The BHA’s formal statement yesterday on the 8 year ban given to Mahmood Al Zarooni was sadly lacking in a robust defence of UK racing in general. We should not simply assume that the public will take it for granted that quick and decisive action here means full confidence in the sport’s integrity. That needs driven home in plain language.
Yes we have a ‘rogue trader’ in MAZ, but it’s not as though it was 11 horses from different yards.
In rushing to Hang em High and display a sense of purpose, we should not neglect responsibility for the sport’s importance and image.
When the public see DOPING headlines, steroids will be out of sight of their minds’ eye. What they will see is fizzing syringes full of equine rocket fuel or a concoction that puts a horse to sleep.
The most junior of PR execs would have advised the BHA to ensure the big picture is driven home forcefully. That picture shows UK racing to be, in general, the cleanest in the world. The BHA, the media, and all of us owe the sport more than it’s getting in this case.
Geoff’s last guest article drew quite a bit of interest. He sent me this one, worth reading for the passion and plain-speaking alone, although it is a bit ‘technical’ for the everyday racing fan. To find out a bit more about how Geoff’s business works, you might want to read this one before reading Geoff’s.
My last blog about modern day racing, and its sanitized ways, seemed to attract a lot of attention or hits as they say apparently. And more than a few compliments from like-minded souls, or perhaps concerned, individuals on Twitter. It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am…in future my rate for such scribing shall be ten pounds an article, and I’m not budging from that.
What was absent – was the contra view. Which I expected from trainers and connections of horses boxed away in padded cells for months on end- awaiting their glory moment. Shame that. However, all is not lost. I did receive one rather hateful response from a fellah describing himself rather grandly as ‘a proper Bookmaker’ who ranted about my attitudes to modern day betting rings. He wasn’t quite brave enough to tell us all who he was, doubtless of the view should he reveal his true identity, some would have realized the true worth of his business practices. Few punters thoroughly approve of modern day Bookmakers. The horrible truth: exchanges are the ‘good guys’ wherever they trade from. Who’s going to criticize someone for low liquidity when you’re part of the problem?
It’s perhaps helpful if I illustrate the problems as I see it in the modern ring, for those who do not understand the issues. Anyone who goes racing, midweek in particular, can’t have failed to notice the distressed state of the ring. A handful of Bookies, usually with just one member of staff each, huddling for warmth whilst serving but a few customers. In an environment where racetracks claim attendances overall are holding up, it’s a paradox that rings are so quiet. Of course, were I the RCA, I’d be talking up the product. And yes, if they don’t address the problem of stable stars retiring as 3 year olds or worse sitting out for Cheltenham, they’re going to have attendance issues, we’re agreed on that. On a Saturday, and at the major meetings however, the crowds still look good to me, but the public aren’t betting as they used to.
Or perhaps they are. I mean who goes racing these days and doesn’t have a bet? Racing’s pretty dull if you don’t have some kind of interest other than an anoraky view of form or breeding. Why does the Queen have so many ladies in waiting when she’s in attendance? Quite right, they’re running her bets out! She’s no fool. Loves a Union Jack does the Boss. Everyone’s having a play in reality. Because if you’re racing, and not betting, you must be wondering what all the fuss and noise is about!
As to the Punters, they’re just getting bored. 98% of Bookies these days have turned to trading as a simple and cheap method of making a living. From the moment the interminably ignorant Rob Hughes, of the then controlling Levy Board, cast his vote in favour of opening up the Ring to outside influences-in particular exchanges, the die was cast for the Bookies. Led by ‘pioneers’ like Martyn of Leicester, who I recall describing it as the new Holy Grail to me one day.
Many leapt from odds, percentages and margins, to trading every dollar they took with an exchange, at better odds. Presto, easy money – minimal risk. At the outset the gap between the odds offered by the trader and the exchange was wide, and the method simple. It was a golden time. As the years progressed, with traders chasing a diminishing pound, and their own silly greed for every bet available, the odds soared to the punters. Traders found with what profits could be engendered, squeezed so tight, they couldn’t breathe. Even when the crowds were good, they moronically bet so tight to the exchange, the profits, if at all, were derisory.
