Decimal points the way to go

IF YOU began your betting and working life in a bookmaker's shop in Glasgow in the 1970s, as I did, you would have had all your information and race commentaries relayed by the "blower", effectively a closed-circuit radio, your winnings would have been calculated by a wizard of the odds called a settler, and refreshments were banned.

When I worked for the excellent Smith family in their Glasgow chain of betting shops, the manager was in charge but the settler was the powerhouse of the machine. If he had a hangover, say on Ayr Gold Cup day, you soon had a shop full of irate punters wondering why it was taking so long to pay them. Fortunately, the ones I worked with were all saints. Mostly.

Watching these men calculate in their heads a myriad of each-way Yankee bets on short-odds horses (a system I would recommend, and why did I ever abandon it?) was an education in itself and remained fiendishly difficult – try working out the total from six doubles, four trebles and an accumulator, all 20p each way, on four horses who finished first at 5-2, 11-4, 7-2 and 100-30, and see how long it takes you even with a calculator.

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Walk into a betting shop now and there is a bank of television screens showing racing from all over the planet. Almost all bets are taken on computers which calculate your winnings almost instantly. Most shops are clean and bright, and the big chains usually provide tea and coffee at reasonable prices.

In short you would not recognise the present-day shop as the descendant of the previous bookmaking emporium.

Time has moved on and racing has modernised, but there are still many people in this sporting industry who are antediluvian in their attitudes, as was seen when Racing For Change, the body charged with making racing more popular, announced its first raft of proposals.

These included modernising course announcements, simplifying race names, and training jockeys and trainers in media relations – about time, too!

The one which caught all the attention was the plan to experiment with bookmakers issuing odds in decimals rather than fractions, as a result of the huge growth in betting exchanges which have used the decimal system from the start.

Some people in racing hated the idea, others welcomed it, and at least two of us felt Racing For Change was possibly missing the point.

Not for the first time, I have to agree with Mark Johnston, but this time only partially. The Scots-born record-breaking trainer's response to the announcement was forthright as always: "It was disappointing to pick up the Racing Post on Tuesday and see a headline about the decimalisation of odds … I feel that their job was to concentrate on racing for change, not betting for change.

"I want to see the priority on the horse. We keep being told you can't separate racing from betting, and nobody says you should, but they keep telling us football is the fastest-growing betting medium, and racing the fastest-declining, but they (the football authorities] don't spend their time talking about betting. They talk about football, and we should keep the emphasis on the horse."

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I agree with the main thrust of his argument, but a start had to be made somewhere, and I actually think that focusing on a relatively minor issue – in racing terms – which is nevertheless high profile is a clever approach.

Make no mistake, racing must change and will do so. This is just the start, and in my book it's good one.

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