Blog Archives

This Cheltenham Fence Move Just doesn’t Add Up

cheltenham logoCheltenham’s new season started today. Over the summer, the second-last fence has been moved ‘seven or eight yards’ (Sophia Dale, Cheltenham’s communications manager) closer to the last fence. The fence had only been in-site for 6 years having been moved 239 yards in 2010 from its former position near the foot of the hill before the turn into the straight.

The key reason for the move appears to be that 6 horses fell at the fence at this year’s festival. Cheltenham offered a comparative figure of an average of 3.4 fallers ‘there, between 2007 and 2016’: I assume this is up to and including the 2015 festival, but that is not clear. Nor is it clear why 2007, 08, 09, 10 have been included in the 3.4 figure as the fence was not in position for those festivals.  What might complicate matters further is that from the season the re-sited second-last first came into use (2010/11), runners in races over two miles and two and a half miles had an extra fence to jump.

The less cynical side of me assumes the figures are a communications malfunction and are linked to some of the figures associated with the 4th last fence on the New Course which has also had its position ‘adjusted’. No doubt the executive will clarify at some point. But could there be another reason?

Sophia Dale said, “The faller figures at both fences have been slightly creeping up, so we spoke to the PJA [Professional Jockeys Association], who had given us some feedback anyway, and moved the fence to give the horses a bit more time to get themselves together when they come off the bend.”  Despite possible conflation of casualty figures, it is clear from reference to the bend that, in this quote, SD is talking about the second-last. I wonder what was in that feedback from the PJA, and was it sought or offered?

2010 Move

After the move of the fence into the straight in 2010, jockeys who were asked to test it at what appears to have been a media day said this:

Brennan said: “The ground has never been better and the new fence could not be in a better place. You will still get fallers as it is the second last but they won’t be so severe.”

Sam Waley-Cohen said: “The fence is beautifully presented and I look forward to coming down to it on Long Run.”

Carl Llewellyn said: “I think the fence will be a great improvement – it rides nicely off the bend with plenty of room between the two fences. It will be safer all round.”

By the way, three horses had come down at the fence that morning in the ‘test’. Simon Claisse appeared to assign that to the jockeys having jumped it so well the first time, they were keen to have another go. Claisse:

“They jumped the plain fence and ditch on the back straight and came down the hill over the third last. They were going very fast and seven horses came around the corner – Paddy Brennan, Carl Llewellyn, David England, Sam Waley-Cohen and Sam Twiston-Davies were among those riding – and the bend rode beautifully and they jumped the fence.

“We were happy but Nigel’s gang wanted to do it again. So they went back up the hill to the third last and one of the senior jockeys who is now retired said they went off with their tails on fire.

“We could hear them coming and the first horse hit the fence pretty hard and fell and brought down two others. So we had three jockeys and horses on the deck – fortunately they all got up and were fine and they made some positive remarks about what we had done.”

 

After that Showcase meeting in 2010, Claisse seemed pleased:

From Cheltenhamfestival.co.uk website:

The fence was jumped 118 times over the two day meeting with only two fallers and a hampered and unseated rider . Claisse said that “the old second last was responsible for 75% of fallers last year so this is a big difference .”

Let’s go back to that ‘seven or eight yards’ difference mentioned by Sophia Dale. In 2010, journalist Jeremy Grayson wrote on the The Racing Forum that he’d read in Robert Thornton’s Racing Post column that Thornton was :

…delighted to discover horses get 15 strides between turn in and the second last fence, then another 16 to the last. Evidently a bit more space to play with than anyone, myself included, had necessarily reckoned with.

I can’t find that original Thornton quote on the RP site, but I have immense respect for Jeremy and am happy to take his word for it.

So, 15 strides from the turn-in now becomes 16 strides, leaving only 15 strides to the last; we must wait and see what effect that has. And does that single stride that’s been gained really make such a difference? Could it be that the faller figures “slightly creeping up” (SD), could be something to do with the way the fence is being ridden? If so, what will jockeys use their extra stride for?

Or might it be that the fence was sited wrongly in 2010? Was it perhaps an error that Cheltenham were reluctant to admit to relatively soon after the change was made? Cheltenham’s communications error (or obfuscation) today certainly hasn’t helped. One prominent journalist was fobbed off when requesting more information on the figures, apparently with the excuse it was a busy raceday today.

I suspect all is not as it seems here.

I’ll leave the Racing Post‘s Nic Doggett to sign off with a highly prescient piece from six years ago, written just after the Paddy Power meeting.

