BANKS RAISES TRADING ROOM CONCERNS

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Rails bookmaker and Racing Post columnist Geoff Banks has taken up the issues of licensing and the situation regarding on-course trading by Betfair – particularly in their sports lounge at Ascot – with the Gambling Commission, writes Jim Cremin.

Bookmakers remain upset at the variance in tax and expenses they face compared to internetbased exchanges. One gripe is over facilities that appear to be on-course trading rooms that they say attract people engaged
professionally in laying bets but who are regarded as recreational punters in taxation terms.

Provision of the facility has become important to some courses, with substantial fees being paid by in-running traders to use corporate boxes. However, Banks has been told by a Gambling Commission compliance officer that the
Ascot facility does not constitute a trading room. Bets are, in effect, taken through a separate company, Betfair General Betting Limited, which is a bookmaker, and then hedged into the exchange.

Banks pointed out this route covered punters backing horses on the exchange, but not the laying of bets. He said:

“Course bookmakers are strictly controlled. We face tests as to our probity and pay fat fees, but then someone can in effect stand near us and lay horses without control. Somebody’s having a laugh.”

Banks also raised with the commission concerns about some in-running betting where broadcasting time delays enable on-course exchange players to lay horses who have already fallen.

However, Banks was directed to the Gambling Act 2005, which states:

“A transaction may be a bet despite the fact that (a) the thing has already occurred or failed to occur, and (b) one party to the transaction knows that the thing has already occurred or failed to occur.”

A debate in the pub about who won the FA Cup in a certain year is cited as an example of something that leads to a bet, despite the result being known.

Originally featured in The Racing Post Tuesday, March 8th 2011

A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO WIFI

Ascot is my favourite track, by a nose from York, with Cheltenham a neck third because it’s champagne is more than York’s..

Don’t bother giving me your favourite – they’re weighed in

I thoroughly enjoy Ascot. Most of the time it’s bullet cheap to race, they do concerts, firework displays, fairground rides for the Bookies, countryside fayres and service standards, the best in the industry. Nothing’s on the cheap. Bath take a peek.

Now it includes Wifi. Wow, that’s great. Except when you login and my old Mucker King Ralph pops up waving at me from Gibraltar, just like the Racing Post Betting App. I spilled my champagne all over the oysters.

Forgetting the customers for just a second, what’s in it for the tracks? First off, it’s not a cheap investment. Putting in wifi will cost some six figures at a track like Ascot or York. You can’t just bang lots of repeaters in when there’s 40,000 souls involved. It has to be paid for. Now with apologies to some seriously bright track bosses who I routinely engage I’ll tell you what it’s for.

Money.

You see to a track, Betting is appealing. They may not be considering getting into laying horses or such, but if William Hill are going to pay them a portion of what’s turned over via their wifi  to Gibraltar, then we have a new revenue stream. And Topping is no fool, he won’t overpay for the new custom. Forget what Rod Street has to say – ‘it’s a customer focussed initiative.’ That’s hyperbole, and I note with disappointment, another decision he made without consulting stakeholders. It’s about cash. No racetrack is reasonably going to invest in expensive Wifi if it wasn’t expecting something out of the deal.

Let’s deal with Rod’s take first. And I know he’s a racetrack man through and through. Is it about customers really? Will it drive footfall to the tracks – increase their customer experience? The short answer, maybe to the former – but the answer to the second is at the bottom of this read, for reasons I’ll outline. Rod knows it’s about money though. He knows everyone’s got 3g already and heading for 4g, and if they really wanted to book a table for dinner or post a picture to facebook from the track, then that works fine for that. When a customer thinks of Racing – will Wifi seal the deal on attendance when he’s got it already via his Apple? It won’t make any appreciable difference.

Now if you don’t care whether the humble Bookie turns up on course, and you feel the tracks can do well enough with their own Tote or in house betting, then read no further. Let’s not waste each other’s time.

Most of the people calling me a dinosaur with regards to this subject seem to base their arguments on value and betting. Their views revolve around going racing and achieving the best possible value for their punting dollar.

Except that they won’t (go racing) that is. Fellahs bent on achieving the top of the market in punting don’t get in their Austin Princess and drive 30 miles to Ascot. They sit at home in baseball caps on Orange screens and ‘green up’ or ‘cash out’

Woop-dee-doo

You’ve come this far. So I want you to picture a track without bookies. Here’s what it looks like.

