The protection of the few

A few days ago, I found myself answering a phone call to Sky. Moving house and cancelling their contract should have been as easy as it was to sign up. But it’s not. There’s no option to cancel online, ring them and a nice voice tells you it’s a 34 minute wait to speak to an operator, and oh yes, they really care.

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Eventually they rang me, chasing business. What followed was the same basic process of ‘security’ I’ve become used to with my Bank. A process deliberately designed to bore me off. This is the casual abuse of so called ‘data protection schemes.’

 

Equally when you do ring your Bank, something that used to be so easy, – it’s an onerous process of identifying yourself. You’re genuinely a number. Service levels have collapsed, and the companies involved can make more money as they downgrade the training required to staff to dope level. Has that really improved our lives?

 

Who caused this situation? Well the Banks did. Crooked deals with the contras, spending money they didn’t have on the stock market, Libor scandals and a lot more. Banks have proven to be some of the world’s biggest criminals. Of course we do need them, so rather than de-license firms like Barclays and HSBC, Governments reacted in a different way

 

The age of the regulator.

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Regulators are only of real benefit, if their influence is feather light. Yes they need to control the excesses of business, but not where it takes away value from people’s lives. That’s a tender balance. This is why I resist casual calls for ‘more controls.

 

Who ends up structuring your life? The same MP’s who ask us to vote in or out of Europe and then find they can’t deliver on the same. These people are now going to tell you where you can smoke, how much you can drink and now of course various measures designed to ‘protect you’ from gambling. But do the vast majority need help? Of course they don’t.

 

In Gambling my own firm doesn’t touch casino products and never dabbled in FOBT machines. I disagreed fundamentally with the creation of mini casinos in High Streets, or let someone max out their cards online playing fast paced games like roulette. I gave open support to those calling for change. I’d see FOBT’s banned.

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I’d also see television marketing banned altogether also. Even gamblers don’t want to see anymore of Ray Winstone. Fine I accept Richard Flint of Skybet maintaining he has the ‘right’ to gamble, if he can accept that nearly 100% of us don’t want his company thrust down our throats with every live sporting event, or branded on every shirt for children (not his children) to see.

 

I believe the actions of Chairmen of big betting companies, over FOBT’s, and now marketing, have damaged irreparably the relations between betting and the general public. Itt’s deeply distressing to me that my firm, which offers a sports betting service, is tarred with the same brush as these offshore gaming empires. Nobody has committed suicide because of anything my firm has ever done. Yes we are likely to face regulations aimed at Bet365.

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My fear is as regulators flex their muscles, what we do, providing a fun and responsible betting experience will be caught unfairly in the crossfire. Regulators won’t appreciate the difference and make exemptions for us. We live and die by the actions of an offshore entity like Bet365.

 

I read daily of people, some with genuine gambling issues, some who are just jumping on the soap box to big their own profiles, using emotive issues like suicide to bolster their argument, that we should expect operators to protect ourselves, from ourselves. But that’s neither desirable, nor based on any evidence. Fancy numbers, like the 50,000 problem gambler children. None of these claims are based, in any way, on facts or hard data, as you would reasonably expect. The stuff of a shrieking Daily Mail. The Gambling Commission itself has absolutely no proof of the scale of problem gambling, adult or children. It is in their self interest, however to make the problem seem more than it is.

 

Calling casually for more regulation, is not the answer. More regulation is a dangerous attempt at control of people by Government.

 

Those advocating further restrictions on betting do so notably because of the failures in large operators to accept FOBTs needed to go. There are, of course, those who cannot control their actions, and yes, we should try to assist. Let’s be clear though, proposals to make operators responsible for people’s gambling actions are unreasonable, and open to fraudulent action.

 

Problem gamblers, for their part, will try to circumnavigate the system, whatever ‘rules’ you put in place. Are we then to unfairly brand operators as responsible for how they act? Smirnoff Vodka are not held accountable for alcoholics. Last year 7.500 people committed suicide as a result of alcohol, and it cost the NHS some 7.5bn to deal with alcohol related issues. If you say betting operators should police gamblers, why not Malboro for the millions who die of smoking related cancers every year?

The office for National statistics tell us that between 2001 and 2016, there were 90,000 suicides. Of those, 21 were attributed to gambling. That’s a fraction over 1 death a year. Yet if you read the comments online or worse the Daily Mail, you’d be forgiven for thinking everyone is lining up on bridges. It’s simply a false claim.

 

I disagree with people casually using the deaths of folk as argument that rest of us need our lives managed.. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, but having removed fixed odds terminals, we should move on marketing. I’m sorry for the loss of anyone, but it doesn’t follow we need to call the cops.  Just cut off the flow of adverts telling you to gamble.

 

Gambling is enjoyed safely by millions and provides enjoyable pastime for the same. It’s part of human nature. Where, once you embark on unnecessary controls, do you stop? The vast majority simply do not need help,

 

What should happen- is operators should pay up, to a far greater extent than they do now, for any upset they create. even to compensate families. If ‘Skybet Richard’ wants to bombard us with his mind numbing adverts, and send everyone free bets, let him pay to clean up his mess. That’s how you deal with the problem. Send the bill to their table for treatment..We could not only have a progressive gambling state, but one with the best management tools for those who find it difficult to cope. Cut off their flow of marketing and order them to stop encouraging people to wager with free or bonus bets. There are things we can do.

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I don’t want a blanket thrown over the lot of us because a small element cannot say stop. We all feel sorry for the loss of any life. It’s the one sure bet. In the meantime I see no positive outcome from a new set of regulations and rules when the majority simply do not require it. It’s the protection of the many. Not the few. And if that’s too harsh to accept for some people, I mean no offence, but I think we should stand up and be responsible for ourselves.

 

Geoff Banks

January 2019

 

The demise of the London Times

I want to briefly pick up on Lee Mottershead’s excellent column in the Racing Post today. He reports on the demise of coverage for Racing by the London Times. Despite Mark Souster’s excellent reporting of the sport, it seems this important paper will join others in devoting more time to sports like football.

 

And who can blame them? I’ve said before, and I will repeat as many times as it takes for people to realise something simple about soccer vs Racing.

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Real Madrid will face Barcelona no less than 4 times a season. Every week we are treated to marquee football clubs- taking each other on.

