Monthly Archives: September 2012

Why they should have added 3 furlongs to the National

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.

Why racing should worry about the increasing pressure on FOBTs in betting shops

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
2.5% (2009)
1.8% (2010)
1.8% (2011)
1.6% (2012)

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.