Ashforth’s Angles: If donkey derbies have taught us anything

A donkey derby could prove instructive for racing

If donkey derbies have taught us anything By David Ashforth 6:01PM 23 AUG 2016

A race is sometimes said to be a lottery and the horses in it described, unkindly, as donkeys. Curiously, this promises to unlock a brighter future for the Tote and boost racing's finances.

Government documents in the National Archives at Kew reveal that on Whit Monday 1963 a Round Table held a fete and Donkey Derby to raise money for charity.

As the National Association of Round Tables later observed, the organisation subsequently "suffered an unhappy experience at the hands of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise."

For the donkey races, the Round Table operated a pari-mutuel. To their dismay, Customs and Excise subsequently demanded that 30 per cent of all money bet on the races be paid in pool betting duty.

They also informed the Round Table that under the 1963 Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act "they had committed a number of criminal offences."

A legal opinion was obtained which stated that, under the Act, donkey racing was not exempt from pool betting duty. Under certain conditions, small lotteries were exempt but in the case of Donkey Derbys "knowledgeable persons" might "improve their chances of forecasting the winner by studying the donkeys' physical appearance before the race."

Also, "if the same donkeys are raced more than once during the day some of them may acquire sufficient ‘form' to prevent betting on the later races being lotteries." If skill and judgement could be applied, a Donkey Derby could not be a lottery.

The lawyer acting for the National Association of Round Tables ended by remarking that "they may be forgiven for concluding that ‘the law is an ass.'"

The following year, when Wellington Round Table planned to stage a Donkey Derby, they asked Customs and Excise if they could claim exemption, as a small lottery.

Customs and Excise replied, curtly, "the operation of a totalisator at your Donkey Derby will render your organisation liable to pay pool betting duty."

Reluctant to admit defeat, the Round Table acted to eliminate skill from betting on its Derby. It informed Customs and Excise that 14 donkeys would be involved with six runners in each of eight races but when a donkey ran for a second time it would be given a different name.

Furthermore, betting was to end before the donkeys set off for the start, so that punters could not form a judgement based on how they moved.

This led to a flurry of internal memos and, ultimately, to permission being granted to have betting on the races without duty being incurred.

At a meeting between a Customs official and a representative of the National Association it was agreed that future Donkey Derbys would be exempt from duty provided they were run on the Wellington model.

The Association was to issue a circular to Round Tables informing them of the requirements.

So here is an opportunity for racing. The worst races are arguably lotteries, the horses in them can have their names changed from one race to the next, betting can stop when the horses leave the parade ring and there'll be no pool betting duty to pay. Sorted.

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