 

Other sports plough on with their formula. The Giants will play the Cowboys twice, England will play Australia in rugby and cricket. Golf will have 4 major events and a sprinkling of others. Federer will face Djokovic several times a year. Who wouldn’t want to cover that?

 

By comparison, the thought that the likes of Altior should be attempting something a bit more than what he has proved 16 times already, is treated with indignation by some! Like Brexit, views appear equally divided on whether this wonder horse raced on the wrong day at Kempton. Instead of taking on the very best 3 milers in the business, it was felt best, in view of Cheltenham, to afford him yet another ‘prep race.’  

 

Few would have tuned in on the 27th to see the best horse in racing. Far less would have heard of him. They had heard of Kuato Star by now.

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By comparison the joint highest rated horse over the flat had an exceptionally moderate season, culminating in a soft ground demolition of horses felt not good enough to tackle Paris, or the Breeders. The fact he had already been soundly beaten by Poets Word and only just managed to overhaul a vastly inferior Salouen at Epsom, seems almost swept under the carpet. British Racing presented the owner with an exalted award, suffice that the pull of stud must have been overwhelming. This kind of ineptitude, a focus on bigging up horses at the dawn of their careers, instead of investing in all age affairs is bizarre in he face of challenges to have people identify with horses, when breeders so routinely remove them from the playing field.

 

What was the best horse of 2018? How could it possibly be Enable? A fortunate winner of the Arc. It was Winx. The 7 year old darling of Australia. Since 2014- yes folks, 2014, she has been busy beating up all-comers over there. It’s not her performances that dazzle me as much as the reaction of the often huge crowds she draws. The television audiences tuning in to what must be a National treasure. Isn’t that the magic tonic we should seek? Not praising Gosden for denying us Enable for months on end.

 

When I bang my drum of frustration about the departure of 3 year olds, – juveniles, to stud, more than half the responses i notice, see very little issue with this annual exodus of stars. I wonder at such a blinkered attitude. Why would the sleepy, and perennially incompetent BHA worry about such matters, if so few decry the annual financial pillaging of the sport by breeders for financial gain? Frankel earns more than a day than he ever could on the racetrack in a year. We all know this. I’m quite certain the breeders are well represented at the top table of British Racing. It’s all far too incestuous.

 

What could be done? Well we could stop over rating 3 year olds. Proclaiming a Derby and Arc winner as all conquering. Because as a four year old, they have it all to prove. Who is to say Sinndar, as an example, in fact met a fairly modest crop? Very often they are quite simply, the best of the year..  Few of the millionaires at the top of race ownership, who so dominate the prizes, put much back perennially. It’s an attitude I struggle to understand. If you’re Khalid Abdullah or John Magnier, why would you not derive more pleasure from the production of the likes of Persian Punch or St Nicholas Abbey. Such horses are the very engine of flat racing. Not Harzand. what are you putting back into the sport in terms of long term, identifiable to the public stars? Shouldn’t that be your legacy to Racing? Not this buffet of 2 and 3 year olds.  Right now we can only expect to grow to love such horses if they are not marketable, or capable, at stud.

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Enable wins the Arc

 

ITV ratings are up. That’s the story, and we should sign them up again. Well maybe we should. Three jockeys standing round a table incanting ‘it’s amazing’ is the formula they’ve discovered.  Indeed it may well be a better product than Channel 4. I’m not convinced either show better than the other. After all, we are discussing broadly the same group of pundits for both shows. We can forget the dismal Opening Show, it’s audiences so low it didn’t merit a slot on Boxing Day. Which used to be one of Channel 4’s flagship morning shows.

Let’s be honest, the real reason why they found 1.1m to watch on Boxing Day was the product on the pitch. At least 6 established stars, and more than 5 runners! Bested by a brand new star in Clan Des Obeaux. It really wasn’t that ridiculous ITV social stable! The same was equally true of the Fighting Fifth and the Tingle Creek, both turned out unusually more competitive than normal. In fact it was Willie Mullins, someone I have roundly criticised for avoidance in the past, that saved both of those heats. Good competitive grade 1 action, with the best available. Shouldn’t we work very hard to deliver on this? Why, for example, will Henderson be allowed to stable his stars for months, as he tends to do, and afforded a spot at Cheltenham? Are we too afraid of such trainers? What’s wrong with mandating their attendance in a series of races prior to the festival? I don’t in any way accept these athletes cannot run from one week or month, to the next. It is complete nonsense. 

This BHA, however, led by an ex bookie and indoctrinated by the need to provide a race every five minutes, is leading us down a dull and unimaginative path, at the expense of quality. Nick Rust needs to go racing in Australia when Winx takes the pitch. To grow this sport, he has to find more compelling reasons for Altior to race Un De Sceaux. Not add more races to Chelmsford. We don’t need weak leadership at this time, nor a focus on what’s best for Coral.

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Unfortunately the great Paul Nicholls, who’s very ethos was sending horses out to work, is now replaced by Henderson and Mullins. No more Denman vs Kuato Star vs Neptune Collonges. You’ll be a lucky man if John Gosden persuades his owners the best should take on the best. Cracksman only saw Enable around the yard. Are these people not sportsmen first?

One final point. RMG have swooped for Irish Racing from Sky. Racing that often fields competitive fare with three times the number of runners than over here. ‘Split screen Irish’ is the best it can hope for. How marginalised will that great product become? It is indeed fortunate Ascot and Chester have foreseen the danger and leapt towards Sky, to offer balance. It’s a depressing development for Racing. No argument can persuade me Irish Racing should have been sold to RMG.

 

So the Times have dropped Racing, and who can blame them when one consders how other sports are busy organising for their best to meet as often as possible. The Racing Post, a supporter of Racing, has seen the departure of several notable racing scribes. Is Racing great? Well of course it has great unrealised potential, so much we saw in the King George and a thrilling Tingle Creek. But there’s not enough of such competition. Too many excuses and far too much of a focus on wall to wall betting shop fodder. Why would newspapers want to waste space on that? Is it really worth reporting on Altior’s win on the 27th? Of course not, it’s been done 16 times before. But if he had taken on and likely defeated that King George field? What a story that would have been! 