In the same period, liquidity on exchanges fell markedly. Now we had a situation where Traders would offer 7/1 about a horse trading at 8.2 on the exchange but only to £20. Lord-A-Mighty if someone asked for a couple of hundred each way- a bet far larger than they could stand, trade or even dump with the few proper Bookmakers betting to opinions. Casually they knocked the larger punters back, without thought for their future. They turned to following the exchange win price, but restricting the place returns, making something off of that book instead, tossing casually away years of agreements and the code laid down by Tattersalls.
This code was, and still is, respected in betting shops and credit offices and even improved upon. They laid off staff, and finally stopped going in some cases, altogether. So when ‘a proper Bookmaker’ tells me I shouldn’t be going about criticizing their business plan, I have to laugh. Proof of the pudding is in the eating. It gives me little pleasure to be proven totally right. I said this operandi would fail on every platform available to me, to whoever would listen and many who would not. If there’s no work – you’ve failed.
I’ve covered the traders, what about the views of my customers? First off, make no mistake, I like a laugh with my punters, especially when they lose – but I don’t mind the jibes when I do either! It’s part of the fun of betting with the old enemy. Because I am, the old enemy in all but age… I still offer odds which reflect my views and I don’t knock back bets from genuine punters, ever.
Why aren’t the punters flocking to a ring where they can very often beat an exchange price and pay no commission? Because my friends, like me, they’re so famously bored of a ring with rows of Bookmakers betting like soldiers – all offering the same odds. There’s no variety or choice. It’s uniform and drab. Worse it’s an exchange driven Cartel. Most Punters believe the Bookmakers win, whatever the result. If everyone has the same price- it appears like price fixing. They disapprove of restrictive practices such as 1/5th odds on the National, and traders who dress as if they’ve just stepped out of their front rooms.
And worse, they just want the fun of a bet. It really makes little difference to them whether a horse is 5/1 or 4/1 when the nags are toiling up the straight. One of the loudest punters in the ring I love, little Tommy, makes the most noise. He doesn’t bet big, but to him it’s still the buzz, and I love him for his enthusiasm. These days, customers are afforded little of the respect of past days, when Giants like John Banks and Stephen Little battled them with a smile, a thumping bet at their odds, and a tie.
I offer two thoughts for punters at this stage, out of balance. If you moan about poor place odds and you give those Traders who offer them your fiver each way at 1/5 the odds on the Cambridgeshire because they are 17/2 about something which is 8/1 elsewhere, then you’ve only yourselves to blame for supporting them, in any race. I believe you should identify the culprits and never bet with them, period. That’s how you rid the ring of scoundrels without the business acumen to appreciate exchanges aren’t the savior, but their death knell. Oh, and tell your friends.
Second, although I enjoyed the banter from Big Mac, even if it occasionally made no sense, the culture of moreism always has a price, go for service over value, every time. Think I fly Ryanair if British Airways head in the same direction?
Fine, I’ve given my thoughts. What of the future? For those leading Bookmakers these days, and for the empty vessels in the ring, standing looking at the tumbleweed, bitching away, and blaming everyone but themselves for the problems, I offer these solutions.
Number one; allow the racetracks to dictate the terms of business in the rings. Fundamentally to restore order on place markets, introduce a guaranteed minimum lay to lose amount for each ring. This stops traders betting to pennies, offering unsustainable odds, and knocking back the larger punters. It’s so tiresome to hear dinosaurs claim tracks ‘shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the terms of business.
What a narrow view, especially as even now, they already do! It’s hardly in the favour of racetracks to do away with the draw of their betting rings, is it? Chesterbet is a success, but only in parallel with Bookmakers bringing the punters to play into the track in the first place. On their own, and without a ring, tracks – whilst they can deliver on the bet at more restrictive odds – can’t deliver on the flavour and atmosphere people in this country enjoy about the ring so much.