 

A lot has been written about the re-siting of the infamous second last but from the evidence of this meeting the historically troublesome obstacle is still just that.

Two fallers in the Novices’ Chase won by Wayward Prince brought the total number of fallers at the new fence to seven, a whopping 50% of all fallers at the track since it was moved.

Fences late in a race will always be responsible for tired fallers, however I cannot help but wonder whether the new position is at an awkward spot for horses because of its proximity to the stand.

The noise and sight of the grandstands really hit you when turning for home and this must be distracting for horses. Couple this with tiredness. Then add in what appears to be a landing area that looks slightly too low, and I think it will continue to cause problems.

The worry is that it’s hard to move the fence further up the run-in because then you’d have an inadequate gap between the final two fences, but put it back much and it’s too close to the bend.

This looks likely to run on and on, I suppose much like the argument over the old siting did, and I can’t think think of any easy solutions. Can you?

 

Who will become the Amazon of online betting?

binocularsAs Amazon, Facebook, and Google have proved, where there is a global desire for a product, online dominance of that sector is not only possible, but it is becoming the norm.

Netflix for streaming movies, Spotify for music, Uber for taxis…why shouldn’t this work for betting?

Bookies offer different odds – that might be one argument, but how many casual punters care about that? If you just want a bet on the football or on the National or The Masters, the difference between 9/2 and 11/2 won’t matter much. So long as it is easy to place the bet, you get paid right away and, if something does go wrong, customer service is splendid.

So, how do you beat your rivals in this fight for dominance? Well, brand recognition is a crucial aspect. If I were the CEO of one of the majors, I’d be grabbing every sponsorship opportunity I could get while my rivals dithered about agreeing ABP status.

The usually astute Paddy Power seldom let an opportunity for name recognition pass, and I’m astounded that they’re hanging around on the question of ABP.

I’d take every sponsorship of every race I could get my hands on for the next five years, so that all that the betting public sees, a dozen times a day, seven days a week and at all the major events would be my company’s name. Not only is that name drip, drip, dripping into their consciousness, it’s displacing the names of all my rivals, for there is nothing left for them to sponsor.

Of course, they can go into other sports, but at what price? And I’m going to be there too, with a much more recognisable brand.

I’ve worked in the betting and racing game since 1971 and I’ve seen some short-sighted decisions, but this is one to beat the band.

Is there nobody out there with the vision to grasp this opportunity for long-term dominance?

A Rust masterclass to achieve a win-win Levy settlement

Nick Rust

Nick Rust

In the past half century racing could not have survived without the levy payment from High Street bookies. The original intention of establishing the Levy was to provide a means of compensating racing for the loss of attendance that was anticipated when off-course betting shops were legalised in 1961.

In the 54 years since, Levy battles between bookies and Racing have gone like this:

Racing: “Give us more.”
Bookies: “No.”

Refereeing these bouts was the Secretary of State, who became punch-drunk long before the fighters but not as quickly as the audience. In 2010, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, “It’s a big disappointment that the racing and gambling industries have failed to sort this out – but frankly the government should never be the last resort in an essentially commercial negotiation. We have therefore announced our intention to remove the role of the Secretary of State from determining the Levy scheme in future – and I hope this time will be the very last one that I have to be involved.“

The Levy is to be replaced by a Racing Right; trouble is, nobody knows when. The target date for the Bill has not yet been set.

Bookmakers and Racing have 1 week left to reach agreement on the next Levy deal. When they sit down round the table, who’ll be holding the strongest hand?

Yesterday Ladbrokes announced a drop in earnings before taxes of 56.7%. Today William Hill announced profits were down 39%. Hill’s share price has dropped by 20% since May. Neither company pays Levy in full on its internet business; their offshore base allows them to avoid this ‘tax’ of 10.75% of gross profits on horseracing business. They make a voluntary payment, along with other ‘avoiders’ Betfred and Coral. In the last year that collective payment was £4.5m. The BHA estimates that Levy avoidance costs the sport £30m annually.

Some offshore betting companies voluntarily pay the Levy in full: Bet365 and 32Red, for example. Neither of those operates a High St betting shop estate. Hills and Ladbrokes own more than half of the UK’s 8,500 betting shops and are legally bound to pay Levy on all horseracing business conducted in those shops.

The trouble is that the horseracing product on the High Street earns the bookies very little once expenses are paid. I’d put the nett profit from racing business at under 2% on average. Some of the smaller shops make a loss on horseracing after expenses.

