Racing leaders braced for ‘most critical period’

Racing is facing its “most critical period” since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, industry leaders have warned.

Deep concerns have been aired about the potential impact from the introduction of affordability thresholds for online betting customers, with the Gambling Commission currently undergoing a consultation process on on remote customer interaction, while the continued absence of spectators from racecourses and Brexit issues are also prominent.

The British Horseracing Authority has submitted a response to the Gambling Commission on behalf of the industry, and a statement issued from the sport’s tripartite members said: “The submission focuses on the economic consequences for racing and jobs in rural areas, the lack of evidence in support of the intervention and the disproportionate impact on people who bet safely and lawfully.

“The BHA, the Racecourse Association and The Horsemen’s Group discussed the industry’s response at a meeting last week and believe there could be a disastrous impact on racing’s finances and its recovery from Covid-19.

Racegoers made a brief one-day return at Doncaster's St Leger meeting as part of a crowd trial scheme - but racecourses still remain empty
Racegoers made a brief one-day return at Doncaster’s St Leger meeting as part of a crowd trial scheme – but racecourses still remain empty (David Davies/PA)

“Racing supports the Government’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act and its intention to address the potential for harm. It agrees that gambling laws should be fit for the digital age as well as recognise the economic contribution made by the betting industry and associated industries such as horseracing.

“The BHA’s members believe this is the appropriate way to consider a significant intervention such as a new affordability threshold and that parliamentarians should examine any resulting proposals.”

Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong said: “Racing is approaching the most critical period since the beginning of the pandemic.

“With external regulatory issues facing us in the form of the Affordability Review, the Gambling Act Review and Brexit plus no immediate prospect of racegoers returning, the next six months will be the most crucial period on our recovery journey.

“The support from the Members Committee at this time is very welcome – the industry must pull together in these challenging times.”

On the subject of spectators and the impact of the pandemic, BHA chief executive Julie Harrington said: “A majority of our work, and of leaders across the industry, is currently focused on a range of financial issues that are vital to racing recovering from the impact of Covid.

Empty bookmaker pitches at Goodwood
Empty bookmaker pitches at Goodwood (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“We have to plan for a range of possibilities and are working with government and other sports on the return of spectators and owners as soon as that is possible. We thank our owners for their patience and continued support amidst the current uncertainty.”

Charlie Liverton, chief executive of the Racehorse Owners Association, said: “The effect of Covid-19 continues to impact British Racing, both on and off the racecourse. The potential ramifications of Government reviews including the Gambling Act and the Affordability Review are concerning, and the support from the Members Committee in tackling these challenges is very welcome.

“Owners continue to support the industry week in, week out, and we extend our sincere thanks once again for their contributions. The return of owners to the racecourse remains a key objective, working with the RCA and BHA to open up racecourses to racegoers as soon as regulations allow.”

Cruddace shares concerns on gambling review

Top racing administrator Martin Cruddace has warned the sport may run the risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ if affordability checks for punters are introduced in isolation.

Cruddace was speaking on Sky Sports Racing as part of a discussion assessing measures under consideration by the Gambling Commission to ensure gamblers do not bet drastically more than they can afford.

He and other contributors to the Racing Debate programme welcome the prospect of a Gambling Review which is likely to update the 2005 Gambling Act, to take account of major developments to the market place – such as the vastly-increased prevalence of online betting.

But Cruddace, chief executive of Arena Racing Company, is concerned that unilateral action – in advance of the Gambling Review – could reduce annual racing revenue by up to £100million.

A report published by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has cited a loss of £60m – and Cruddace believes that figure may prove conservative.

He said: “If it’s potentially likely that the affordability levels are not right for people who bet on horseracing, we could see the turnover on British horseracing being decimated.

“While of course we need to do everything we can for problem gamblers, we have to be very careful that we don’t effectively throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“In my view, it’s much better if the affordability consultation and the review happen together.”

MP Carolyn Harris, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm (APPG), is an advocate of the Gambling Review.

She is unconvinced that the potential loss of up to £60m is accurate.

“It’s scaremongering on behalf of the industry, and it’s panic on behalf of the horseracing,” she said.

Cruddace disputes that point.

“The £60million, if it’s wrong, is low,” he said.

“I think it’s probably more likely to be £100million. I’ve done those calculations – and I promise you £60million is the absolute conservative figure.”

He and Harris do not find common ground either on the probability of those potentially prevented from gambling with British bookmakers instead seeking out off-shore, unregulated sites on the ‘black market’.

“The black market is a very dangerous foothold,” said Cruddace.

Brigid Simmonds, chairman of the Betting And Gaming Council, is in agreement.

She said: “What we want to come out of it (Gambling Review) is have an industry that is well-regulated, is best in class but where people should gamble with regulated companies in this country and should not be driven to … the black market.

“When they (PwC) looked at it a couple of years ago, they found that 200,000 people had actually, actively gone on to unregulated sites in the previous year.

“I have not met anyone who has experience of problems with gambling who has not been participating in the black market economy.”

Harris’ experience could hardly be more contrasting.

“I have dealt with thousands and thousands of cases, of people who have been harmed by this industry – not one of them has gambled on the black market,” she said.

Whatever those specific consequences, Cruddace stresses affordability checks must be undertaken only as part of a wider review.

He is also concerned that in-play betting markets are most hazardous for problem gamblers, because they allow no time to reflect and consider between bets.

“To look at the blunt instrument of affordability, in isolation from all these other things we’ve been discussing, is simply a mistake,” he said.

“For me, speed of play is a really key thing, and that’s a marker of harm.

“I think there is an argument that there is a slight difference between a sports bet with intervals – where you can study the form, have a view – as opposed to a very fast speed-of-play product.”

Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling, corroborates that view – and believes a business model promoting those bets above others should be reset.

“As the House of Lords found, 60 per cent of the profits are coming from per cent of people who are problem or at-risk gamblers,” he said.

“I think the gambling industry is generating far too much of its money from people who are losing more than they can afford.

“They’re so keen to peddle their most addictive products – the slots and the online casino – that unfortunately the people who use them are very likely to get addicted.”

Harris, MP for Swansea East, shares the same concerns.

“What I want to see come from it (Gambling Review) is that the vulnerable gamblers, people who through mental-health and public-health issues, are unable to control their gambling and are addicted – primarily to online slot machines – they are the ones we need to protect,” she said.

“That is the whole purpose of everything we are doing, to protect those vulnerable (people) and children who are increasingly becoming targets … of the gambling industry.

“We are talking here about people who are gambling way, way in excess of what they can afford – in many cases are stealing or committing fraud to fund their gambling.

“They have tried to talk to the gambling operators and the Gambling Commission and say ‘stop me, because I can’t stop myself’ – and they have no support whatsoever.”

She too sees an emphasis on instant, frenetic gambling as the major problem.

“People online just keep pressing buttons – and they’ve got no time to think,” she added.

“The devices are made to make them encouraging, enticing and hypnotic almost.

“I am not a prohibitionist – I just want to make sure that those who are exceptionally vulnerable, and children, are protected from the dangers of addictive and dangerous gambling.”

Simmonds believes the industry is taking necessary action, but acknowledges further progress is needed.

“I’m absolutely certain that there is a lot more that we can do and will do,” she said.

“It has to be holistic – so we are working with banks … we’re working with the NHS.”