The betting industry has been getting about as much coverage as Brexit negotiations in the past month or so and at times it seems about as complex; so if you’re expecting a unified view on the subject you are in the wrong place, writes Tony Keenan. That said, I’ve tried to read most of the coverage and have thoughts on a number of areas within the subject that might be worth mentioning so I’m going to ramble on and see what comes back from readers.
One: The Issue
Aside from any views I have on the content of the betting industry coverage in recent weeks, it is a good thing that the area is being addressed at all. In this period, there has been discussion on the AtTheRaces Sunday Forum and with Bruce Millington on Racing UK’s Luck on Sunday along with articles on account restrictions, the work of the UK Gambling Commission, the David Evans/Ladbrokes case and so on.
This cannot be a bad thing as there are lots of punters, winning and losing, who have issues with how the industry is being run. It is difficult to make any progress without discussion and hopefully this media engagement with the industry will continue.
Two: Who cares about restrictions?
There is a belief out there, perhaps propagated by bookmakers, that few people have any interest in the workings of the betting industry, particularly with regard to restrictions; we are often told that the vast majority of punters get their bets out without issue and it is only a few vocal customers who have been restricted who care about the issue. I could not disagree more with this.
Maybe it’s naïve of me to think so but I’ve always believed that bookmakers, to some degree at least, are in the business of selling hope, whether it is the hope of having one’s opinion validated or the hope of winning money. Even the most unprofitable punter hopes that one day he will win and the thought that this may be impossible due to restrictions is not an appealing one.
Furthermore, stories of trading practices that may be less than ethical or at the very least skirt into grey areas are interesting for the wider, non-betting public to read about. Bookmakers and their various hues of blue, red and green are ubiquitous on our high streets with betting becoming big business and now more socially acceptable than ever; the demographic of your local betting shop has likely become more diverse in the last few years. When I speak to non-betting people about the idea of restrictions, they are invariably fascinated and surprised by the practice and to say that this is a non-story is a gross misrepresentation of the reality.
I have never worked inside the betting industry with the closest I came to getting a job in one of the companies when I got sacked from a cashier’s job with Sean Graham before I even started; there was confusion over the date of first day rather than anything more sinister! Thus everything I write here lacks insider knowledge and is inevitably biased towards the punter. The one thing I find irritating however is when punters suggest a change in the industry only to be told by those working inside it that their ideas could never work.
Perhaps they are correct but many of these industry insiders are less willing to put forward ideas that might help improve their product and can become quite uppity when challenged on this; it’s almost the ‘how many races have you traded’ argument! On a related point, one of the most interesting things to emerge from Bruce Millington’s appearance on Luck On Sunday was his comment – and I paraphrase – that the betting industry is not set up to write monthly cheques to former employees of the bookmaking firms. I sometimes think that these sorts of punters might be about the most dangerous for the bookies in the modern betting landscape; they know the systems and models used but more importantly they know their weaknesses and are really playing anything but a fair game with the layers.
Four: Winning recreational punters
Another thing that piqued my attention in the Millington interview was his comment about the ‘clued-in, recreational, price-sensitive punter’ who should be permitted to win somewhere between two and five grand in a year. I realise Millington was on the spot and likely pulling figures out of thin air but perhaps he has thought deeply about it and believes these are valid numbers and I certainly wouldn’t disagree.
They are far from outlandish in terms of profit and I strongly suspect that such a punter would give plenty back to racing in terms of things like subscriptions to TV channels and digital media, purchasing a Racing Post a few days a week or simply going racing. In short, they are exactly the sort of enthusiastic customers racing wants. I would however by very doubtful that such punters are avoiding restrictions and, speaking to other gamblers, it does seem to be the case anecdotally.
Ireland and the UK are two different betting jurisdictions and have different levels of regulation, with the level of control in the latter becoming much stronger through the Gambling Commission who have made some major rulings on things like terms and conditions and treatment of customers who self-excluded. There is no such body in Ireland though HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh has recently called for something similar here.
The one thing I cannot understand, in the UK but especially in Ireland, is that the major firms have not gone down the road of some form of self-regulation and are essentially leaving themselves open to the whims of government. The current political setup may be inclined towards the industry but there are more left-leaning parties who are much less in favour of racing and by extension gambling and might indeed take great pleasure in installing draconian measures on the industry. At the moment there seems to be a free-for-all but that period without regulation could come to an end at any point and bookmakers may regret not installing some of their own measures of control when that time comes.
Six: Irish Racing Integrity
In a recent interview with Johnny Ward in The Times, Brian Kavanagh commented that ‘it would be fairer to all’ if bookmakers would not restrict bets on Irish racing. Personally, I would love that but it is a very strange comment and one that seems to take no cognisance of the integrity issues, real or perceived, that dog Irish racing.