Tony McCoy, said it recently. Perhaps we need to dispense with the impotent BHA’s of this world, and hire one man with vision and ambition. He put up Barry Hearn. Well, if it breaks up the power of the cosy little sect running sport to their own personal ends, I’m all for that plan. And so should you be.

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Geoff Banks

December 2018

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Racehorses need jobs too..

All I see are healthy horses. Were they humans you’d be forgiven the assumption they dine on Porterhouse every day. Shiny coats, poncing about the place, look at me attitude, and why not? They’re athletes in the very peak of condition..telling you they’re faster and better,

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Enable wins the Arc

15,000 of them have jobs, they wouldn’t normally enjoy. Eat A grade rabbit food. The best of them race three times a year and busy themselves having sex with each other before they reach puberty. Jumping types stroll round at walking speed for anything up to 4 miles, speed up for the last 35 yards, jump fences no bigger than the height of my ankle. If its sunny they don’t even need to do that..give them Raybans and make them jump. Pandered and loved.

All designed to entertain and most of all thrill the paying audience, a modest few even get Bryony Frost on their back. Which must be fun.

One thing is for certain. These are by a long chalk the best cared for and healthy animals on the planet. Very often no expense is spared in their well being with often exorbitant vets fees and the like. One has only to view these charges at racetracks to appreciate the excellent state they are turned out in.

Which makes the BHA’s intention to dumb down the Cheltenham Festival, make it less exciting and watchable to new viewers and old an extraordinary risk. Without valid reason.

As Timeform most correctly pointed out recently, whilst it is all tickety boo ensuring the Grand National is dumbed down in terms of difficulty, that the likelihood of serious injury, or worse to a runner has demonstrably succeeded. At the same time the interest from the viewing public in the race itself has shown a notable decline. For example despite the terrestrial power of ITV, the race falls well short of the 15 million viewers the BBC landed. Polling just over half in fact of numbers achieved when Beechers Brook was the test of horse and jockey it should be. People enjoy the spectacle, and that spectacle does involve horses falling in what should be our most gruelling long distance heat. A challenge and spectacle that befits the name. A showcase event for Racing. Whilst we pander to self interest ‘animal rights’ groups, who turn up but once a year in the sport, we have in fact arguably made the whole thing a lot less interesting. The policy fails.

At what level, when we discuss the deaths of equine athletes, will those demanding an improvement, will such individuals be satisfied?

Finally, isn’t it far more salient for British Racing to offer compelling argument that what we do brings very meaning and purpose to the lives of horses and those who care for them? Is it not so very easy to demonstrate how beloved racehorses really are? That horse deaths, for example, are so far outweighed by the number of lives that we actually create and nurture. What politician could, in fact, win such a debate?

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Before

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After

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Jockeys wave tickling sticks emotively described as  ‘whips’ at half tonne highly muscled and beautifully toned animals. Horses little seem to notice the effect of these, with horse skin notably thicker than humans. They’re never marked, as used to be the case. In spite of this,  I still hear regular whining about the number of times a jockey uses the whip during a race. Even some thorough going idiots who argue for the banning of the whip. What’s the relevance of 8 blows in a 5 furlong sprint to the 10 allowed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup? None. Yet it is given bizarre prominence.

Now whilst everyone nods sagely and intones ‘we must do something’ to bored politicians looking for their name in afore-mentioned papers. Their last attempt at Governance, Brexit, went so well, it divided a country.. Now they want to tell Racing to deal with our so called animal rights problem, and horse deaths, etcetera, etcetera. Oh yes we must.

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Animal rights issues in Racing? What a fiction that is. There is no animal abuse issue in this sport. In fact we provide the environment for a breed of animal to prosper. What’s wrong with that simple argument as opposed to further reductions in the excitement of the sport?

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Of course leading the fight on behalf of racing is their serial BHA apologist – Nick Rust. He’s an ex bookie, more famous for asking for extra all weather racing for Coral. Now doing an excellent job adding more meetings every year. The job is to sell our excellent record. Yes we lose a few horses every year, but we create lives for far more than would ordinarily be true. He thinks we must do better. Why? Because the BHA view their National policy as a success and plan more dumbing down of the product. No Nick, we do in fact already have an outstanding record on horse welfare, and that is the drum you should be banging.

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Let’s be honest here can we? Humans routinely die in sport. How is it by extension unacceptable that a few horses are lost annually in Racing? Because racehorses don’t get to vote to race or not? In fact the truth is horses are bizarrely viewed by the ignorant as domestic pets.

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Racehorses do provide entertainment for millions. Jobs for humans in the thousands. Not just in training ranks, but racetracks, betting and administration of the sport. Wagering on horse racing is fundamental to many folk, and vital to Governments in revenue. Our patron is the Queen. The Boss doesn’t seem the type to let any politician interfere in her favourite pastime, does she?

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Want to look at deaths? Why not check on how many polo ponies don’t survive the year? Or loveable hacks who simply die every year out riding with their owners. No mention of. Why not look at how dangerous sport is to humans and ask why horses should be a special case?

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Let’s get this right before we allow this BHA chums to dumb down Cheltenham, and then everything else besides, because it doesn’t stop there. Sport carries dangers. Horses aren’t poodles. You can’t sit them in your front room as you watch telly, or walk them in the park. Sure we love them to bits, but stop acting like they’re a domestic pet, or discussing with politicians along those lines.

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A racehorse has the right to life and a career. Want to fight for something? Fight for that simple truth.

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The unpalatable truth about Big Betting

There’s nothing folk detest more about modern-day Bookmaking than the culture of restrictions. It causes ill will on both sides. At no stage in my career has the relationship between Bookmakers, and their customers, been at such a low point. One has only to follow social networking to appreciate this.

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It might surprise you to hear, and it certainly won’t be an opinion some will like to hear, that the cause of restrictions lies in exchanges, and indeed in the deterioration in the friendly enmity between each side. Exchanges have made punters greedy and lazy. It’s forced major betting firms to compete with it head on, and by extension treating customers exactly as exchanges do, as a number. A burgeoning group of former punters – have turned to money trading.

