Mo­nop­oly move?

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS - Gor­don Robin­son is an at­tor­ney-at-law. Email feed­back to col­umns @glean­erjm.com.

FOR DECADES now, I’ve been a lone voice call­ing for the di­vest­ment of horse rac­ing to the pri­vate sec­tor.

My calls were greeted with howls of de­ri­sion by ‘ex­perts’ (or ‘ex-perches’ who acted like railbirds in­ter­ested only in bet­ting) who said no­body would ever buy this track; horse rac­ing is a los­ing busi­ness; and the claim­ing sys­tem means cer­tain bank­ruptcy. I’ve pointed out re­peat­edly that horse rac­ing in Ja­maica is a los­ing busi­ness BE­CAUSE it’s gov­ern­ment owned and the ap­pli­ca­tion of pri­vate-sec­tor prin­ci­ples would soon re­float that sink­ing ship in­de­pen­dently of what­ever type of rac­ing prod­uct is of­fered.

I ad­mit to a few qualms when I learnt that:

One of the bid­ders was Supreme Ven­tures Lim­ited (SVL), which al­ready had a stran­gle­hold on the gam­ing in­dus­try (lotteries, slots, games) and a foothold into the bet­ting busi­ness (book­mak­ing);

The bid­ding process was con­ducted in se­cret, in­clud­ing whether any vet­ting had been done on mem­bers of the en­ter­prise team to rule out con­flicts;

Even af­ter SVL was pre­dictably named as the pre­ferred bid­der (your hum­ble scribe called it weeks be­fore it was of­fi­cially an­nounced), cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing horse rac­ing par­tic­i­pants, were ex­cluded from the ne­go­ti­at­ing process – not even up­dates were given.

How­ever, I didn’t com­plain (loudly) be­cause:

SVL is more than qual­i­fied to op­er­ate Cay­manas Park race­track;

The sole nig­gling worry (re­lieved by mar­ket the­o­ries) was whether it was truly in­ter­ested in rac­ing or in a de facto gam­bling mo­nop­oly;

Any­body was bet­ter than Gov­ern­ment which, against all odds, brought Ja­maica’s most pop­u­lar pas­time to the brink of in­sol­vency.

By ‘mar­ket the­o­ries’, I re­fer to my ex­pec­ta­tion that any en­tre­pre­neur with a vi­sion would be al­lowed to ap­ply to op­er­ate a com­pet­ing race­track (maybe on the north coast, as some sort of ge­o­graph­i­cal ex­clu­siv­ity for SVL wouldn’t be un­rea­son­able). This open mar­ket could dis­cour­age SVL from con­tem­plat­ing Cay­manas Park as a loss leader only and en­sure SVL crossed ‘t’s and dot­ted ‘i’s while en­trusted with the peo­ple’s sport.

So, I be­gan read­ing the Gleaner re­port of re­cent par­lia­men­tary ac­tiv­ity (Novem­ber 12, ‘Op­po­si­tion de­mands time to de­bate exclusive horse rac­ing bills’) calmly enough:

GE­O­GRAPH­I­CAL EX­CLU­SIV­ITY

“Pas­sage of two bills that will al­low for the grant­ing of geo­graphic ex­clu­siv­ity in re­spect of a li­cence to Supreme Ven­tures, the pre­ferred bid­der in the di­vest­ment of Cay­manas Track Lim­ited, was delayed on Wed­nes­day af­ter some mem­bers of the par­lia­men­tary Op­po­si­tion asked for time to re­view the leg­is­la­tion be­fore mak­ing their con­tri­bu­tion to the de­bate.”

As I said be­fore, I an­tic­i­pated SOME geo­graphic ex­clu­siv­ity. So, no prob­lem.

“Finance and the Pub­lic Ser­vice Min­is­ter Aud­ley Shaw, who pi­loted the bill, told his par­lia­men­tary col­leagues that the pas­sage of the bills was im­per­a­tive in or­der to close the di­vest­ment process with Supreme Ven­tures Lim­ited.”

WHAT? Now I’m sit­ting up in my chair with a tremu­lous feel­ing in my rear end as if it ap­pre­hends im­pend­ing vi­o­la­tion. Is it pos­si­ble Govern­men­tSVL ne­go­ti­a­tions ef­fec­tively al­lowed SVL to usurp Par­lia­ment’s role and leg­is­late (or de­mand Par­lia­ment leg­is­late) for the sole ben­e­fit of SVL?

C’mon, man! This isn’t the thin edge of the wedge; it’s the whole flip­ping door. NOTH­ING in Gov­ern­ment’s re­quest for pro­pos­als sug­gested that it was will­ing to leg­is­late on de­mand as a pre­con­di­tion to di­vest­ment. What’s go­ing on?