Even the big boys run loss-makers. A prominent, highly respected bookmaking figure told me recently that he estimates that 15% of the UK’s betting shops operate at a loss. Some of those will close if the proposed Coral-Ladbroke Merger goes ahead. Hills CEO has said they will not be panicked into merger talks. Betfair and Paddy Power recently announced they’d joined forces. Paddy Power have almost 600 shops (Ireland and the UK combined). Betfair is online only.

High Street bookies need horse racing because enough of their customers still want to bet on it, although its market share of the betting cake is about half what it was 30 years ago.

But from a business viewpoint, they’d do much better without racing. If they didn’t have to sell it, they’d save on Levy payments and, crucially, on media rights costs – the price of bringing in pictures and data from the racecourses.

Do Bookmakers need racing?
So the bookies will settle down at the Levy table to haggle for something they must have rather than something they want. If Racing plays a concrete version of hardball, the bookies could simply walk away. They do not need racing for their business to flourish, all they need is a level playing field. If no betting shop offers racing as a product, punters won’t grieve for too long, and they won’t be organising coach parties to the track. They’ll moan for a month, then find something else to bet on.

As to who’d be bold enough to opt out first, well, that’s another question. Ladbrokes could not stop selling racing without a hundred percent confidence that their rivals would do exactly the same, and do it very quickly.

If the bookmakers did boycott racing, the sport would be dead in months. A handful of tracks might survive, but the vast majority would close. Levy payments and media rights money are the blood and oxygen keeping alive our 59 tracks.

So, you’d think Racing might be treading carefully as it approaches the negotiating table. But this week Jockey Club Racecourses and Arena Racecourse Company, who between them own more than 50% of the UK’s racecourses (15 tracks each), and operate almost 60% of the fixtures, decided to boycott bookies.

Aside from Levy and media rights payments, another channel drawing money from bookmakers into racing is race sponsorship. William Hill first sponsored in 1957 (The Ebor). Annual race sponsorship by bookmakers has been estimated at £9m. But Racing has said they don’t want any of it in the future unless the bookmaker concerned is an Authorised Betting Partner(ABP).

ABPs would need to agree to a “fair and mutually sustainable funding relationship” with Racing (effectively, “pay the Levy in full on your offshore business”). The value to bookmakers of race sponsorship is questionable. Their brands were built long ago, and much of the sponsorship is driven by CEOs who have a personal love of and commitment to racing.

So bookies don’t need to sponsor either. That £9m could be put to better use. But what else is on offer to ABPs? “A full package of benefits” to boost their business on British racing, which could include preferential rates for live streaming of races and the use of racecourse data, and even an ability to reposition fixtures to maximise turnover.

Now, think about that final offering…how would non-ABPs be prevented from benefitting from repositioned fixtures? Well, within that conundrum a small but highly significant giveaway resides, if my suspicions are correct.

And those suspicions were aroused because I could not see the common sense in all this. Bookmakers can survive, and thrive without Racing. Racing will die without bookmakers. Why is Racing behaving as though it holds all the aces?

The answer, I believe, is that the cards have already been dealt, and the hands are known to both parties. Due process means they cannot yet be shown. Saving face is an important consideration too, especially for Racing. Many in the sport have long believed bookies to be parasites. They must not be seen to get their way this time.

But they will get their way, and here is the real magic in this deal – so will Racing. bookies

The Clue
The key clue, in my opinion, lies with another shock recent announcement, that SiS will rise from the Intensive Care Unit to once again become the sole provider of pictures and data to UK betting shops.

In 2008, SiS lost its monopoly on supplying pictures and data to bookies from all UK courses. Turf TV took the rights to half the racecourses, and High Street bookies ended up paying around twice the costs for pictures and data (media rights).

Since the birth of TurfTV, SiS has steadily lost its way and looked doomed until the ‘shock’ announcement three weeks ago that a five-year deal (2018-2023) had been agreed, restoring its former monopoly.

SiS was set up in 1987. Its key shareholders were the major bookmakers. It provided the racing product at an affordable price. I strongly suspect that doing so again will be part of its brief in this new deal.

So, if bookmakers are paying less for the product, the wholesaler – Racing – will be taking a hit. But if that hit is offset by the SiS beneficiaries paying the Levy in full, then out from the business buzzword bag comes an old favourite: ‘win-win’.

Doing such a deal in the open would mean Racing backtracking on its long-held ‘let’s milk the bookies’ recipe for survival. And it would have brought scorn from many bookie-bashers in Racing’s ranks. Instead, it’s been delivered with the silky skill of a consummate politician, whose name I believe to be Nick Rust.