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There have been those who chide my firm, rather unfairly, on socials over restrictions. But there are two central truths I’d like to point out. We don’t, in fact, restrict customer stakes, we are the only online firm to offer a comprehensive £1000 lay to lose minimum, that’s a very serious statement of intent. However if we encounter a trader, we close them summarily. Want a percentage of new accounts we are forced to close? It’s currently running at 15% of every application made to us! That’s a grotesque percentage. We don’t filter by profit or loss, but the type of business afforded. I don’t buy the explanation from Skybet CEO, Richard Flint who makes claim the figure on restrictions is less than 2%. It’s pure fiction.

Second, we have never been responsible for the environment where restrictions abound. We are simply forced to compete with much larger operators and their offer cultures. It’s inescapably factual, were we not to follow their lead and bend to promo offers, we simply would have to put the key in the door on business. Where would we gain new clients from? No business can survive without new custom.

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OK, so you know all this already – right? Let me share the commercial reality with you. It’s one based on the Arc De Triomphe. I noticed several firms, offering extra places on what should have been a money spinning event. Skybet led with a five place offer in a race which traditionally pays out on three. This offer in the simplest terms involved this company betting to 78% in its early shows in the place market. A loss for every £100 investment on that market of £22 for each £100 wagered. At SP, their margin shrank further to 70%.

They were shouldering a staggering £30 loss for every wager laid on The Arc De Triomphe.

Still think you’ll get a bet with Skybet, or their mates?

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All the major firms were running at a loss of similar proportions. For the sake of balance, William Hill, betting to standard terms of 1/5th the first 3 horses, would have shown a £17 profit for every £100 staked on the place on their early market, and a £4 profit at SP.

William Hill therefore were more likely to lay a bet on the Arc.

To test the water, one of my staffers decided to place a series of wagers on the Arc, each way, with Skybet. He was summarily closed. they advertise the special, but if you actually play in it, you’re closed.

So let’s get this right Mr Flint. You promote these events for your customers, the most likely net effect is to force a restriction to be applied? What exactly is your customer focused message? Richard Flint admits 3% of their customer base are restricted. That figure hasn’t been verified, and in my opinion is entirely fanciful, given the companies offer culture. Even were you to accept his assertion, he’s saying a staggering 60,000 customers as a minimum don’t get their bets laid. They’d rather restrict than close. I have a personal Skybet account, which is as useful as a chocolate frying pan. I can’t wager £1 on it, but they’ve never closed the same. This is how they ‘big’ up their customer numbers. A lie.

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Following me so far? Sorry if it’s a little figure laden, but it’s important to grasp the problem here. I think you can see their offers actually make it impossible to function as a Bookmaker normally. Effectively only ‘new business’ and ‘losing customers’ need apply for a bet, many customers will typically have to accept restrictions in any market the Bookmaker knows he’s operating at a loss. Yes, it is a trading standards issue, and yes the Gambling Commission should long ago have stepped in to educate themselves and put a stop to such behaviour. I mean who permits a firm to advertise a product, yet not to lay it? This isn’t the first time the regulator has failed consumers.

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There’s nothing worse than begging a bet.

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Let’s turn to the ‘money traders’ as I call them, and explain how they operate. Indeed why they need to declassify themselves as punters.

Imagine Sea Of Class, (returned at 6/1) and a straight forward £100 each way wager. That’s 6/5 as a return for the place book, and five lovely places for her to run into. The money trader looks for a Bookmaker whose odds directly mirror, or even exceed those of betting exchanges on the win book. So he backs Class at 7.0 and in an ideal world he lays it back at the same rate, to the same stake, or even less. If he can lay it back at 6.8, he would lock in a small, risk free, profit. It’s the place book, in this example, which he is really targeting, with his bet to cover his own £100 place wager.

He lays it back. the horse was trading on the exchange place book at around 2.0, meaning he deposits £200 to cover the lay bet. As Skybet are paying him £240 for his wager, his immediate profit or ‘arb’ as it is known is £40. However there’s a more lucrative bonus for the money trader. The Bookie is paying on five places, the exchange on three. If Sea Of Class finishes 4th or 5th, the trader collects from the Bookie, and wins with his place lay, which is unplaced under exchange rules.

Win Win. Risk nil.

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If he could get on, he could do this with several horses in the race, seeking the prized 4th or 5th slot. Lay everything back for a zero risk ‘bet’ and a healthy upside

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Now, the numbers or profit might vary up or down, but the base principle remains the same. Provided his selection fills the prized places, his only enemy is account restriction or closure. Every Bookmaker that shuts him out is affecting his livelihood. Are you beginning to understand why they utilise every member of their friends and family to get a bet on now?

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This isn’t the only get rich scheme which traders utilise. It is, however, the easiest example to understand. There are schemes based on best odds, money back offers, deposit bonuses, non runner-no bet, football accumulators, and more. All based on the simple back and lay back premise. A modern day side effect to the advent of betting exchanges.

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Now, I don’t know about you, but to me a punter is primarily a risk taker in the main, sometime a very clever one. He wagers his cash and take his chances. This is true of any gambler. My business is focused on servicing their wagers. I believe the beg a bet culture should die.

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Money traders simply need a compliant bookmaker to facilitate their trades. Without the Bookie, the trader has no business. This is why, when their accounts are closed, they often make vitriolic attacks, masquerading as a ‘genuine punter’ or ‘lifelong gambler’ on social networking. And everyone sympathises apparently with their plight.

 

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You can argue until you are blue in the face that your should be treated in the same way as punters, going about honest wagering. Form is meaningless to you. Every wager is an exercise in numbers trading. YOU ARE NOT A PUNTER.

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Let’s all put our cards on the table, and start being honest with each other. You are acting as a bookmaker, and operating business.  You’re practically easy to spot by career bookmakers, since every trade relates to paralleling or exceeding exchange odds. Firms make no apologies for closing you down, simply because you’re operating a business, within our own. So smile to yourself that you’ve been rumbled and move on quietly. Enough of the sensationalist crap online, you cheapen yourself.

Yes, there will be the odd genuine punter who is unfairly caught in the net along with you. I think we all need to be realistic in the modern greed culture, based on free bets, BOG and bonuses. The environment offered by big betting has never afforded such rich rewards for punters. All funded by huge gaming profits.

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 ‘you Bookies created this environment, so don’t whine if we win!’

