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1997 - Mr Major’s Speech at Tote Annual Lunch

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the Tote Annual Lunch, held on Wednesday 5th March 1997.


PRIME MINISTER:

I am delighted to be here today. The Tote annual lunch is a special occasion.

But ever more so than this year because I can pay tribute in person to Woodrow Wyatt, who has been such an outstanding chairman since - well, since the great flood, I think. Everyone has their Woodrow stories - he's not entirely uncontroversial. He clearly has a great affinity with horses. I don't know about Woodrow's turn of speed, but he has enormous stamina and takes the hurdles like a star.

He's owned horses too. When he was in the Parade Ring at Ascot it was bucketing down with rain. Woodrow put up a large umbrella. The Duke of Norfolk steamed over to him. "For Heaven's sake, man, put down that umbrella: you're scaring the horses" he said. "Not half as much as they're scaring me" said Woodrow. He kept the umbrella up.

Some mornings, early, at No.10, as I'm getting through the umpteenth red box that my private secretaries have kindly sent up to the flat, Woodrow phones. Aha, I think: he's got a tip for me in the 3.30 at Haydock. He hasn't. Advice, yes. But winners, no. But I'll keep taking the calls and hoping for the winners.

The Racing Industry

The racing industry has a very special place in the affection of this nation. We love horses and we love the sport. The common passion which joins those at the race-course to those in the local betting shop is shared also by millions who follow the sport on TV. And who can forget the memories of Frankie Dettori's seven winners, Red Rum at Aintree, or the tragedy of Devon Loch falling so close to the finish.

It's big business, too, racing, particularly in rural areas. It employs 50,000 people directly, and another 50,000 through bookmaking. It is a sizeable export earner. But it's also an integral part of our heritage, our national life and our international prestige. The Derby, Ascot, the Grand National are known and followed all round the world, No-one asks which Derby? Which Grand National? They know.

The Tote

The Tote itself is a very British institution.

It provides the public with a popular alternative to fixed odds bets with bookmakers.

It gives enormous support to the racing industry.

It supplies racing with some £8 million a year to sponsor races and to help improve facilities for spectators.

The Tote plays an important role in channelling money from the betting public to the sport they follow. Its role has been examined over the years both by the Government and by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.

The Government last year announced that we intended to maintain the Tote's current status. We were persuaded that change was undesirable.

Of course, it's true the Tote enjoys a monopoly on pool betting at racecourses. But it also faces more competition than comparable bodies anywhere else in the world, because of our extensive network of off-course betting shops. So the current situation seems to me to give a healthy mix - the consumer has a choice and the racing industry benefits from the Tote to the tune of £8 million a year.

Recently the Tote had an exciting day or so when it was suggested Labour wished to privatise it.

It was a classic whodunit. Was it Gordon Brown's idea? Did he really want to flog off the Tote - notwithstanding the small problem that the Government doesn't actually own it!

Was it George Howarth, who said he knew nothing about it? Or Jack Straw who must have been innocent because Michael Howard hadn't proposed it so Jack certainly wouldn't? Was it sources close to Tony Blair, who said that there had been discussions about this idea but that no decision had been reached. One spin-doctor said "we don't want to give this idea any further legs." (No pun intended). Anyway, it was a non-runner.

Then suddenly the sources broke cover. And the hero of the episode is here. Robin Cook said: "a hare appears to have got out and run before any shadow cabinet member knew about it. I can authoritatively bring down the curtain on this story". Well done, Robin. That seemed clear enough until one final source weighed in try to help. John Prescott. He said both that the idea was dead and that it was something that should still be considered. Sources in The Sun summed it up: "Robin and John are fed up with the way Gordon makes policy on the hoof".

So who did it? You judge. The clues are there if you look hard enough and the answer is the same as in Agatha Christie's 'Murder on the Orient Express'. They all did it. But happily, no-one will.

Lord Wyatt, The Tote is a national asset. It provides an invaluable service at racecourses, catering for the small stake punter and those who like to see betting profits go to the benefit of racing. We would be wise to continue to treasure that asset. I want to see the Tote go from strength to strength, continuing to bring benefits to racing and so to the country as a whole.

Farewell to Woodrow Wyatt

I turn now to another institution - Woodrow himself. He's a national asset too. He's been your Chairman now for over 20 years. To put that in perspective, when he started the job some of the Spice Girls had not been born and Chelsea had but recently won the Cup.

One thing that has remained unchanged over the years has been Woodrow's passion for cigars. You rarely see Woodrow without one. Normally a very large one. And he hangs on to his cigar whatever the dangers. He was once staying in Venice, and was going to Harry's Bar for dinner. As the boat got there, he stepped off, and missed the quay. He fell into the canal, up to his neck in mud. Anxious Italians rushed over to rescue him. Only to stop in amazement at the sight of Woodrow, almost completely submerged, but with his hand holding a still-lit Churchill cigar safely clear of the water. He was pulled out and taken off to hospital for a check-up - still puffing away contentedly.

One of the things I most admire about Woodrow is that   his drive and interest hasn't diminished over the years. Far from it. The last 12 months has seen more activity than ever before - including changes in the law to allow the Tote to take bets on non-sporting events; and remarkable commercial successes such as the expansion of Tote terminals in betting shops. Woodrow will be a hard act to follow.

No-one can question Woodrow's fierce loyalty to the Tote. You always know where you are with Woodrow - he never hesitates to tell you. Twice, if necessary. Throughout his long and distinguished term as Chairman he has fought unceasingly for the interests of the Tote.

Your retirement, Woodrow, marks the passing of an era.

It is clearly an auspicious time to be leaving the course, as the careers of one of our greatest ever jockeys, Willie Carson and best loved commentators, Peter O'Sullivan, also draw to a close.

But today, my final duty is to propose a toast to your Chairman. Woodrow's place in racing history is secure. He has established the Tote as a highly regarded part of the country's racing and betting scene. Please join me now in toasting his achievements.