Nick became CEO of the BHA early this year, moving from his post as managing director, Ladbrokes Retail (their bricks and mortar betting shop division).

Nick Rust

I know Nick quite well. Other than to wish him luck in his new position, I haven’t spoken to him since January, so the scenario I paint in this article is based purely on my instinct.

I first met Nick in the late 1990s when I worked for Tote Direct. Back then he was on a rapid upslope having been seconded from his position as a Ladbrokes district supervisor (one step above a betting shop manager) in a small Borders town, to be a runner for John O’Reilly, Ladbrokes marketing boss, in a short-term project.

Nick left a lasting impression on me. He’s a big man physically, but his presence does not come from his size. I believe he has flourished because of his personality. A hugely genuine and likeable man, a fine listener who listens because he cares about what you say, not about the impression he’s making on you, Nick is that rare bloke about whom no one has a bad word to say (at least not in my hearing).

Over the years he has added to his natural arsenal a finely tuned political antenna, a deep astuteness, and a rare aptitude for solving complex problems. Nick won’t care who gets the credit, so long as the task is achieved.

My guess is that, in this Levy showdown, Nick has been quietly directing everything in the background. First, a leak last month about this sponsorship boycott set the bookies sniffing the air cautiously. Asked then for a statement, here’s what the BHA said formally:

“The current Levy leakage, with the vast majority of remote betting activity not being captured, causes real economic damage to British Racing. However, we don’t comment on speculation and are happy to reinforce our long-standing position that betting firms are highly valued partners of our sport.”

Informally, read “It wasn’t me, Guv, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

On Tuesday, Nick was much more forthcoming: “This concept has been discussed and agreed in principle by the leaders of our sport.

“We cannot deliver a three-line whip and make sure that every part of racing is involved, but we can encourage and show the benefits to parties within racing of taking this approach, in terms of a true partnership with those betting operators who, if you like, do the right thing and partner with us.

“It’s great to see that Jockey Club Racecourses and Arc are deciding to support this initiative immediately. We hope to deliver as many parties as possible to deliver the concept of Authorised Betting Partner where there are preferred access and preferred goodies for those inside the tent, and restricted access for those who are not inside the tent.” How’s that for a blunt but family-friendly homage to LBJ’s comment about J Edgar Hoover?

Then, yesterday came the announcement that the EBF (European Breeders’ Fund), which spent £6m in racing sponsorship last year and are one of racing’s longest established sponsors, would no longer agree to joint sponsorships with bookmakers unless the bodies were Authorised Betting Partners.

Can’t you hear the cheers of the anti-bookmaking lobby?

But that EBF aggression was, I believe, the final front in the Levy war, a last echo to add to the din of sabre-rattling cover for a battle that was never going to be fought.

In September, when the news of the sponsorship ban leaked, I’d normally have thought Racing had abandoned whatever sense it had left. But knowing Mister Rust was at the helm, I suspected there was much more to it. And so it has proved – to me, at least. And I now expect that after a few grumbles, all major bookmakers will sign up as Authorised Betting Partners.

So, Racing gets the glory. SiS lives on. The bookies, at last, get an affordable product, and, in what will probably be the final Levy fight before the Racing Right comes in, Mister Rust gets the quiet satisfaction of having masterminded the bloodless war.

Is the Cheltenham Festival tempting us to allow rule-bending by trainers?

binocularsThe love of money is the root of all evil, so say some. Is our collective love of the Festival causing blind eyes to be turned to the rules by many of us, the BHA included?

How many horses are truly being run on their merits throughout the jumps season? In this week’s Weekender, Alan King says . . .

A King, Weekender, 26th Feb

“We train our horses to progress as the season develops”  Is that within the rules?

BHA Rule:

45.3 A Trainer must not send any horse to race with a view to schooling or conditioning the horse.

There’s the matter of fitness, readying horses to peak at a particular time, and, crucially, timing medication to be out of their systems so that the doping rules are not infringed come race time.  If this is what we have come to, perhaps we should be honest about it and the rules modified to fit. Some might gladly agree to such a compromise for that glorious week in March; I might even be one of them. But we need a degree of  openness about it.