There has to be some give-and-take with the HRI and the bookmakers and I suspect that our horse racing rulers have much more of a take-and-take approach to the big firms, constantly appealing for betting tax increases but offering little in return. The share of betting turnover in Ireland that is actually on Irish racing is relatively small and I would question what HRI have done to grow this market.
They have promised sectional times at all tracks in January 2017 and they remain undelivered, seemingly failing to understand that richer data gives betting markets more solidity. The new running and riding regulations (applied by the Turf Club) are often challenged and overturned, and rules around drug testing remain unsatisfactory. With Irish racing, the issue is perception and, while I think our racing is much straighter than many believe, what the wider betting public believe is important and you have to try to do something to redress the balance.
We are constantly warned not to conflate the argument about FOBTs and restrictions on horse racing which is fair enough but I do find it hard to get past a visceral, deep-seated loathing of these machines; as a horse racing punter who wants to play a gambling game of skill, I find these games of chance pointless as you simply cannot win over a period of time.
FOBTs are not in Ireland and there seems to be little appetite for them here though it is worth pointing out that society in general is becoming more automated; Paddy Power shops all over the country have recently been fitted out with more betting terminals though in this case they are used for sport only which is obviously fine.
There are those who argue that there is no reason why Irish shops should not have FOBTs, taking a libertarian view that people should be allowed to spend their money in whatever way they wish provided no one is harmed. Sometimes however people need to be protected from themselves and that is what a proper society should do, paternalistic though that may seem.
Eight: Too many markets
As of last Thursday at 5:16pm, there were 63,524 markets available to bet on with 888Sport across 37 sports, though admittedly almost 51,000 of those were on football; the reason I choose this company was ease of calculation as they tell you how many markets are up in each category but the number of betting opportunities is hardly unusual for the big firms.
It is not unreasonable to wonder what is the point of all these markets and who do they serve? Many of them are derivative and take little effort in terms of creation; a team total in a US sport is derived from a combination of the spread and overall total while a without the favourite market in horse racing simply comes from removing the market leader from the betting. Yet even so, one has to suspect that some of the bookmakers are on a hiding to nothing with these and they could be ripe for exploitation allowing that many will have low limits and hefty overrounds; from the point of view of sheer numbers, they have to be difficult if not impossible to monitor.
One of the best podcasts I listened to recently was an interview with Marco Blume, Director of Trading at Pinnacle Sports, on the Business of Betting where he basically said he had little or no interest in endless sub-markets, pointing out that the vast majority of their business came in the big three markets of outright, handicap and total.
The Pinnacle model has proved hard to replicate and likely is impossible in horse racing where wild price moves are common but his views on the huge number of markets seem valid. No bookmaker can reasonably trade thousands of markets and it seems they are only trying to price them up because everyone else has. Herd mentality in bookmaker business seems deep-rooted.
Line-tracking seems to be the new buzz concern for bookies; for those that are unclear on what line-tracking is, it means taking a priced with a fixed-odds firm when the selection is trading below those odds on the exchanges. Simon Clare on the Sunday Forum implied that there is an army of these methodical line trackers out there, ‘a sea of punters’, some real and some robotic, seeking to take advantage of this approach.
That may be the case but it is easy to see how an ordinary punter could be misclassified as such; in effect, we are all line-trackers as it essentially means being price-sensitive which can hardly be seen as a sin. For instance, let’s say I fancy a horse that is running later in the afternoon and I decide to wait until later to back it, holding off until liquidity enters the exchange markets or I can get to a betting shop. That plan goes out the window when a major tipster puts up the selection, someone like Andy Holding or Gary O’Brien with a big following, and I need to make a move now to back it or else I will miss the price entirely.
The selection was my own but if I think the odds are wrong then it is more likely others will too and I am being lumped into the bracket of a line-tracker which isn’t accurate, at least in the sense that these line-trackers are systematic in their approach.
Ten: Patterns of Play
The whole idea of betting fair is a fascinating one and it seems the Gambling Commission are interested in this area, looking to set down some rules about what is acceptable in terms of patterns of play. We all know things that are likely to be frowned upon by bookmakers from exploiting bad each way to trying to grab stale prices. But what might be seen as ok seems more difficult to define.
Simon Clare commented on AtTheRaces that punters need to be original in terms of their selections if they want to avoid restrictions, but I have already pointed out in the line-tracking section that there are problems with this sort of view. Punters may do their best to be original – that is certainly how I tend to construct most of my bets – but the issue is that the bookmakers may simply have made a mistake in terms of pricing the race and most punters are spotting the same error and wanting to back the same horse. Rather than the bookmaker being punished for poor odds-making, too often it is the punter who bears the brunt of their error, made to pay in terms of restrictions.
- Tony Keenan