Gordon Robinson | Extra class for Mark Wignall
The man I call (behind his back, of course, so for God's sake don't tell him) Luke Cage but whose pen name is Mark Wignall (never met the chap), wrote a very interesting column last Thursday headlined 'Cleaning up Caymanas racing track'.
Luke [Mark, Luke (what the hey!) same discipl(in)e; different name] should expect to hear from me whenever he visits my stomping grounds or dips his pen into equine sport. Rest assured, I won't be giving Luke a hard time for two reasons.
First, he admitted from the outset that he knows zero about the industry he decided to write about (save what he heard in a seedy bar in Cross Roads and on a trip to Tivoli 40 years ago). Second, I like his style. Despite his many detractors, Luke has always taken a unique approach that identifies his columns without need for a byline, and he has always generously shared his life experiences as the basis of his opinions. Luke's work, whatever else one may want to say about it, emphasises that reading books alone won't bring wisdom, but only absorption of what the author transmits. Knowledge combined with real experience is the fount of wisdom.
So, I intend to treat Luke's column as what it is: uninformed and, therefore, spectacularly one-sided. He wrote:
"... Bookmakers have remained in their backward thinking, making money from the racing product but failing to put back and add to the collective whole in developing the product."
This is unfair and untrue, even to the eyes of one (me) who has also accused both promoter and bookie of backward thinking. In the beginning, bookmakers' contribution to horse racing was threefold AND critical to the industry's development.
1. A Bookmakers Levy Scheme was introduced whereby bookmakers paid an iniquitous levy/tax (reduced to 11% of gross in the 1980s and again to 16% of gross profits in the 2000s), more than 40% of which was dedicated to contributing towards purses paid by the racing promoter and the cost of regulation.
2. Bookmakers paid a rights fee for the use of the promoter's tote dividends in their business, which was nominal at first (1% of sales) but which has gradually increased over the years until this new promoter (SVREL) introduced a 7.5% rights fee on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
3. In the early days of racing, unless you could travel to the racetrack, there was nowhere to buy a bet and/or to experience the excitement live. Sometime later, Off Track Betting was introduced at a limited number of locations on an offline basis so that two different dividends had to be declared.
Bookmakers, with the wide expanse of their reach, carried horse racing into the nooks and crannies of Jamaica, as well as sponsored live coverage of the weekly draw for post positions and radio commentary of the races themselves. There's no doubt that horse racing's rise to the pinnacle of popularity among all Jamaican sports was, almost single-handedly, because of the bookmakers' efforts
Luke carried on:
"It's my understanding that bookmakers in other jurisdictions lend adequate financial support to the racing product. Not so in Jamaica. The new entity Caymanas Track Limited (CTL) pays about 12 per cent of its revenues in purses. But who pays to house the 1,300 horses, light and water, and maintain the racetrack with daily watering and grading since outside of race days the track is used for exercise every day? The same CTL.
What about the bookmakers? They are like burrs on a woollen pants. Hangers-on."
Again, untrue. By the way Luke, CTL is the OLD entity.
In other jurisdictions (Europe only as most other developed nations operate tote monopolies), a Bookmakers Levy Scheme, as adjusted from time to time for current realities, operates to enforce bookmakers' contributions to purses. No international bookie pays a rights fee because all international bookies offer their own odds and don't use the racing promoter's track odds. In Jamaica, the levy scheme has been informally replaced (I doubt the laws have actually changed) by a situation where SVREL (formerly CTL) pays all purses. Previously, 8% of sales were dedicated to purses, but this has long flown out the window during 15 years of mismanagement.
Early in the new millennium, in order to offer some sort of rescue, Government agreed to reduce CTL's Pool Betting Duty (tax) from 7% to about 2% (or less), giving CTL at least in theory, 'savings' of 13% (8% previously 'dedicated' to purses plus 'tax relief' of 5%). This should've allowed CTL to pay purses directly instead of waiting on the bureaucratic transfer from the Consolidated Fund through TWO gaming regulators before coming to CTL. Out of the 'savings', CTL was also expected to make capital improvements, of which there have been none. For Government's part, it was able to keep the entirety of taxes paid by bookies.
Even this 'scholarship' was mismanaged by CTL, which then went to the bookies for increased rights fees in order to help pay CTL's expenses.
The backstretch costs listed by Luke have absolutely NOTHING to do with bookies. All over the world, trainers must pay a fee for rental and maintain their own stables and gallops. As a result, training fees in UK (average PS60 per day) and in USA (average US$50 per day) are massively higher than in Jamaica (maximum J$2,500 per day). This is part of what I keep calling the financial fundamentals with which CTL has been fooling around for decades and which must now be adjusted. The problem has been the low level of purses. Now that SVREL promises huge purse increases, owners and trainers must pay for what they use.
From as far back as November 20, 2016, in a column headlined 'Monopoly move?', I warned that certain legislative moves to grant "exclusivity' to SVREL were ominous:
"WHY does the BGLA need amendment when the sole legal transaction is the transfer of the right to operate a racetrack (governed by the JRCA only) from CTL to SVL? The BGLA already provides for a tote licence to be given to the horse racing promoter. But, it also provides for the grant of bookmaker permits and lottery licences. My sources tell me there's a plan afoot to allow the promoting company to hold not only a pool betting (tote) licence but also a bookmaker's permit.
'Are You' Shaw, IS THIS TRUE? Is SVL demanding that, not only should it be the sole promoter of horse racing AND a bookmaker (Just Bet), but the entity it uses to acquire CTL should hold BOTH a promoter's licence AND a bookmaker's permit?... How would this affect licensed bookmakers who've been the industry's lifeblood for decades; who've single-handedly popularised the sport to the benefit of Jamaica's revenues AND to the promoting company's benefit at a time when the promoter could only sell bets at the track?
Is this the creeping, calculated commencement of a scheme to eliminate all bookmaking competition by charging competitor bookmakers exorbitant 'rights fees', while the promoter's bookie and SVL's bookies get preferential treatment?"
As soon as divestment was completed, my sources tell me Post to Post Betting Limited (P2P) was summoned to a meeting by SVREL and told its rights fee would move immediately from a maximum of 4.5% to 7.5% for all shops. Attempts to negotiate were met with a lockdown order from the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission. Does Just Bet pay SVREL 7.5% rights fee? The successful bully tactic with P2P is followed by this amateurishly uninformed column by Luke. Is this the start of SVL's campaign to cast bookmakers (except Just Bet) and their historical contribution on racing's dung heap?
Recently, parent company SVL made efforts to meet with me without success. Last year, I received two gilt-edge invitations (to include Old BC) to the Diamond Mile race meet. They remain unopened. As I've told all and sundry "I yam what I yam and that's all that I yam." I'll be wrong (often according to most readers) but I'm always me. I write only from inspiration followed by extensive research to ensure I get my facts straight. When I enter a taxi, the driver puts up the "occupied" sign. With me, what you see (and probably dislike) is what you get.
Peace and love.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to email@example.com.