Should trainers be required to declare a quantifiable fitness assessment for each runner before a race?  Rather than: ‘He’ll be doing his best, but I’d expect him to come on for this,’ something like, ‘I’d say he is 80% fit.’  It would then be up to punters to decide whether that 80% fit horse has enough natural talent to beat another in the race who’s been declared 95% fit. Doubtless trainers will win with horses declared as 70% fit and plenty will lose with horses deemed 100% fit. But at least the information is in the open. It is then up to punters to decide what to do with that information. Of course there is also the question of the judgement of the trainer and the honesty of the trainer. But as things stand, there’s a level of compulsory dishonesty anyway, if many horses are running in races with the intention of preparing them to win another race.

Or, if NH racing needs prep races for horses, then perhaps the Jumpers’ Bumpers should be properly structured, and horses who are being openly prepped, confined to those races until declared 100% fit and ready to win over jumps.

It’s a tough problem with many facets,  but as the Festival’s influence grows, it’s going to have to be faced at some point.

Joe

Wi-Fi or Die-Fi? A warning from bookie Geoff Banks to the racecourse bosses

Racing folk have moaned for years about how uncommercial racetracks are – ‘Run by old buffers’. Not anymore. The sharper ones are cashing in on every possible income stream. But bookmaker Geoff Banks has a warning for them, and for you.  Geoff’s a regular guest blogger here. I admire his determination to try to stem the tide that threatens to wash away the track bookies, but I fear it will be a Canute job.

cashAscot is my favourite track, by a nose from York, with Cheltenham a neck third because it’s champagne is more than York’s..

Don’t bother giving me your favourite – they’re weighed in

I thoroughly enjoy Ascot. Most of the time it’s bullet cheap to race, they do concerts, firework displays, fairground rides for the Bookies, countryside fayres and service standards, the best in the industry. Nothing’s on the cheap. Bath take a peek.

Now it includes Wifi. Wow, that’s great. Except when you login and my old Mucker King Ralph pops up waving at me from Gibraltar, just like the Racing Post Betting App. I spilled my champagne all over the oysters.

Forgetting the customers for just a second, what’s in it for the tracks? First off, it’s not a cheap investment. Putting in wifi will cost some six figures at a track like Ascot or York. You can’t just bang lots of repeaters in when there’s 40,000 souls involved. It has to be paid for. Now with apologies to some seriously bright track bosses who I routinely engage I’ll tell you what it’s for.

Money.

You see to a track, Betting is appealing. They may not be considering getting into laying horses or such, but if William Hill are going to pay them a portion of what’s turned over via their wifi  to Gibraltar, then we have a new revenue stream. And Topping is no fool, he won’t overpay for the new custom. Forget what Rod Street has to say – ‘it’s a customer focussed initiative.’ That’s hyperbole, and I note with disappointment, another decision he made without consulting stakeholders. It’s about cash. No racetrack is reasonably going to invest in expensive Wifi if it wasn’t expecting something out of the deal.

Let’s deal with Rod’s take first. And I know he’s a racetrack man through and through. Is it about customers really? Will it drive footfall to the tracks – increase their customer experience? The short answer, maybe to the former – but the answer to the second is at the bottom of this read, for reasons I’ll outline. Rod knows it’s about money though. He knows everyone’s got 3g already and heading for 4g, and if they really wanted to book a table for dinner or post a picture to facebook from the track, then that works fine for that. When a customer thinks of Racing – will Wifi seal the deal on attendance when he’s got it already via his Apple? It won’t make any appreciable difference.

Now if you don’t care whether the humble Bookie turns up on course, and you feel the tracks can do well enough with their own Tote or in house betting, then read no further. Let’s not waste each other’s time.

Most of the people calling me a dinosaur with regards to this subject seem to base their arguments on value and betting. Their views revolve around going racing and achieving the best possible value for their punting dollar.

Except that they won’t (go racing) that is. Fellahs bent on achieving the top of the market in punting don’t get in their Austin Princess and drive 30 miles to Ascot. They sit at home in baseball caps on Orange screens and ‘green up’ or ‘cash out’

Woop-dee-doo

You’ve come this far. So I want you to picture a track without bookies. Here’s what it looks like.

empty track

Still going Racing? Hmm, I wonder if you really would? You see Bookmakers have been the very fabric of racecourses since they were built. Is it possible or desirable to go the whole hog with a ChesterBet type deal? (Don’t think that represents any value by the way at SP -10%! Turpin wouldn’t have faced the hangman if he’d invented RacecourseBet)

Ok, you’re a track boss, you really think you’re going to sell as many tickets if there’s no ring, or make as much from it as Bet365 might pay you for turnover? Anyone been to Kempton or Southwell, or for that matter Longchamp, excepting Arc day? They lack any appreciable atmosphere or flavour. People queue for a bet- then they queue longer to get paid. It’s not sexy. And I like rumpie-pumpie in my racing