Well of course that’s a view, but not one I can affect change in. This is the brain child of spotty traders working for big betting, fresh out of school, with a D in Maths. Large concerns, such as Skybet, base their success and share price, on the number of customers they acquire. if it costs several million to run each one of these event based promotions, which it does, then this is a cheap price to pay for a company that’s grown from 1.1bn in net worth to 4.8bn dollars in a few years.

Eventually they’ll all end up like Ladbrokes, a has been, fodder for even larger competitors to acquire. In the meantime, remember there’s blame on both sides. They created the environment in which you prosper with continuous and weekly loss leaders, to encourage people to sign up. And you make a business out of it.

Closures and restrictions are in fact throughly inevitable for companies that knowingly trade considerably below the profit line. Accept them for as long as you refuse to take the matter to trading standards, and for that matter a slumbering Gambling Commission. Or perhaps consider a firm that does offer a more sensible approach, as we do.

Failing that? Moan away on Twitter after you sign up

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Geoff Banks

October 2018

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A tale of two Rings..

i grew up going Racing. Many happy memories. The crowd that flocked around my Father in his back line position taught me the benefits of flamboyance and independant thinking.

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Waiting for the likes of Colin Webster, John Pegley, Stephen Little, John Banks and David Power to emerge from the coffee bars ten minutes before the race like gun slingers. Stand on a box without an LED board in sight and lay bets to make your eyes water. To win ten and twenty grand at Pontefract and Windsor as if it were but ten pence. Show no reaction, win or lose. In those days there was a deep respect between punter and Bookmaker. Even if few punters won money in those days. There were no recognised betting systems. No bets were turned away.

 

I use to buy the sliced pineapple and dish out free ice creams to his punters- hand out the John Banks is my Bookie badge. I put and took bets before I reached 15 years. I learned how David Power took whopper bets, that on occasion  won, and how he just smiled and paid. How Dudley Roberts played both sides of the betting fence as punter and layer. I stuck.my ear in to the battle between Steven Little and Michael Tabor. ‘Get in and given out what he’s backing!’ – my Father would chide. There were no free rides for Sons

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And every penny laid in the Ring, stayed in the Ring. The market was vibrant, strong and healthy. A horse at 6/4 was available to lumps. At the smallest meeting you’d see four, even five lines of ‘Tattersalls’ Bookies. ‘Rails’ firms, so designated because they stood on the rail that divides members and Tattersalls enclosures, traditionally laid the largest wagers, despite not being permitted to display their odds.

John Banks changed that.

For customers, the Ring was a place of wonder and fun. Bets laid and a simple cardboard numbered ticket issued, representing the contract. Each bet notated by a ‘clerk’ with large betting ledgers. Such clerks were clever analytical types, although in those days the Bookie was solely responsible for the odds displayed. He had to understand margins, percentages and coupled odds. ‘Figures’ was the byword and i was taught if you laid a bet at the right rate, you would prosper. No Gambling Commission required to ensure fair play.

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Tic-Tac men were common and I was taught how to ‘speak’ their language. There were no laptops, no WIFI. The Tic-Tac men were incredibly skilled with iconic names like ‘Micky Fingers’ ‘The Doc’ and ‘Rocky Roberto.’ They could move sizeable wagers about the ring with a flick of their wrist.

The Racing product was strong. Meetings were far fewer than today. The All Weather didn’t exist. By extension the National Hunt programme prospered from a diet of ‘lesser’ performers wasted from the flat.

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John Banks

When Betfair arrived things changed. Exchanges have never been a positive for the betting ring. Of course there are those who argue they represented choice and value. However, it also marked the point in time when the traditional friendly rivalry between fearless layers came to an end. I remember berating firms, like Martyn of Leicester who campaigned remorselessly for their introduction. To his cost these days as he drives about in a station wagon.. 🙂  He wasn’t alone in his views.  Martyn found the first ‘no lose’ system, where he could lay firms like Ladbrokes a £7000 to £4000 (That is £4000 wagered at 7/4) and ‘hedge the wager for a profit with aggressive exchange layers. Often taking 2/1 or 9/4 back. It was simple. Too simple. The cancer started to eat into the Ring. Ladbrokes, Hills and Coral became apathetic about hedging into a Ring, which resolutely refused to cut their prices, now they had the protection and profits afforded by Betfair, as they had in the past. Why send down 20 grand to control the price of a horse at Sandown if the only effect were to line the pockets of the ‘ring arbers?

 

I warned them at that time, of the dangers, but to new bookies utilising this system of trading, it was far simpler method of trading than working a traditional ‘book.’ Anything that simple isn’t sexy.

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Of course the advent of exchanges on track wouldn’t have occurred had the then Chairman of the powerful Levy Board, Rob Hughes,  ignorantly cast his vote in favour of permitting bookies to hedge into exchanges on track. At that time, nobody knew or understood the benefits or dangers of betting exchanges and the potential damage that could have been caused with their introduction. Hughes, a novice in betting terms, famously cast his vote, in a split board, to permit their introduction. A deeply foolish man left his ‘mark’ on Racing.

Even today, with its LED boards, the death of Tic-Tacs and far less money in the ring for bookies to work with, it still retains much of its fascination to people going Racing. For many a bet with a bookmaker is the only way to wager on track. Odds are clearly displayed, and a printed ticket informs the novice how much they can win. Payouts are fast, and the truth is very few bets are ever turned down, even in smaller rings. Yes the place terms in 16-21 runner handicaps can be less than available outside the track, but the BHA has managed to run the programme down to such an extent these days such races are relatively rare.

The betting ring is still a major draw for people going racing, even if on occasion they do not understand it! It’s replete with characters, colour and noise. Money can be seen changing hands in a thoroughly unique environment. Betting remains the principle ‘raison d’etre’ for horseracing, even if some snobs would have us believe it is all about breeding! There are many characters in the modern betting environment, bets aren’t refused, best odds guarantees has made an appearance, there’s still plenty of healthy competition between rival operators. And there’s still a moral code that exists between Bookie and Punter-that doesn’t exist in the Online marketplace.

