They say the world is becoming a smaller place and while 6,000 miles separate the racecourses at Ascot in leafy Berkshire and Sha Tin in bustling Hong Kong, the two tracks are virtual neighbours when it comes to pool betting on some of the most prestigious racedays in the calendar.
World Pool, which was launched in 2019, allows punters across the globe to bet into one single, giant pool at headline fixtures such as Derby day at Epsom, Royal Ascot and Irish Champions Weekend, generating huge liquidity and producing better starting prices.
At Royal Ascot this year, across 35 races, £129 million was bet into the pool – up from £92m in 2019 – while the Tote+ win price beat the industry SP on 21 occasions, matching the returns for the other 14 contests. To date over £250m has been bet into World Pool on British racedays in 2021.
By designating a meeting or raceday as a World Pool fixture, that necessarily means pictures of the event will be sold around the world, in a media rights package, to countries taking part – and if you can watch an event live, you are far more likely to place a bet.
While global punters will be attracted by the enhanced odds available, including for the so called ‘exotic’ bets favoured by the Asian market, for the racecourses involved in hosting World Pool days comes the promise of a significant cash return – a new, vital income stream following the losses racked up during the Covid era.
The concept was a long time in the planning, dating back to February 2007 and the Asian Racing Conference in Dubai when Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, introduced the idea that countries should be allowed to bet into each other’s pool for major global racing events.
“We started with comingling and got that off the ground,” says Engelbrecht-Bresges, who joined HKJC in 1998 and has been instrumental in the World Pool’s development and expansion. “Then we had discussions with Ascot and the Tote – why not build on the success of comingling and launch a World Pool? Royal Ascot creates global interest – that sparked World Pool into life.
“I think it has been a huge success. If you look purely at the figures of gross turnover, it creates an income and returns to racing you wouldn’t get otherwise. The World Pool days produce a major additional income for an organisation like Ascot – between £500,000 and £800,000 per raceday, which makes a big impact to the bottom line.”
British Champions Day at Ascot this month will be the 17th – and final – World Pool day in the UK and Ireland in 2021, the schedule having also taken in meetings at Newmarket, Epsom, Sandown, Goodwood and York.
“If a country takes the pictures, people will bet on the racing. HKJC send us the cheque and it’s in six figures for every raceday”
Nick Smith, Ascot’s Director of Racing and Communications, is in no doubt how important such days are to the racecourse’s finances. (British Champions Day is run by British Champions Series, a separate business, which will be paid directly by HKJC.)
“It changes our betting business as a racecourse,” Smith says. “Going from an on-course bet with Ascot brand, assisted by the Tote, and being a service provider, we are now much more heavily involved in the betting industry directly.
“Our relationship with HKJC is separate to other tracks and is based on a media rights model that sees us given a percentage of turnover. If a country takes the pictures, people will bet on the racing. HKJC send us the cheque and it’s in six figures for every raceday covered.”
Such financial returns are providing a shot in the arm to racecourses following an 18-month period when the coronavirus pandemic played havoc with sports schedules worldwide, leading to venues suffering massive losses, as Smith explains.
“The key thing is that this will enable us to boost prize-money over the season,” he says. “We have had a £10 million-plus shortfall to deal with in 2021. That’s not a loss of turnover, it’s a loss of money.
“We had pandemic insurance in 2020 but without that this year and with huge restrictions on crowds at Royal Ascot in June, this has been the biggest loss-making year in the history of the racecourse. We have managed, even in that climate, to have prize-money at 70-80% of normal levels.
“We’ve taken an enormous hit to our bottom line to try to remain as relevant as possible on the European stage. I say European stage because it’s impossible for Britain to compete on the global stage – with the Middle East and Asian nations and even Australia and America to a lesser extent – in the modern era. But we cannot slip behind Ireland and France.”
The Hong Kong Jockey Club manages the World Pool and allocates the schedule of racedays, and for good reason – Hong Kong-based punters account for around 70% of the money bet into the pool. The riches available in Hong Kong racing were highlighted by the news that it will stage the most valuable turf races over six furlongs, seven furlongs, a mile and a mile and a quarter next season, offering combined prize-money of HK$100m (£9.3m).
HKJC needed government approval to launch World Pool, which has allowed Hong Kong punters to bet on international racing when its own domestic racing season has ended. World Pool has enabled HKJC to address the black-market betting sector in Hong Kong – where fixed-odds betting is illegal – while simultaneously showcasing the sport, building partnerships, and generating income on a global level.
For Engelbrecht-Bresges, the possibilities that World Pool offers is exciting – but there are plenty of improvements required by individual jurisdictions to improve their betting product.
He says: “In Great Britain, mostly there is no direct correlation between the attractiveness of the field size and the income. As for race programmes, racecourses are not always focussed on the optimal betting product.