So, to the humble Bookie, shivering in the ring. He’s invested in a pitch many thousands of pounds. He drives often scores of miles to work. Carries in heavy equipment, electronics. Pays support companies to keep him working, taxes and fees to the Gambling Commission. He’ll employ staff to service the customer, pay them out of the profit and their expenses. And finally he’ll hand over to the racetrack not only his entrance costs, but an expensive daily fee to bet and even a marketing fee someone dreamed up. All in all he’s looking at a ballpark minimum, including the startup cost of pitch and equipment of circa £600 a day. He can’t trade at the 103% book offered by someone sitting in his underpants at home with none of those costs to bear. Don’t weep. Seriously though, we all have to be prepared to pay a little extra for service and betting fun.

Yet oddly enough, the tracks now feel the Bookie should compete directly with underpants man. Not to mention King Ralph, and his lower cost-base technological kingdom. It’s thoroughly unrealistic. The little Bookmaker simply cannot withstand an assault from all directions whilst he shoulders the lions share of expenses.

empty rails

Consider this. A track’s daily fees from Bookies far outweigh what Ladbrokes would pay for the rights to turnover from users on betting apps. And a home layer, fiddling around on Betfair, can now lay bets directly to the track’s customers via these super fast Wifi systems.

You’ve come this far- step the last mile with me. Modern day telephonics already afford a user all the social networking a customer requires. If he wants to post a picture of him and his girlfriend (or boyfriend) on Twitter holding his plastic cup – he can do it, no bother on his existing network. Experience proves however – its simply not fast enough to cope with Betting Apps or exchange business when there’s even 5000 users at a track. Data becomes treacle slow and I seriously doubt 4g will revolutionise the issue of ‘bandwidth’. It deals with speed of data. If there’s lots of folk on the internet, clogging up the mast, the system breaks down because the issue is the number of users sharing the line.

Hardly surprising, those screaming loudly in favour of Wifi, and calling me a T Rex, are frustrated they cannot go racing and fiddle about on Betfair. They foresee Wifi as speeding up that issue. And they’re right – it will.

But the Bookie standing in the ring – who’s paid for the ‘Right’ to bet through every pore in his body? Whilst the track finds one revenue source it didn’t have before, it will lose not only the fees it generates from the Ring – but the ring itself. It’s not the final nail of course, I’m not saying that, but were you running a little business on track, how much pressure from the internet, paying pennies to bet directly to customers floating about the track, do you think you could stand? What percentage of a track’s custom frequent the ring, view, or feel it adds a sense of British to their day?

My solution? Is one which satisfies customers, excepting those who expect betting permanently on the cheap. Block all access from racetracks from Wifi to betting sites. They’re not paying to bet to bettors at Ascot as other track stake holders do. That’s a key point. You simply cannot expect to reap harvest from Bookmakers or Betting shops and allow BetVictor those same privileges for nothing. Customers rights are unaffected, they can use their 3g anyway to post photos of pictures standing next to Rod Street and his nice new suit.

busy rail

The answer to the improved customer experience question for a racetrack with little or no Betting Ring, is it a better experience than Longchamp?

You make the call.

We owe the sport a fairer portrayal than it’s getting in this steroids case

question_timeThe 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.

Bookie Geoff Banks wants big changes in the betting ring

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.

The ringMy 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.

18-03-2013 15-10-30

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.

18-03-2013 15-23-07

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.

Geoff Banks

Geoff Banks

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.

Geoff Banks

March 2013

Great British Racing: how the sport is sold by our marketing professionals

GBR LOGOGBR stands for Great British Racing. It’s the new name of Racing for Change.  GBR’s job is to market British racing to the public, to businesses and to the media.

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.

130306 GBR Annual Review

 

WarnedOff

 

Read it and weep; bookie Geoff Banks’s story of his Cheltenham festival

Geoff Banks, son of John, a bookmaker way ahead of his time, writes of his festival experience and his frustrations with the industry.

Geoff Banks

Geoff Banks

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.

Day one

cash_in_handTuesday 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.

Day two

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.

hands

Day three

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.

Day four

cryingmanFriday. 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.

The fallout

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.

18-03-2013 17-48-09

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?

Simonsig? Beatable.SIG3

Dynaste? Stuffed.

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.

Geoff Banks

Goodbye Bud. Why Hello Bud should be barred from running in the National

national_startIn 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 [1980] 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.

WarnedOff