 

With all this in mind I struggle to understand the ambivalence racetracks have to their betting partners. They seem entirely immune to issues we collectively face. There’s unfortunately a big difference between olden day bookies and their modern counterpart. The likes of Densham, Banks, Power and Webster were rich. They went racing in Bentleys. These days the bookmakers turn up in Renault estates. Although they work hard, add colour and flavor to the racetracks, pay often thousands in fees every week, the bookmakers are simply treated like dirt by racetrack executives. You think that’s a harsh description? Read on.

I do share punter concerns as to how they are treated by the new traders running betting operations for big concerns. Sniff a winner and you’re closed. Such basic skills employed have eroded what was formerly an excellent  relationship between The two protagonists. But this doesn’t happen in the betting ring. A price is a price. There are no closed accounts along with no James Knight types. Just a lifetime of real bookie experience and a fair bet. No restrictions or closures. No knock backs. Service with a flat cap.

Another truth is the Starting Price returns, which so rarely reflect the true rates available on course, to decent money. Far too much ‘weight’ is aforded to major betting companies like Ladbrokes, whose principal effect in attending so many unprofitable meetings, is to distort the SP returns by often offering the lowest prices in the betting ring.

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What is killing the modern-day ring is the disappearance of monies wagered by customers on track into betting exchanges off the racecourse. At a pen stroke the health and integrity of the ring has been compromised. Bookmakers nowadays bet hard up to betting exchange odds and trade it with exchanges to create margin. It’s typical for the ring to match precisely the odds available on the exchange. The only notable difference is represented by outsiders, which few people wager upon. There you will typically see a difference between what a bookie offers against the kexchange equivalent. The Bookie however has to be mindful of the place market for such selections. The exchange ‘layer’ doesn’t concern himself with such niceties.

The second problem for the Ring involve racetrack policies. Led by a small and influential group of individuals who never frequent their betting rings. They exist in a world between corporate box and paddock. It’s extremely rare these days to see racetrack management in the betting ring. Two notable exceptions to this rule were Edward Gillespie of Cheltenham and Charles Barnett of Ascot. Both of whom spent a great deal of time hobnobbing with Bookmakers. The rest simply don’t bother.

Why don’t more track managers spend more time with what are, in effect, their best customers? Because Bookmakers like to complain about their lot! Notably about extortionate expenses tracks charge to bet these days. Executives are fully aware they are overcharging the ring. Facing Bookmaker complaints evidently lacks appeal! A Bookmaker not only shoulders penal rates to bet at racetracks, which migrates his little business into a penny arcade affair- he does more out of love, than profit. Often forced to park upwards of 500 yards away from the Betting Rings as track bosses pay them very little mind over more influential patrons, and their Rolls Royce’s. It’s common to see Bookmakers pushing heavy equipment several hundred yards, without complaint, in all weathers, to their ‘pitch.’ And of course these days tracks seek to charge often ridiculous rates to park your car in a muddy field near to their premises.

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Bookmakers are charged season by season a ‘marketing fee’ in their contract which is supposed to be utilised to market the Ring. In reality the monies are trousered. There’s no evidence, certainly none by any racetrack I attend who spend one dollar of those fees in marketing the Ring. Indeed with ‘Racetrack Bet’ fees at tracks like Chester are far more likely spent bigging up their own product, over the Ring.

The third nail in the coffin is in the new policy incepted by groups of tracks such as Arena and Jockey Club, to turn the product from one focussed on the sport, to a social event. The expression that Racetracks have become ‘giant pubs’ – whilst unpopular no doubt with track executives, fancying their product as better than it actually is, is undoubtedly accurate. And with drink as the legal sale, and drugs the illegal entrant to the mix, we get regular unpleasant sights and sounds and yes, constant fights on tracks.

Throw into this new environment a thoroughly impotent regulator, in the shape of the British Horseracing Authority, which has notably failed to punish any racetrack for the behaviour of its patrons, nor to control the tens of millions of plastic cups the tracks create. All of this wastage casually disposed of. An ecological nightmare the likes of Harman and Rust do absolutely nothing about. Shame on you. What if someone draws the attention of Sky News to your failures here?

The truth is that as the ‘giant pub’ ideal has taken firm hold. The product on display in sporting terms has notably declined. Viewing numbers for the sport are in significant free fall, we are heading towards satellite coverage, as are those attending. Racetrack simply ‘guesstimate’ attendees. I was amused to see Goodwood figures for Glorious Goodwood as comparing favourably with last years. Despite a monsoon on the Wednesday which clearly put thousands off attending, the numbers the track claimed actually attended almost mirrored each other from 2017 to 2018.

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It’s regular to see concerts put on by tracks, and attendances reflect the stars on display. However it’s often ‘married’ to extremely low-grade racing. At a time when the sport could be showcasing to a new audience its best Racing, in fact it chooses to put on some of its worst fare. Concert nights are often some of the worst nights for bookies in turnover terms. The crowd is simply not interested in betting on the poor product wedded to the concert.

 

The Ring owes its success or failure to the quality of the racing. The better and more competitive the sport is, the busier the Ring becomes. Increasingly those who attend racing do so not out of a love of horses, but as a social pastime. It’s profitable for the tracks, less so for the sport, and the Ring that so depends on it to survive.

What track executives miserably fail to recognise is that it is, in fact, their betting ring that remains the principal draw to racegoers. Get yourselves over to France to evidence the lack of atmosphere there with no bookies in attendance. It’s an odd scene indeed. We are very lucky that so may Bookies turn out to work, so often, for such pitiful returns. I feel of course it is useless to argue with both Racetracks and BHA, to expect them to afford their betting rings far more respect than they do so now. I am fully aware that to a track the ring is an important cash cow. However as business partners- and the principle draw on your property every time we turn out, we deserve to be better treated than we are right now. We should be parked closer, we should be allowed to leave our equipment safely overnight for meetings of more than one day, and yes, we should be charged less to bet.

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Long term prognosis for Racetrack ‘Supremos’ who ignore such advice is not healthy. At some stage you’re going to have to improve your act as councils, rather than the BHA, act to control your excesses, and the drunken mob you throw out into the community at the end of every meeting. At some stage you’re going to have to stop over charging your Bookmakers and basing daily fees on your most expensive ‘rack rates’ and other such methods you employ to improve your bottom line, at our expense. Customers want Bookmakers. The leading betting event – the Cheltenham Festival now showcases just two (incomplete) lines of Bookies in your Ring, when once there were five.