Think that Simon Bazalgette and Charles Barnett are rubbing their hands with a go it alone approach? They’re no fools. They would prefer a symbiotic relationship. Every time we say no to their requests for improved service standards, they become just a little more unsympathetic to our problems. They will naturally turn their vast expertise in running business, into taking Betting under their wings and employing people like me to show them how it’s done successfully. And yes, I would, if the alternative is to stand amongst a bunch of fiddlers trading dollars in their jeans.
Number two, for racetrack bosses. Extinguish the cosy little relationship between RDT (betting software provider for on-course bookies) and Betdaq (betting exchange), with software capable of skillfully enabling traders to hive off bets at lightning speed to the exchange. Do away with track Broadband & Wi-Fi altogether. Outlaw data cards, secondary laptops and hand held PDA’s for Bookmakers. No, it’s not air tight, but it does go an awful long way to restricting the ability to trade with exchanges. Especially at festival meetings where mobile phone networks like Vodafone do a total runner.
Fundamentally, switch off the exchange displays on laptops provided by companies such as RDT and return rings to a lower tech environment. Give serious pause for what I’m advocating if you value a vibrant ring, its draw and income. Stop worrying about losing a few traders who do not approve of restrictions. Believe me, they’re no loss! Enfin, if you’re showing exchange odds on a big screen at your Racetrack, you’re doing yourselves no favours. It isn’t about price.
Number three Bookies, get into the modern day age of cashless societies and find Bank’s willing to offer the new fast generations of swipe debit cards to enable punters to bet without the need to queue for hours and days at cash points.
I accept there will be a variety of views out there to this. If you’re a hard working Bookie, you have my respect for your efforts, but you’re going nowhere, if you don’t adapt, and you know this is true. If you’re the blinkered sort, who believes the Son of John Banks got here through luck rather than focusing on service standards. Or if you’re worried someone else in the ring on a mobile will break the mould and have a huge mass of punters at his joint, whilst you have nothing, then you’re missed the point.
It is greed, and an unworkable long term business plan that got you here in the first place. You have to work as a collective, rather than a series of individuals, and you have to act now and stop thinking of what’s good for you, but what’s best for the customers you’ve lost. The tracks have the power to lay down sensible practices, if you’d only let them. One thing’s absolutely for sure, the one you’re using right now has failed, miserably. I don’t think anyone could argue with that. For those that view some of the points as ‘legally challengeable’. I point you to the free for all 2008 Gambling Act. Good luck in Court trying to get a decision as to what is, or isn’t legal anymore, because the Gambling Commission certainly can’t.
One final point, Bookies. Just a few years ago, many of these points were laid down by the NJPC articles. I don’t recall anyone at that time complaining, or challenging the terms. We can change, and we must, if the whole shebang doesn’t migrate to GoodwoodBet in a very short time.
GBR’s annual review, concentrating on its aims and what it has achieved so far, has just been published. You can read/download a copy by clicking the link below.
Geoff Banks, son of John, a bookmaker way ahead of his time, writes of his festival experience and his frustrations with the industry.
Bankers. We used to count the banker material in the car with my Dad on the way to Cheltenham. It was our benchmark to success at the meeting. And that was the word – success, because losing at the Festival was a non runner for Bookies like John Banks.
The environment has changed. I don’t use betting exchanges to price up my book, I value opinion over trading between Bots and the numpties. I’m very much in the minority. Modern day Bookmakers can’t see past exchanges, trading every penny they take, offering poor service to the customer, which starts with uniformity of odds.
We have Rob Hughes to thank, the casting-vote chairman of the Levy Board. He introduced exchanges to betting rings – now decimated. Bookies have become their own worst enemy.
Me? I expect to win by taking the aggressive line. No, I didn’t offer ten pound bets on Sprinter Sacre at Evens, but then I’m not running a casino. I don’t study a yard of form pre-festival. It clouds my plans. If I spent all night studying form, I’d surely end up with the same book of hotpots as the punters do. Dynaste, Quevega, Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth and Simonsig.