“Now they can see if they run a very competitive handicap besides the global top races, they can double their income. Staging an offering that is not attractive to the customer is unhelpful. You need to entice the customer – create a new product that is complementary to what you have in fixed odds [betting].
“From our internal findings, the most attractive races in Hong Kong – if you look at betting turnover – are Class 2 races, which are practically Group 3 standard under handicap conditions, with 12 or 14 runners. These races create betting at 20-25% higher turnover than other races. Why? Because they feature good horses, showing consistent form, in competitive races.
“We know our customers very well across all age demographics – how long they study the form, what they want from a raceday – and I am a strong believer in fact-based information.”
The idea of British race programmes catering to punters who are based thousands of miles away is somewhat strange yet very much in the thoughts of racecourse executives.
King George day at Ascot was a World Pool fixture and while the headline race attracting only five, albeit high-class, runners, was not a surprise and in line with previous years, two of the supporting handicaps produced fields of just four and six runners – an undesirable situation when pool betting revenues are now so vital, and one the racecourse is keen to remedy ahead of 2022.
“It won’t surprise you to learn that we’re having a complete look at the race programme on that day,” says Nick Smith. “[Those small fields] will not happen again.
“Internally we have been through the programme and identified where things didn’t work. Race programmes in Britain, like the King George or Eclipse day, are pretty formulaic with a big Group 1, a couple of supporting Pattern races and a big knock-out handicap.
“Shergar Cup races are in the sweet spot for what Hong Kong punters are looking for. We want it to remain as appealing as possible to the Hong Kong market”
“When ITV slips off air, perhaps we haven’t always put on the best card. In the new era where those races not on ITV are of fundamental importance to the World Pool, they must address the World Pool requirements. The whole King George card is under review.
“We’re all on a learning curve. We were supposed to have World Pool for the Shergar Cup, but the on-the-day reserves mechanism made it impossible for the HKJC to take it. The races are in the sweet spot for what Hong Kong punters are looking for. So, we’re reviewing how it can remain as appealing as possible to the Hong Kong market. There will be changes next year.”
Those changes may well include switching races over the two-day meeting, with those likely to generate the bigger fields – and therefore produce more betting turnover – moved to the Saturday so they fall under World Pool conditions.
Provided racecourses are not wanting to make significant changes to the Pattern-race schedule, the BHA is supportive of this effort to bolster betting and finances.
Richard Wayman, the BHA’s Chief Operating Officer, says: “When it comes to their race programmes, outside of black-type races, racecourses can change their races however they like. They would require BHA approval to move Pattern races.
“I’d be very surprised if moving a race from a Friday to a Saturday, for example, created any great issues. The only reason the BHA would sometimes say no to a black-type change is if by moving a race it creates a clash. But moving by a day isn’t going to do that.
“The BHA is very supportive of looking to expand British racing’s involvement with World Pool and helping to explore the opportunities.”
To date, four countries have hosted World Pool fixtures, with 20 countries betting into the combined pool on those days. Engelbrecht-Bresges, who this month will succeed Louis Romanet as Chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, would like to expand the World Pool’s reach even further.
He explains: “Firstly, I would love to increase the number of partners who bet through World Pool. The second element is to increase the number of jurisdictions that would participate in World Pool and not operate a separate pool.
“We need the creation of a new protocol where we can even offer accumulator bets or a global bet with massive jackpots – a product extension. We want a global product, to showcase the best horses in the world, even extending to South America.
“Could the Breeders’ Cup become part of World Pool? I would be very optimistic – discussions are ongoing. As for the Melbourne Cup, it’s something to think about but there are technical issues. There is no single Australian pool – New South Wales and Victoria operate independently. But the Melbourne Cup, a race with global recognition, would be perfect for World Pool.”
The World Pool is also an opportunity to sell the merits of pool betting to UK and Irish punters. Alex Frost, CEO of Tote UK, is hugely supportive of the concept.
He says: “I believe World Pool is arguably one of the most exciting projects in international horseracing. By combining global pool betting liquidity, it is a huge opportunity for British and Irish racing to grow betting and showcase the sport to a global audience. The benefits are already being seen with racecourses enjoying increased media rights payments and the UK pool growing by 40%.”
He continues: “Despite the challenges of the last year we have continued with our plans to rejuvenate the Tote. There is little doubt that to be successful the Tote must have a strong online offering in what is now a largely digital world. We are achieving growth by investing in our people, technology and infrastructure, to increase the appeal of the pool betting product.
“Over the last year we have improved the user experience on tote.co.uk/tote.ie and the Tote App while introducing new value propositions, including Tote Guarantee and Tote+, which give all Tote customers industry-leading prices. This improved customer experience is particularly pronounced when combined with the additional liquidity in pools created on World Pool events.
“The focus on improving the experience and increasing value for customers will remain at the heart of everything we are doing at the Tote. We hope that people will enjoy what is now a very different offering.”