Just over two years ago the government sold the Tote to Betfred and this column joined the chorus of disapproval within the racing community. It would be tempting to rake over old coals, reigniting those arguments as to why the Tote sale to a bookmaker robbed British racing of a golden opportunity to put itself onto a much improved economic footing, but this would hardly be productive.
Instead, it is better to start thinking about what the future holds for us when Betfred’s seven-year exclusive pool betting licence expires. It may still be five years away, but the planning for this event cannot start soon enough.
The received wisdom within racing when it was bidding for the Tote was that seven years would give the successful party an opportunity to build such a successful business, that it would be in an unassailable position and capable of beating off any potential rivals when the exclusive licence eventually ran out. However, if the appearance that Betfred gives of merely treading water on the Tote part of their business is anything to go by, everything will be up for grabs in 2018.
In paying £180 million for the Tote Betfred not only bought the pool betting business but also acquired over 500 betting shops
Betfred is a bookmaker through and through – and a very good one. In paying £180 million for the Tote (we’ll conveniently forget the matter of deferred payments) they not only bought the pool betting business but also acquired over 500 betting shops, which they added to their existing estate, enabling them to exploit the economy of scale.
It is not for us to worry that you can go onto the Betfred website or into one of their betting shops and hardly notice the company has anything much to do with the Tote, even less own it. It is for us to rub our hands together and think of what British racing can do with pool betting in five years’ time.
Although the attitude adopted by the racecourses in deciding whether they will want to embrace change will be important, that is not where this battle will be played out. For the domination of pool betting will eventually be dictated by technology, both in terms of the instant calculation of prices on offer, the streaming of live pictures to anybody who wants to watch them and most of all in gaining access to a much wider market through smart phones – or whatever technological devices will be available in 2018.
Even today, the growing number of people who bet through apps on iPhones suggests that things will be at a point in five years’ time when betting shops will only exist for those who get their kicks from pressing buttons on FOBTs.
But how is the racing industry going to exploit this opportunity? The fact that we compile and control the data (the runners and riders) that drives this technology, hands us a huge advantage. Of course, we know from the lessons of the European Court in 2004 that this area is a minefield and it represents just one of the many reasons why work on this project must start right now.
The BHA, the racecourses and the Horsemen’s Group will only ever get to where they want to be on pool betting if they develop the right relationship with the right operator. We must start seeking out potential partners (most likely from the Far East or Australia) who combine a long and successful track record in pool betting with an enthusiasm for the potential that the British market has.
There are, of course, those who do not accept that pool betting remains a great untapped resource, arguing that the British punter is wedded to fixed odds betting and will never change. But they should know that this is not so much about winning over the existing betting public – it is about finding a new audience and, through pool betting, showing them what this sport has to offer.