My job is to get them beat.
Tuesday rolls in, starting well for the Books, with the hard pulling My Tent Or Yours looking assured of victory, outbattled by Champagne Fever. Last year we started poorly and never looked back. This year was more muddled. Wins for Simonsig, Hurricane Fly and Quevega placed the straight bat layers on a sticky wicket. We lost. Plenty. The bright spot? Handicaps. Result after result all week stunned punters.
Wednesday, a gloomy bunch of Bookies snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the first, with Back In Front rallying. Groans and queues around the Centaur for payouts.
I employ 3 people to just pay out the cash, which by nature is more time consuming than accepting a bet – it wasn’t enough!
The office rang – running up bets onto Irish wonder-horse Pont Alexandre in the next. This from multiple bets onto Back In Focus and yesterdays ‘heroes’. ‘How much do we have it for?’
‘Don’t ask’, says my senior trader, ‘we’re behind the sofa in here’.
Talking-horse, not wonder-horse. And it kicks off panic with the punters. They barely scrape a return in another race for two days. Who cares about Sprinter Sacre? Not the Bookies – they ignore him. Ooh aaah, well done, move on.
Round after round to the Bookies continued through Thursday. Had you asked me to write down my own set of results, I couldn’t have penned a better set. It was almost embarrassing. Thursday night we celebrated, care of the Richard Power firm in Cheltenham. Smiles all round and stories of derring do and how what looked on paper a punters’ festival, had turned so much our way. We were well in front.
Friday. Hmmm. I remember thinking I would coast round, secure that even if the results were similar to Tuesday, we couldn’t finish behind now. That’s not to say I intended backing off and hogging the pot. Oh No! not my way at all. I’m too daft to do that. Punters on the ropes and down… I was going to put my heel gently on their necks.
Hard to remember a plan proven more wrong, as result after calamitous result ensued. The worst of which for me was Salsify in the Foxhunters. Backed in from 9/2 long term to 2/1. It was a catastrophe. I was stunned by the manner of his victory, speechless at the turn of events, and the volley of noise in the Centaur was unbelievable! It didn’t surprise me to watch McCoy boot the last favourite home. I was numb. The punters deserved their day.
How much did the Festival cost the firms? Well, we lost double on Friday what we’d reaped on Wednesday and Thursday. Those are traditionally quieter betting days.
I’m not crying, I have a track record of winning long term. Overall, the Cheltenham bash cost the Bookies big time. More with the large offshore concerns, who outdid each other with one moronic offer after another.
These days they seem to treat the whole event as an opportunity to pad their online products with lovely names and addresses. And the dimmies queue up to sign up as if it’s Christmas. Is that a fair comment? I believe so, because every tenner laid at evens on Sprinter Sacre usually gets ploughed into something else. I mean who deposits a tenner and goes through the rigmarole of withdrawing it the next day? It’s ploughed into some other product and Bobs Worth’s your uncle.
Whilst everyone from the BHA downward is clapping themselves on the back at producing another showcase event – and it was, I offer a word of caution. I listened to the great Micky Fitzgerald on the excellent Morning Line, a show I’ve been lucky to participate in, eulogising about his former boss producing the horse in tip top condition to wrest the big prize of the Gold Cup. And I congratulate my friend Nicky for his skills.
However, the last time I saw the great Bobs in action was November. He wasn’t the only one of course. A number of top jumping stars rested from December onwards. Fine, the weather was poor in January, but there were still opportunities to be had, rejected by stable stars with owners rich enough to take the gamble and lie low for months.
In the meantimeTV viewers , and, worse, attendees on course endured uncompetitive events and ‘match races’ for months.
There have been 23 grade one events this season. 16 won by the favourite, and 6 by the second favourites.
That highlights the predictable nature of jump racing these days, and hardly pads the Levy. It’s not good enough in my view. I don’t care who wins the Gold Cup, it’s a great institution, and whatever lifts the little cup, Dessie or Nortons Coin, is going to be big news.
