The Evening Standard

Ahead of Saturday’s Epsom Derby, the head of racing urges other governing bodies to get to grips with growing problem of “fixing”

ASK Nic Coward for his favourite moment in football and he picks David Beckham’s brilliant curling free-kick that took England to the World Cup in Japan in 2002.

Ask the 44-year-old for his favourite sporting moment and “nothing”, he says, “can rival the incredible thrill of your horse winning a race”.

But Coward has a fear, a real fear that the golden moments that he and we all cherish are being tarnished.

These have been very dark days for sport. Former world snooker champion John Higgins has been suspended following allegations that he had agreed to throw frames for cash.

Essex police arrested Danesh Kaneria and Mervyn Westfield — both released on bail — as part of their investigation into cricket match fixing.

And Lord Triesman was secretly taped making claims — subsequently investigated and denied by FIFA — that Spanish officials were attempting to bribe officials and fix the results of matches at this summer’s World Cup.

“Where there is betting on any sport including racing there is an ever present, very severe threat of corruption,” Coward tells me.

“Look what is going on in European and world football, tennis, cricket and snooker. There are people trying to corrupt these sports. Whether through legal or illegal black markets, there will be people having a go at fixing matches and turning the heads of participants and officials.”

Coward’s worries should be adhered to. The former solicitor has a wealth of experience in sport. He was the first in-house lawyer at the Football Association and had two spells as acting chief executive in 1999 and 2003 before leaving the organisation in frustration at the lack of change.

Then, after two years working as a sports consultant, he joined the British Horseracing Authority as chief executive. As football prepares for its crown jewel with the World Cup in South Africa only 10 days away, racing is ready for one of its biggest days, Saturday’s Epsom Derby.

Coward insists that racing has now got to grips with the problems it has been tarnished with in the past and urges other sports to follow their example. “Ten years ago,” says Coward, “Dick Caborn, then sports minister, and I agreed the two greatest threats to the integrity of sport were doping and betting-related corruption.

“Sport got to grips with cheating to win — through doping — but has yet to understand how to deal with cheating to lose through betting.

“Racing is the cleanest that it has ever been. We are a betting product and therefore we work very hard with the Government, police, the Gambling Commission, other agencies and betting operators.

“Where things have got out of kilter is that there has been a massive growth in online betting on sports not designed in any shape or form to be betting products.

“And there are betting operators out there who admit that they are offering bets on some sports which don’t have integrity.”

Coward’s BHA are at the forefront of the campaign to force bookmakers to pay something to all sports on which they take bets.

The 44-year-old also wants bookmakers to pay more money to racing through the “Levy” — the 10 per cent charge on all domestic horseracing bets that goes to racing.

His justification is that there has been a revolution in the betting environment and the sport has missed out on the benefits of the gambling liberalisation ushered in by the Labour Government.

“There are two ways in which that was meant to happen,” he says.

“First the Tote was to be gifted to racing. But because of the European Commission that did not happen. Ten years later we are still talking about the future of the Tote.”

The second, and even more pressing problem, Coward believes, is the failure to address the issue of foreign races shown in betting shops or on their offshore operations.

Coward estimates such online offshore operations set up by Betfair to be in the region of £10m-£15m.

“The phenomenal growth of Betfair as the leading betting exchange has revolutionised sports betting and had a detrimental effect on the Levy return,” claims Coward.

Racing wanted the Levy to be replaced and be able to charge betting operators for database rights but William Hill successfully challenged this proposal in the European Court.

“So,” adds Coward, “we are left with a Levy which cannot cope with the modern betting environment.”

The Levy is likely to be £77m this year when the BHA feel it should be nearly twice that amount.

The shortfall, warns Coward, could lead to the closure “of a number of well-loved racecourses”.

While Coward has pleaded for the Government to change the Levy, he has also had to take on racing critics angered by his own organisation’s reforms for the sport.

These critics have seen the BHA’s Racing for Change programme as unnecessary navel gazing.

The result is that Coward, son of a car dealer who comes from a family that has always owned racehorses, has been presented as an “interloper”. Coward argues that he owns horses and his sister breeds them. He says his earliest racing memory is, as an eight-year-old, betting a £1 using his grandmother’s account against Red Rum. But his critics still say he does not understand the industry.

Coward says: “When we first started talking about change there were some people who found it easy to say, Oh we don’t want change, let’s just reject it.’ People said, Nic, look at our numbers’.”

The industry numbers are impressive: over 40,000 owners contributing a net £450m, 15,000 horses in training, and £10-11billion bet on racing a year, double that of 10 years ago.

“Paul Roy [BHA chairman], I and others in the sport could have taken the view that these numbers are at all-time highs. However, when we asked young people in particular what they thought about horseracing, it was not at the front of their minds.

“Our outside consultants Harrison Fraser came to the conclusion that, if we didn’t change, people might actually drift away from the sport.

“We have just come off the back of the Grand National and Cheltenham Festival where attendances were up at both events.”

The problem is on the Flat, argues Coward. The BHA feel this is so urgent that last month nine racecourses opened their doors for free.

“The feedback has been fantastic,” says Coward. “Up to 70 per cent of the people who came had never been before. And over three-quarters of them are saying: We will be coming back because you have opened our eyes and now we really love it’.”

Coward is now planning to target new audiences including females and university students.

“We are also going to launch an entirely new social networking site, a club which will be aimed at women,” reveals Coward. “It will work in partnership with a big fashion brand.”

The most radical change, however, is for the Flat to follow the lead of the jump racing.

“We have a fabulous jump-season through October, November up to March with the Cheltenham Festival and then the Grand National,” Coward adds. “What we have said to the sport is that the Flat has to learn the lesson of the jumps.”

“We are in the final throes of putting together a Flat championship programme. Starting with the 2,000 Guineas it will take us through the Oaks and the Derby to Sandown, Goodwood and York.”

There was talk of moving the Derby, even making it the climax of the flat in the autumn. Many in racing have always felt that this, the most iconic of races, comes too early in the first week of June.

The Derby has had its problems as it moved from Wednesday to a Saturday and struggled to find a sponsor, but a move to the autumn would have been too radical.

The idea now is to have the culmination of the new Flat championship season called Champions Day to be held in October at Ascot.

The Flat championship will also mean a pruning of the traditional racing card. “It is very hard for people at present to understand which are the quality races,” Coward confesses. “You look at the newspaper on a Saturday and there are eight or nine racecards. We are going to rectify that.

“This new championship will mean taking the crown jewels of our season across the key distances and saying to consumers: these are the races you really need to care about.”

The idea, Coward readily admits, is to try to copy the winning Premier League formula.

“It was obviously the same sport played in the 70s and 80s. But what the Premier League did was to focus on quality, promote the game very hard, and lift the whole profile of football.”

But will this championship solve the Flat’s biggest problem: its great horses disappearing to stud far quicker than their jump counterparts?

Sea The Stars, last year’s wonder horse, will never race again yet Kauto Star keeps thrilling jump fans season after season.

Coward says: “I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t like Sea The Stars still out there. Of course, even if he had not been at stud he couldn’t, as a four-year-old, have raced in this Saturday’s Derby.

“But the Derby still provides the excitement of seeing what is happening to last year’s two year olds.”


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