Focus on your Ring, make it affordable and reinvigorate it. Repay the debt you owe to us as partners in your success.

Geoff Banks

August 2018

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Lack of star horses is hurting racing (The Times 10/8/18)

Lack of star horses is hurting racing

The viewing figures for ITV’s coverage of Glorious Goodwood showed a slight increase on last year which is a positive sign. The most watched race was the Sussex Stakes last Wednesday won by Lightning Spear under a masterful ride by Oisin Murphy with a peak figure of 871,000.

But a sober analysis of the number of viewers for the big meetings across the year suggest that while the trend is lightly upward, the figures are probably not what either ITV racing or the sport itself might have been hoping for when they won the rights and a four-year contract at the start of last season. Audiences of 1.5 million were being talked about over time.

The averages for Royal Ascot this year, which was shown on ITV1 for four of the five days, were down from 867,000 in 2017 to 721,000. The reason cited was the impact of the World Cup. The Grand National last year was disappointing and that was put down to the unseasonably warm weather. Comparisons are still being made with the figures Channel 4 attracted in the final year of its contract in 2016. But how much longer that can be sustained is a moot point. At some stage ITV has to move on from that.

Lightning Spear’s victory in the Qatar Sussex Stakes at Goodwood attracted a TV audience of 871,000
Lightning Spear’s victory in the Qatar Sussex Stakes at Goodwood attracted a TV audience of 871,000Adam Davy/PA Wire

Let me stress that the fact viewing expectations have not been realised is nothing to do with ITV’s coverage. It is universally agreed that it is outstanding, with Royal Ascot a brilliant yardstick. The BAFTA for the Grand National output was no more than the channel deserved. The broadcaster has managed to successfully tread the fine line between satisfying the traditional audience but making racing far more accessible. The presentation teams and pundits work extremely well together, editorially it hits the mark every week.

So what might be the reason that audiences have not increased as markedly as one might have anticipated via the powerful terrestrial platform that ITV offers? Well I am grateful for Geoff Banks, the bookmaker and a controversial character who is not afraid to speak the truth to crystalise some thoughts I had had on this subject.

In essence sport is about competition, about duels, about personalities, about identities which an audience and the public at large can latch on to, relate to and become entwined in the narrative. Football, Wimbledon and the Six Nations for example draw in viewers in the many millions. Flat racing does not, nor has it had, a superstar that gripped the imagination since Frankel who admittedly was a freak of nature.

Part of the reason identified by Banks and with which I concur is the lack of star turns, or at least star turns who do not have a shelf life beyond two seasons before unceremoniously being retired and sent off to stud. Flat racing is now more a business than a sport. It is increasingly a means to an end whereby fabulously wealthy individuals who invest massive sums into the sport seek to make a return on their investment in breeding. Not only are their horses retired too young but to preserve their values during their all too short careers, often trainers at the behest of owners do their best to avoid head-to-head confrontations.

This is what Banks wrote in his most recent blog, which to my mind went to the heart of the problem. “Racing’s number one star [Frankel] retired too young, and well before he needed to,” Banks said. “Buy a ticket for Barcelona, and you’ll see Messi. Buy a ticket for racing each season, it’s unlikely the new audience we are so desperate to attract has heard of any of the performers.

“Frankel, an iconic racehorse, literally put bums on seats. He retired, let’s not forget as a four-year old! Did he have any nuts by the time he was four? Quite literally his stud value to Juddmonte far exceeded what he could earn on the track. Simple commerce you say?

“Except that Khalid Abdullah [his owner] is one of racing’s billionaires. Along with Godolphin, Coolmore, and [Anthony] Oppenheimer. They simply don’t need the money. It’s therefore a paradox they choose to send their ponies to service mares at three and four years of age.

“And whilst they race, as fans we are treated to the monthly pantomime of will they, won’t they show up. It’s nothing new to see horses openly avoid competition. Because it makes more commercial sense to the afore-mentioned billionaires apparently to send them to stud all with the grand title of “the best I’ve ever owned”.

“Athletes, notably human ones, constantly perform with injuries, knocks and niggles. Our best horses appear so wrapped in cotton wool, the slightest inflammation, or let’s admit it, the presence of another star suddenly turning up in the field, is enough to see them defect. If you think they don’t avoid meaningful opposition, you don’t understand breeding.”

His overarching conclusion is difficult to disagree with too. “Unless the authorities in charge of racing on both sides of the Irish Sea do something about arresting the flow of top horses to stud, the only thing that will keep racing going is the beer tent. The viewing figures are telling us to pull our socks up as a sport, because we cannot [even] best [repeat showings] of Columbo.”

The Defection Of Talent

Let’s play telly stats, everyone loves a stat.. Viewing figures for England playing Columbia topped 24 million. Wimbledon matches, available on free to air BBC regularly figure in the millions of viewers for matches leading up to the finals. Six nations Rugby regularly tops 8m. Premier League viewing matches on pay per view on Sky average 1m viewers a game.

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Of course I am discussing free to air. I think it’s fair to say if a sport decides to head towards pay per view, it chooses to marginalise itself. The BBC clearly pays a lot less to cover sport, but its power in raising the profile of the same to new levels is without parallel. 13 million viewers tuned into see the Murray Wimbledon final on BBC. Wimbledon, for all its commercial power resolutely remains with the BBC.

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Which makes he decision of Racing Chiefs to head down the commercial broadcaster route, and dumping a public service broadcaster in CH4 all the more inexplicable. In fact the BEEB does tender for Racing, but its bids are regarded by racetrack groups in charge of telly rights, and desperate for cash, as too low. They’re clearly less interested in growing the sport, over their trouser pockets.
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Royal Ascot is the very pinnacle of the flat racing season. A five-day festival with some of the finest racing paired with considerable pomp, ceremony and fashion. Despite all this on offer, we managed on free to air a paltry daily average of just over 1/2 a million viewers, that’s one fortieth of those who tuned into England. Said figures amusingly buried in the Racing Post under an article headed ‘sectional times at Ascot.’