Micky Fitz was right to congratulate the great one, but he forgets the intervening months have become drab and boring. Might I remind those looking in that Desert Orchid ran 8 or 9 times a year. He was an athlete and so are today’s horses. It disproves the current lame excuse given for horses languishing in their boxes, that they’re not ‘capable’ of winning top races if they run in February.
And if you’re Newbury or Kempton? You’re doing the industry no favours by permitting quiet gallops for top stars after racing. Ask Fontwell who provided 50 grand for a five-runner race how they felt at the lack of ambition?
Where was the inventiveness of connections then? Small fields for Championship races at the Festival? An alarming development for Racing. As for Quevega? Group class in a seller. It just leaves me cold. There’s only one horse who cannot be bested these days. One.
Let them race.
In nineteen days’ time, Hello Bud will officially turn fifteen. His actual birth day was April 24th 1998, but all racehorses are deemed 1 year older on January 1st and that is the age that will appear alongside his name if he lines up in the John Smith’s Grand National on April 6th.
It is rare for a 15-y-o to be in training. The last of that age to run in the National was MacMoffat in 1947.
Hello Bud is one of my favourite horses, a game front runner who jumps very well. He has never fallen over fences and his victory in The Becher Chase last Saturday, a race he won in 2010, was over the National fences, although it is more than a mile shorter than the big race in April.
The National is often described as racing’s shop window. But it’s a shop which opens just once a year as far as the public is concerned and among the millions gaping, there are plenty with big bricks in their hands. On view in recent times, equine corpses, a trail of exhausted dismounted horses having buckets of water thrown on them by panicky people lest they collapse in view of millions. That sweating cavalry were led home by a beautiful big horse who was thrashed all the way up the run-in by his jockey.
Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised died in the 2012 race after throwing his rider before the start. Some believe his fatal injury was caused by the thick wooden stakes making up the core of each spruce-dressed fence. Those wooden cores are on their way out and should have been dispensed with many years ago. They were removed from four fences for last weekend’s Becher meeting.
The shop-window audience is increasingly filling with rubber-neckers and animal rights people.
Dene Stansall, spokesman for Animal Aid told Chris Cook of The Guardian,
“We did some research in 2008, looking at racehorses that were killed between March 2007 and March 2008, and we found that most of those who collapsed and died were older horses running over a long distance. I think there is a question over whether it’s right or not for him to be taking his chance. Obviously, we remember Mac Vidi getting placed in the  Gold Cup at the age of 15, though that was a very long time ago.
“It’ll be a different ballgame for Hello Bud in April, running against 39 horses rather than 15 [last Saturday] and probably on faster ground, when he might be taken off his feet. Pointing to the horse’s career earnings of £320,000, Stansall said: “He’s done enough, surely. He’s earned his retirement. The National would be one step too far.”
I cannot verify Mr Stansall’s research but you can bet that most editors won’t seek verification before publishing his quotes. Mr Stansall, from a personal viewpoint, is doubtless sincere in not wanting Hello Bud to run. But he will be delighted to make all he can of the opportunity should the BHA not step in and end this now, well before entries for the race open.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with allowing Hello Bud to take part in a marathon steeplechase. In the interests of the horse and his connections and, crucially the interests of fairness, justice, whatever you want to call it, he should be allowed to run anywhere he is fit to.
His owner/trainer Nigel Twiston Davies, who has won the National with Bindaree and Earth Summit, told Chris Cook,
“Why is the poor horse going to deteriorate so much in the next three and a half months? It’s ridiculous. He’s led them a merry dance [in the Becher], he’s beaten a previous National winner. I’ll withdraw him instantly if they can prove that his age is going to put him at such a great risk but I don’t think they can.
“They could say these things if he’d trailed round in last but he didn’t. There’s a risk every time you canter a horse, or gallop them at home. If he gave up racing, he’d go hunting or chasing a trail or something like that, where he’d be just as likely to break a leg. Do they want me to put him in a field for the rest of his days and tell him, sorry about the cold weather?
