A piece of racing tradition will disappear early next spring when Tote operations come to an end at Chester and Bangor racecourses. This situation has come about as negotiations between Betfred, new owners of the Tote, and the Racecourse Management Group progress only slowly.
The Tote has had a racecourse presence since 1929, and is the only organisation allowed to run pool betting on horse racing. Taking the Tote's place will be Bristol-based Data Tote, who will be making their first foray into horseracing by offering a fixed-odds starting-price based service to race goers.
Richard Thomas, managing director at Chester and Bangor said he felt that punters would not be unduly concerned about the loss of pool betting. "We believe people bet with the Tote for convenience, not because it is a pool bet, and all windows will be open so that race goers can still place their bets as they have done in the past. We will also be offering various other options similar to a Placepot and a Jackpot, so hopefully the customer won't notice too much difference"
The current agreement between the Tote/Betfred and racetracks expires on 31 March next year, and the new arrangements at the two tracks will come into place immediately afterwards. Fred Done, boss of Betfred was sanguine about their decision to go it alone and take their betting operations in-house. "If Chester and Bangor don't want me there I have just got to accept it, which I have done, and we will be off both courses from April. It isn't my choice. They have made the decision and good luck to them with it. I think it is very brave."
Just how the Data Tote system will operate has yet to be finalised, and the company has brought in former Tote regional director Tony May to head up the operation. It's likely that Data Tote will have to offer some sort of guaranteed profit, as otherwise the tracks would have to bear any financial hit from a string of well backed winning favourites. Equally, you canâ€™t see them being happy to have to rely on big priced winners to make their profit.
Whether any other tracks will follow suit is one of the big questions that remains to be answered. It seems likely that the seven racecourses operated by Arena Leisure and the 10 run by Northern Racing will reach an agreement with Betfred that is not dissimilar the current arrangements. As things operate now, the Tote pays no Levy on its pool betting service, but does pay commission to racecourses on betting turnover, and puts further profits back into the sport through sponsorship.
Tony Kelly, Chief Executive of Northern Racing, said, "We are close to an agreement with Betfred and I expect to have something agreed before the end of the year. I expect it to closely mirror the current on course arrangements for both parties."
Data Tote, however, is actively seeking to extend its business beyond Chester and Bangor. Chief Executive at Wetherby, Jonjo Sanderson said, "We've had some preliminary approaches from Data Tote and we are continuing to monitor the situation while the Racecourse Management Group negotiations are ongoing. Speaking personally, I like the way that the Tote operates and I believe that our customers like it too, but it depends upon whether the deal is right for the racecourses."
There is also a major issue that Betfred will be wrestling with. How viable are the current Tote pools without the liquidity provided by on course bets? Over the past 10 years on course Pool betting has been in decline, falling from around Â£106m 2002/03 to Â£95m in 2010/11, when for the first time racecourse turnover fell below that from international betting partners. If that trend continues pool betting could be at risk, but that could be countered by growth in Tote Direct income from betting shops.
Chester and Bangor are taking something of a risk. If they are right, and that it is ease of access rather than betting in a pool that brings the punters to the Tote windows, it may well prove to be an inspired gamble on their part.