A plea I made in this column about the future of the tote almost a year ago is beginning to come to fruition – well almost. I argued then that the only way racing would successfully operate its own tote system when Betfred’s exclusive licence expires in July 2018 would be if the racecourses all came together to operate a pool betting system that maximised the all-important liquidity of the pool.
I say ‘almost’ because we now know that Ascot has, rather interestingly, decided to spurn its fellow racecourses and join up with Betfred, while Chester and Bangor will continue with their in-house betting operation and presumably extend this to include pool betting, assuming they are granted a licence.
While it is true the absence of Ascot and Chester leaves a significant dent in the racecourses’ plan to create and operate their own tote, there is sufficient resolve and unanimity among all the other courses to make this happen.
To some ROA members with long memories it might seem rather odd for today’s representative of owners to be championing the cause for a racecourse-owned tote. But, in reality, this is the only way the racing industry can achieve its long-term goal of gaining proprietorial rights over a large section of the pool betting market.
The world of intellectual property rights may be a legal minefield, but it’s pretty clear that racecourses have ultimate control over most things that take place on their premises and, while we must all continue to dream of huge off-course pool betting markets, it’s difficult to imagine how British racing can get any sort of traction in building up pool betting without it being a collective racecourse-led operation.
As we have seen with the enormous sums of money that are now coming from the sale of TV rights, the sensible approach for owners and horsemen is to ensure there are always binding prize-money agreements with racecourses so that we are assured of a fair share of whatever money is flowing into the courses’ coffers.
Yes, of course, we continue to have our gripes, but the world has changed and in recent years most racecourses have become well run business entities with proprietors and managers who possess a good understanding of event management backed up with commercial nous.
We know that the real jackpot is about enfranchising the off-course market through online betting
It will not be lost on the racecourse consortium that the hardware and software infrastructure behind the pool betting system will be key to the early success of the venture. We know that the real jackpot is about enfranchising the off-course market through online betting, but this is an objective that is much more likely to be achieved if a solid foundation is first created by building up the tote on-course.
Just how many competitors the consortium will have when they push the button next year is anybody’s guess. While the Gambling Commission will no doubt apply ‘the fit and proper’ test on licence applicants they will also have to be scrupulously fair in applying whatever becomes their chosen criteria for granting a pool betting licence.
God forbid, though, that this should create a situation where numerous new operators end up competing for a part of what is now a fairly small pool betting market. One can only hope that commercial realities will quickly deter almost all of the crystal-ball optimists.
We must also hope that major bookmakers see this as a development that allows them to build on the part they now play to facilitate pool betting through their shops, rather than give way to any temptation that they will themselves also become pool betting operators.
With the staggering growth of digital technology, we now have a perfect environment for the racecourses to establish a big and meaningful tote in the country, though whether British punters, with their fixed-odds mentality, will ever truly embrace pool betting is another question. To be given the chance to find the answer is as much as we can hope for at this stage.