“If ever you saw a horse enjoying himself in a race, it was him on Saturday. I think it’s a bit silly to talk about horses enjoying themselves, which is a human thing, but at the very least he wasn’t showing any resentment. I put him out in a field with our other horses who had run at the weekend and he was the one who was bucking and kicking most of all.”
I cannot dispute a word of that. Nigel knows him better than anyone and the last thing he would do is put any horse at risk.
But it’s not the risk to the horse that’s paramount here, it is the risk to the future of the Grand National. We have more than our fair share of experts in this sport but you need not be one to foresee the folly of allowing a fifteen-year-old to run in the National. A class of school-children the same age as the horse faced with doing a risk-assessment on the potential PR impact would, I’m sure, recommend that he should not take part.
The BHA has the power to prevent any horse running in any race (under rule 12.4.4). A specialist BHA-organised panel also assembles to judge the qualifications of each horse before the Grand National. Last year, a minimum age limit of seven was introduced. How they must now wish they’d stuck a solid bookend at the upper level too.
There is a chance that Hello Bud will not ‘get in’ anyway (there is a cut-off ballot for this maximum field of 40 based on a horse’s handicap mark; Hello Bud’s mark is 133 and that might just be short of what is needed). But I believe the BHA should act before the end of the year to nip this particular Bud. Formally, there might be nothing they can do until entries have been made, but they should let the trainer know they will simply not allow the horse to run.
If he misses the National, Mr Twiston-Davies says Hello Bud will run in The Topham. Fine, that’s a reasonable trade-off. It will be a smaller field over a much shorter trip and, vitally, the curtains will not yet have been opened on racing’s shop window.
Long-term sponsors Heineken, via their John Smith’s brand, will be wishing they’d ended their sponsorship in 2012 (the 2013 race is their last as sponsors). Reportedly, there has been disquiet for some time in the sponsors’ HQ about the image of the National. It’s gone from a wayward PR firecracker to something much more threatening for a sponsor, and if Hello Bud is allowed to run it becomes a time-bomb.
Changes were made to four fences on the Grand National course in preparation for today’s meeting where 25 horses competed over the course on heavy going. Five fell and two unseated.
As a spectacle I could see no difference from the Grand National other than the very sensible pace they were forced to go in the ground. Fences 13 and 14 had their wooden core replaced by plastic that would give on impact. The cores in the 3rd and 11th were replaced by a ‘standard birch frame’(as you’d see in an everyday steeplechase).
There seems to have been no downside to the removal of these wooden cores which were made up of a tight forest of thick stakes. In the past, once the heavy spruce dressing had been thinned out by a big field on the first circuit, it was more likely that horses would hit these stakes when making errors. Many believe Synchronised’s fatal fracture was caused by the stakes when he was jumping loose.
Aintree should now remove all wooden cores. It should also do so as quietly as possible. Not many GN viewers are/were aware of the stakes. Publicity about their removal will only prompt questions about why they were allowed to pose a hidden danger for so long.
Despite all the changes over the years, Mother Nature proved today that nothing hi-tec is needed to ensure the long-term health of the great race, plenty of water seems the answer.
Cheltenham has a declared policy of producing ground no faster than good to soft for day one of the festival. Maybe it’s time Aintree followed them with an announcement that all races over the Grand National fences will take place on soft ground – genuinely soft, erring on the side of heavy rather than risking good to soft.
That would be the only sure way to slow the field to a safe speed. There’s a strong chance it would result in a significant increase in Pulled Ups, but that’s far preferable to watching horses somersault at breakneck pace.
It would also mean some slow finishes – the end of the Grand Sefton today was just about on the right side of watchable – and I think it would be prudent to ban the use of the whip from the Elbow.
The National is on a PR tightrope. The sport cannot afford to be walking that wire for years to come. Annual post-race tinkering just makes us look silly and indecisive. Discriminating against good-ground horses would, in my opinion, be a small price to pay to secure the future.
Make these three changes for 2013 and we might never need to make another . . . and getting a new sponsor should be easy.