“He said the bills, an Act to Amend the Bet­ting, Gam­ing and Lotteries Act [BGLA] and an Act to Amend the Ja­maica Rac­ing Com­mis­sion Act [JRCA], would fa­cil­i­tate the es­tab­lish­ment of a reg­u­la­tory frame­work that at­tracts and sup­ports in­vest­ment in the horse rac­ing in­dus­try and pave the way for the de­vel­op­ment of Cay­manas track into a mod­ern world-class rac­ing com­plex.”

Je­sus H Christ on a Ja­panese crutch! Why do these acts need amend­ment to “fa­cil­i­tate the es­tab­lish­ment of a reg­u­la­tory frame­work that at­tracts and sup­ports in­vest­ment in the horse rac­ing in­dus­try”? Cur­rent reg­u­la­tory frame­works, which in­clude a 15-year li­cence to the horse rac­ing pro­moter on cer­tain vi­tal con­di­tions to guard against mal­prac­tice and en­sure trans­parency, have been at­tract­ing in­vest­ment for decades. They at­tracted SVL and an­other to bid for the race­track.

So, what’s RE­ALLY hap­pen­ing here? 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? If yes, are you ac­ced­ing to these de­mands? 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?

Min­is­ter Shaw, please im­me­di­ately tell Ja­maica whether you have agreed to sac­ri­fice cur­rent book­ies on the al­tar of Gov­ern­ment’s com­pul­sion to di­vest the CTL al­ba­tross to SVL de­spite the avail­abil­ity of a com­pet­ing bid­der who didn’t de­mand any­thing like that? Do these amend­ment bills place any new re­stric­tions on ex­ist­ing book­ies’ ac­tiv­i­ties?

“Among the terms of the di­vest­ment trans­ac­tion is the long-term lease of 30 years of Cay­manas Park.

Shaw said the Gov­ern­ment also gave ap­proval for ALLISLAND EX­CLU­SIV­ITY IN RE­SPECT OF HORSE RAC­ING [my em­pha­sis] to be granted to the pre­ferred bid­der for a pe­riod of 15 years.”

GAM­BLING MO­NOP­OLY

Well, kiss my Clara Gun­gus Natty! This is ob­vi­ously mealy­mouthed ob­fus­ca­tion for the gift of a com­plete gam­bling mo­nop­oly to SVL. Why is ‘is­land­wide’ ex­clu­siv­ity needed? Does this ben­e­fit Ja­maica, or only SVL? What ex­actly does “all-is­land ex­clu­siv­ity in re­spect of horse rac­ing” mean? Can no­body else in­vest in a race­track, no mat­ter how far away, or ob­tain a book­maker’s per­mit? Don’t be fooled by the 15-year limit. Af­ter the howls die down (ap­prox­i­mately nine days), the way will be clear in 15 years to qui­etly re­new.

But the worst, most dis­gust­ing, dis­grace­ful, dis­mis­sive, disin­gen­u­ous plan ex­posed by the Gleaner re­port came later.

“He later re­vealed that a sign­ing be­tween the Gov­ern­ment and Supreme Ven­tures is sched­uled for Novem­ber 18. Ac­cord­ing to Shaw, the pas­sage of the bill would clear the way for re­dun­dancy pay­ments to the work­ers of Cay­manas Park prior to Christ­mas and the for­mal takeover of the en­tity by Jan­uary 5, 2017. ‘If the sign­ing is go­ing to be delayed, then the re­dun­dancy pay­ment to the work­ers will also be set back,’ he added.”

’Scrise! I prom­ise ‘Are You’ Shaw that, given their ‘druthers, CTL work­ers would pre­fer his/her per­ma­nent job for Christ­mas, not some tran­sient “re­dun­dancy pay­ments”. Trans­lated from political gob­bledy­gook into English, Shaw re­ally said: “If the sign­ing is go­ing to be delayed, then the fis­cal space gov­ern­ment an­tic­i­pated for Christ­mas, so we could give out ex­tra bullo work will also be set back.”

The prob­lem go­ing for­ward with a di­verse gam­bling in­dus­try in a small coun­try is we have too many cooks (reg­u­la­tors) cer­tain to spoil the broth. Advanced na­tions at­tack gam­bling’s known pro­cliv­i­ties by lim­it­ing reg­u­la­tion to one au­thor­ity with pro­fes­sion­ally manned de­part­ments for each in­dus­try seg­ment. Political ap­point­ments are lim­ited to an ex­ec­u­tive chair­man and two ex­ter­nal di­rec­tors with skill sets in ac­count­ing and se­cu­rity.

If ever a sit­u­a­tion in­spired a re­minder of the fine art of the lim­er­ick, this is it. There was a young lady named Sally who en­joyed the oc­ca­sional dally. She sat on the lap of a well-en­dowed chap and said, “Well, that’s right up my al­ley!”

Peace and love.

PHOTO BY JERMAINE BARN­ABY

Jockey Javaughn Pat­ter­son push­ing PI­ANO MAN to vic­tory over MEM­ORY OF TS with jockey Dane Dawkins to win the Dr Paul Wright Tro­phy race at Cay­manas Park on Satur­day, Novem­ber 12.

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