn't want to be reminded that their origins date back to an era of illegality. But the plc should have learned from the original William Hill who began taking bets illicitly in pubs in Birmingham in the 1920s, before moving on to make a fortune exploiting a very British loophole about gambling, which allowed him to take credit and postal bets but not cash.
When the Gambling Act of 1961 legalised cash betting, William Hill personally and implacably opposed the process of setting up cash betting shops. But when his competitors raced ahead, he had to concede that the customer was right and bought his first shops in the mid-1960s. William Hill is now the world's second largest bookmaker with 2,250 shops in Britain and Ireland.
William Hill plc's stance on TurfTV is reminiscent of their founder's mistake 40-odd years ago.
It is the punter who supplies the income for big bookmakers and their shareholders and who pays the wages of director and clerk alike. And though the bookies' profits come from the punters getting it wrong with their bets, there are times when the customer is always right. This was one of them. Here endeth the lesson.