- Replace all wooden cores
- Guarantee proper soft ground
- No whip use from the Elbow
The 2014 Volvic Grand National . . . sounds okay.
William Hill CEO Ralph Topping’s comments in yesterday’s Racing Post have caused quite a stir (when do Mr Topping’s comments not cause a stir?).
One debate taking place on Twitter as I write concerns, among other aspects, the potential benefits to racing of FOBTs being removed from shops completely. I assume that this is on the presumption that much of that FOBT turnover will be transferred to horse racing.
I wouldn’t argue for a minute that betting on horse racing is not an essential attraction for regular betting shop punters. But its market share has been slipping for years. In the 1980s, horse racing made up more than 80% of turnover; I suspect it’s now closer to half that figure. The belief that dulling the attraction of FOBTs will boost horse racing turnover to any noticeable degree simply does not stand up, in my opinion.
Why would serious players move from a product that returns 98% of stakes to one that returns 84%? And, that second figure is only achievable, realistically, if you take the time to learn about racing. Betting shops are grossing around £900 a week per machine (source William Hill half year results, June 2012). The costs to bring racing into shops is onerous. FOBT profits are subsidising that cost, in some cases very heavily. If FOBT business collapses, experienced industry figures predict we will lose a minimum of half our betting shops meaning racing will lose at least half its media rights money.
Some will cry ‘Scaremongers’, but when FOBTs really started taking off with Roulette some years ago, I asked the MD of one of the major bookmakers in a private conversation, ‘What would happen if FOBTs were made illegal tomorrow?’
‘I’d close around 80% of my shops’ was the reply.
On the stats front, the Racing Post recently published an article on a survey done by a company called GamblingData. One of the areas covered was the cross-over or interplay, however you want to term it, between FOBT play and horse race betting. 43% of people who bet on FOBTs also bet on horse racing. What the report does not indicate is the level at which that takes place. A machine punter who also bets on horses might have one £5 bet a month. A horse player who also bets on machines might put just £5 a month into a machine – the figures are useless without further data.
The real bummer for supporters of the ‘ban FOBTs campaign’ is the stark fact that 57% of those playing FOBTs do not bet on horse racing.
Those who believe that smashing the FOBT market will re-direct most of the turnover to horse racing, or that it will encourage bookmakers to sell racing (a product with the tiniest of margins and in a number of cases, negative margins) well, the stats we have so far, plus anecdotal evidence, do not bear that out.
The proof of the pudding will only be found in the eating. It could turn out to be the most expensive dessert racing has ever sought.
BBC’s Bottom Line last week discussed how snooker/darts/cricket/F1 were promoted to reach their glory days.
A key section, for me, was Barry Hearn’s strategy of taking a group of snooker players and giving each of them a ‘soap opera’ personality.
Racing can learn from this, in my opinion. We will never grow the sport substantially by just promoting horses; non-racing folk have no context within which to assess the Frankels of the world.
Which is more interesting (boring), snooker or horse racing? Which was getting TV audiences of 18.5m once Hearn had delivered his strategy?
Nominations now open for which soap opera personalities best fit our racing folk.
BTW, if you click the link above you will find Max Mosley is a guest on the programme so get the ‘whip’ jokes out of the way early.
In an attempt to improve safety at the Grand National, one of the solutions offered by the authorities is to move the start farther away from the stands – 90 yards closer to the first fence. The key argument here seems to be to get the horses and jockeys away from the tension that builds around the current start area.
But jockeys already feel they don’t have enough time to get organised at the first fence – how can the solution be to give them an even shorter distance in which to accomplish that?
The first fence is a huge factor in the National’s problems in my opinion. Jockeys feel they don’t have enough time to ‘get a position’ which, effectively, means to be at the front in case the speed of the ones in front causes them to fall and bring down those behind (a vicious circle if ever there was one). Having built that rush to the first, they then have a long straight run down that line of fences in which it is difficult to dilute the momentum built up just because of worries about the first fence.
