The Tote has often been described as British racing’s sleeping giant and, with Betfred’s exclusive pool betting licence expiring in just over two years, there is fresh determination within racing circles to have another go at invigorating pool betting in this country.
Even allowing for the fact that British punters have a fixed-odds mentality, it is easy to believe the Tote could take off and become a massive contributor to our sport. It is, though, far less easy to predict the route that might be taken to achieve this.
In a perfect world, by the summer of 2018, all elements of racing, including all 59 racecourses, would have come together under one umbrella organisation. It would, one presumes, hold one of the licences issued by the government to run a pool betting operation in the UK.
The organisation would be on the point of finalising deals with the major bookmakers and at least one of the principal overseas pool betting operators. Excitingly high turnover figures would be anticipated, driven by multiple bets, and everybody would be looking forward to getting a share of a new, ever-increasing revenue source.
But those of us who look at the form book of racing politics can see how difficult it will be to turn this scenario into reality.
The first problem is trying to convince the racecourses that one solution would work better for them all than if they fragmented. Not an easy task when any formula for dividing up the spoils has to find universal agreement at a time when some racecourse groups and independents will almost certainly be tempted to apply for a pool betting licence on their own behalf.
Yet it is crystal clear to any observer of pool betting operations that the key to success is liquidity and the strength of that liquidity would, in our case, be in direct proportion to the extent that racing unites.
Of course, you might argue that the future of pool betting is not going to be driven by people placing bets on the racecourse. Fundamentally it is about much, much bigger pools being fuelled by those betting off-course, many of them from overseas. But trying to run a successful pool betting operation without the racecourses’ involvement, with all the legal and practical ramifications, would not be the chosen route.
Similarly, the Tote needs the compliance of the major off-course bookmakers because, even now, their betting shop customers form a significant slice of the market through Tote Direct, and would do so in any future set-up under a racing-run Tote.
But, as I have said, the real opportunity for pool betting in this country comes not through people who frequent betting shops or racecourses but through the increasing millions who now bet online and those who would bet online if they saw the opportunity of a huge prize for a relatively small stake.
The benefit of enfranchising the exotic bet audience is not just about making more money for racing
In pool betting terms, these so-called exotic bets are the ones that can sustain the biggest take-out and are therefore the most profitable for the operator. Against that, there is opportunity for the Tote operator to look at the margins on win and place bets with a view to attracting the ‘value’ punters and setting up some real competition for fixed-odds bookmakers.
The benefit of enfranchising the exotic bet audience is not just about making more money for racing. It is also about winning a much larger audience. It is about exploiting the exponential growth of pools as a means of attracting a completely new audience to our sport, an audience that is stimulated by the prospect of every televised race-meeting creating another millionaire.
British racing can do this. But it can only do it if everybody adopts a greater-good attitude with racecourses, horsemen and BHA all working together for racing’s mutual benefit. Then the sleeping giant will surely rise from his slumber and begin to roar.