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I don’t think, though, its down to the coverage. I recall watching last year several recordings of the show and I found the ITV manner struck an entirely good note with this meeting.
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As a Bookmaker I often judge the success of the meeting in pure turnover terms, and that was significantly down this year. The simple fact was, what was on the ‘pitch’ was a dearth of top stars. Cracksman was off his game and dethroned, Lady Aurelia invisible. The St James’s Palace was an awful renewal, I’m sorry to say. Whilst there were some excellent performances, there’s simply far too many weak Group Class events, and too many excuses for absentees.
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Fine, some people disagreed with me that comparisons with a World Cup qualifier were hardly fair, and of course I would agree, such comments are designed to engage the reader. The viewing figures at Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot haven’t been impressive, given the free to air advantage, we ought to be batting in the 1.5m viewers mark, as was muted when ITV came on board. I do not, however, feel this is the fault of the network here.
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What’s the issue?
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The Sport, yes it’s us. Yesterday’s Eclipse featured just 7 participants. The follow-up to the same in subsequent races, comprising two handicaps and a listed marathon contained 6, 6 and 7 runners. The most popular event on the Racing calendar, in viewing and betting terms, is a 40 runner handicap in Liverpool. Most casual viewers to the sport have never heard of either Saxon Warrior or Roaring Lion. Up until this season neither had hit any major headlines with anyone other than Racing anoraks. We’ve become insular in Racing, we imagine the casual viewer knows who these ‘babies’ are. Losing a Derby winner to the field, is therefore, immensely damaging to the race.

The finest horse of our generation is now pumping out replacements at stud, to the tune of 300 grand a pop. The best of a rather moderate siblings would be Cracksman. In no way would I want to impune his successes, but in comparison to Frankel himself, his progeny have been a poor substitute to the great horse doing his thing on the track. Racing’s number one star retired to young, and well before he needed to. Buy a ticket for Barcelona, and you’ll see Messi. Buy a ticket for Racing each season, it’s unlikely the new audience we are so desperate to attract has heard of any of the performers.

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Frankel, an iconic racehorse, literally put bums on seats. He retired, let’s not forget as a four-year old! Did he have any nuts by the time he was 4?? Would those same essentials be available to mares at 6? Well of course they would. Quite literally his stud value to Juddmonte far exceeded what he could earn on the track. Simple commerce you say?

Except that Khalid Abdullah is one of Racing’s billionaires. Along with Godolphin, Coolmore, Oppenheimer. They simply don’t need the money. It’s therefore a paradox they choose to send their ponies to service mares at 3 and 4 years of age. Golden Horn was exceptional, a potential perennial superstar. Retired as a three year old to bolster Oppenheimer earnings.

And whilst they race, as fans we are treated to the monthly pantomime of will they-won’t they show up. It’s nothing new to see horses openly avoid competition. Because it makes more commercial sense to the afore-mentioned billionaires apparently to send them to stud all with the grand title of ‘the best I’ve ever owned.’

Masar

Only a few luxuriant trainers are afforded such stars. Our press hangs on their every word. When connections dodge events because of the opposition, it’s always tied to one excuse or another. You really don’t expect them to say ‘I’m not going to the Sussex because Enable is down to run.’ Of course not. It’s a niggle or a knock, and they roll out to perform a few weeks later. Because Racing affords these few stars that many opportunities.

So whilst I take on the amiable Lee Mottershead, explaining to us how nice Charlie Appleby is, whom he telephoned about the Derby winner’s defection from the Eclipse, it’s because I’m eternally disappointed we allow connections such an easy ride, when we absolutely know most defections are a cynical exercise in maintaining breeding valuations. Masar ‘got a knock’ was the report, the extent of which was unspecified, but he didn’t need a scan. And he was withdrawn on the day before the Eclipse. On the day of the Eclipse, the same Racing Post is reporting he is ‘responding well to treatment and likely out very soon.’ The damage wasn’t that earth shattering after all. Could he have, in fact, turned out to entertain us after all? Was Appleby too cautious, or could the late entrant to the field in the notably talented Saxon Warrior in fact influenced the decision. In any other sport, such questions would be routine.

You know it really makes little odds to me if Masar was, or wasn’t fit to race. Some keyboard warriors accused me of slandering Appleby, which means they didn’t care to read what I wrote. It was the the meek acceptance that yet another star didn’t turn out to work on a feature day I objected to. People paid to see Masar in the Eclipse, others wagered on him and lost considerable monies. We all deserve a reasonable explanation for his absence. Journalists seem far too ready to accept the stable tours. Nobody called Appleby a liar. I am though, entirely frustrated with the top echelons of training, and their constant histrionics. As we all should be. It really wasn’t about Masar, or this incident. Perhaps I am an essential evil to some, saying what others dare not. I really don’t seek to be controversial, but I do want the sport to challenge itself to do better.

Athletes, notably human ones, constantly perform with injuries, knocks and niggles. Our best horses appear so wrapped in cotton wool, the slightest inflammation, or let’s admit it, the presence of another star suddenly turning up in the field, enough to see them defect. If you think they don’t avoid meaningful opposition, you don’t understand breeding.

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In my view, I’m perfectly entitled to question top trainers as to defections, it doesn’t mean I have to be an expert in training, as Jim Boyle so farcically alleged. It does mean I have to understand the commercial realities he so tacitly ignores, which I believe I do. And to continue to pressurise trainers into participation. Some may argue ‘the welfare of the horse’ as paramount. That’ however shows a fundamental ignorance of what’s important to connections. A series of 1’s and an early bath.

So no, it isn’t about Masar, persay. I welcome him back in a week or two’s time, crutches or not. I am frustrated with the eternal merry-go-round of top middle distance performers and their early departure to stud.

As to the future? Unless the Authorities in charge of Racing on both sides of the Irish Sea do something about arresting the flow of top horses to stud, the only thing that will keep Racing going is the beer tent. The viewing figures are telling us to pull our socks up as a sport, because we cannot best Columbo.

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A notable giant of training died this week. If my memory serves me correctly Dunlop had to depart his life’s career, because the books wouldn’t balance, with a short fall in product to train. Those at the highest echelons of training, with positive bank balances, because they are rich in Racing’s best product, owe it to the others, to send Masar, and his peers, out to race as often – and for as long as they can. So what if they don’t always win? The sport cannot grow without its stars.Cartoon 1