If they wanted to get the field away from the hubbub of the stands, why not start the race just after the last fence? By my very rough reckoning that would add about 3 furlongs to the National, perhaps a few yards more.
Okay, they’d have a tightish turn down toward the current start, but it’s not as sharp as it looks from TV footage as they’d have the whole of the Mildmay course to use on the first circuit. The issue for jockeys in a hurry would be the elbow first time round; some re-configuring could be done to it, but how many jockeys are going to be in a mad rush that early in a race of almost 5 miles? They’d have a run of about 5 furlongs to the first to get the fizz out of the horses and get themselves organised.
Even at that first bend, although those on the outside would be running farther than horses on the inner, there is plenty of room and I think most wouldn’t be concerned at having to travel wide that early.
Increasing the distance would, I believe, lead to more completions as jockeys would be much more inclined to hunt round the first circuit at a sensible pace like they used to do. For my money it would have been eminently more sensible, and more acceptable from a ‘heritage’ viewpoint, to have made the race longer rather than shorter – not to mention safer.
This Telegraph article is the latest in what appears to be a growing trend of publicising the effects on problem gamblers of FOBT machines in betting shops. The article has a link to another story reporting that the Lib Dems have FOBTs in their sights with a proposed reduction in maximum stake per spin to £2 (currently £100).
I suspect this will develop into a full-blown campaign against FOBTs and bookmakers ought to be making D-Day scale preparations to defend their rights to have the machines. Those preparations should, of course, include the welfare of addicts and potential addicts – that should be very high on the list. But I fear they might win the early skirmishes then lose the war. High emotion, sympathy for affected families and the still outdated perception that bookmakers are shady characters fleecing innocents in smoky backrooms with Find-the-Lady-type scams will win the day.
For those with an appetite for facts over emotion, the latest Gambling Prevalence Survey (July 2012) undertaken by The Gambling Commission reports a steady overall reduction in the % of population playing machines:
Virtual gaming machines in a bookmaker’s
Some more info on that study is below:
All gambling participation (including by remote means) Over the year to June 2012 (that is, an average of figures for September 2011, December 2011, March 2012 and June 2012), 58.1% of the 4,000 adults surveyed said they had participated in at least one form of gambling in the previous four weeks.
This figure of 58.1% compares with the 2011 calendar year figure of 57.3%, the 2010 calendar year figure of 55.5% and the 2009 calendar year figure of 55.2%.
The most popular gambling activity was National Lottery tickets (48.2% of respondents), followed by National Lottery scratchcards (13.1%) and tickets for society or other good cause lotteries (10.3%).
Betting on horse races, private betting with family, friends or colleagues, and gambling on fruit or slot machines were the next most popular activities (4.0%, 3.5% and 3.1% respectively). Those participating in gambling were more likely to be male than female, and were more likely to be aged over 45.
My personal take on FOBTs is that there would be fewer addicts were they not available. There is no point in denying there is a problem, but the percentage of the population who admit to being problem gamblers – across all gambling opportunities, not just FOBTs – is 0.9%. (3% of the population are class A drug addicts and, depending on the criteria used, “more than 3%” of the population are alcohol addicts: source – Independent article)
This is a huge baby in comparatively clean bathwater that risks being thrown out. I spoke to the MD of a large betting organisation about two years after FOBTs with casino games were introduced. “What would you do if they were outlawed tomorrow?” I asked. “I’d close 80% of my shops”.
I’ve always believed that the downside of FOBTs for bookmakers was the massive temptation to treat them as all the eggs in one basket. That is pretty much what has happened. In some businesses, FOBTs are almost certainly subsidising racing via media rights payments. If FOBTs go, or are seriously restricted, expect to see the effects hitting racing quickly and hard. If enough bookmakers remain to pay something toward racing by way of media rights and Levy (or its equivalent), it will be way below current figures – think Setanta and the SPL when the Irish broadcaster hit trouble.
As the anti FOBT campaign gathers pace, Racing ought to be very afraid. It had best start making its own plans for survival.