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Still going Racing? Hmm, I wonder if you really would? You see Bookmakers have been the very fabric of racecourses since they were built. Is it possible or desirable to go the whole hog with a ChesterBet type deal? (Don’t think that represents any value by the way at SP -10%! Turpin wouldn’t have faced the hangman if he’d invented RacecourseBet)

Ok, you’re a track boss, you really think you’re going to sell as many tickets if there’s no ring, or make as much from it as Bet365 might pay you for turnover? Anyone been to Kempton or Southwell, or for that matter Longchamp, excepting Arc day? They lack any appreciable atmosphere or flavour. People queue for a bet- then they queue longer to get paid. It’s not sexy. And I like rumpie-pumpie in my racing

So, to the humble Bookie, shivering in the ring. He’s invested in a pitch many thousands of pounds. He drives often scores of miles to work. Carries in heavy equipment, electronics. Pays support companies to keep him working, taxes and fees to the Gambling Commission. He’ll employ staff to service the customer, pay them out of the profit and their expenses. And finally he’ll hand over to the racetrack not only his entrance costs, but an expensive daily fee to bet and even a marketing fee someone dreamed up. All in all he’s looking at a ballpark minimum, including the startup cost of pitch and equipment of circa £600 a day. He can’t trade at the 103% book offered by someone sitting in his underpants at home with none of those costs to bear. Don’t weep. Seriously though, we all have to be prepared to pay a little extra for service and betting fun.

Yet oddly enough, the tracks now feel the Bookie should compete directly with underpants man. Not to mention King Ralph, and his lower cost-base technological kingdom. It’s thoroughly unrealistic. The little Bookmaker simply cannot withstand an assault from all directions whilst he shoulders the lions share of expenses.

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Consider this. A track’s daily fees from Bookies far outweigh what Ladbrokes would pay for the rights to turnover from users on betting apps. And a home layer, fiddling around on Betfair, can now lay bets directly to the track’s customers via these super fast Wifi systems.

You’ve come this far- step the last mile with me. Modern day telephonics already afford a user all the social networking a customer requires. If he wants to post a picture of him and his girlfriend (or boyfriend) on Twitter holding his plastic cup – he can do it, no bother on his existing network. Experience proves however – its simply not fast enough to cope with Betting Apps or exchange business when there’s even 5000 users at a track. Data becomes treacle slow and I seriously doubt 4g will revolutionise the issue of ‘bandwidth’. It deals with speed of data. If there’s lots of folk on the internet, clogging up the mast, the system breaks down because the issue is the number of users sharing the line.

Hardly surprising, those screaming loudly in favour of Wifi, and calling me a T Rex, are frustrated they cannot go racing and fiddle about on Betfair. They foresee Wifi as speeding up that issue. And they’re right – it will.

But the Bookie standing in the ring – who’s paid for the ‘Right’ to bet through every pore in his body? Whilst the track finds one revenue source it didn’t have before, it will lose not only the fees it generates from the Ring – but the ring itself. It’s not the final nail of course, I’m not saying that, but were you running a little business on track, how much pressure from the internet, paying pennies to bet directly to customers floating about the track, do you think you could stand? What percentage of a track’s custom frequent the ring, view, or feel it adds a sense of British to their day?

My solution? Is one which satisfies customers, excepting those who expect betting permanently on the cheap. Block all access from racetracks from Wifi to betting sites. They’re not paying to bet to bettors at Ascot as other track stake holders do. That’s a key point. You simply cannot expect to reap harvest from Bookmakers or Betting shops and allow BetVictor those same privileges for nothing. Customers rights are unaffected, they can use their 3g anyway to post photos of pictures standing next to Rod Street and his nice new suit.

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The answer to the improved customer experience question for a racetrack with little or no Betting Ring, is it a better experience than Longchamp? You make the call. If you walk into a restaurant you can’t pull out a sandwich, in the same vein if you love the betting ring you have to compromise on what you should expect from a racetrack.By the same token tracks shouldn’t bite the hand that has fed them for so long.

Geoff Banks

October 2013

A £3 BET? ARE YOU SURE?

No question about it. The old man wouldn’t understand the metamorphosis in betting in this country. And the victim is very much the long suffering bettor. Of course by this country I include Gibraltar – the puppet state the Government bizarrely supports to the fiscal benefit of our highest grossing companies. The word is ‘avoid’ not ‘evade’ of course. It’s legal folks. At least until we find Politicians who buy their own lunches and look beyond their own term.

Not many times in life I find myself in agreement with Millington of the Post. An Editor obsessed with over-rounds in the 9pm at Kempton, whilst running betting apps often running to 2% a runner. But he’s right in one area – Punters in many regards are treated in a shabby fashion these days.

I was in Cheltenham this week, filming a piece for JPFestival.com on the upcoming season. Two of the locals told me the Coral shop locally was restricting all bets to £20. Now, I want to say up front I don’t believe this to be true for one second. It’s far more likely that for certain customers- markets or times there may be restrictions in place. Stories like this though pervade the industry like a cancer.  However, most LBO managers these days do spend more time ringing through anything exceeding liabilities of £100 than they do actually accepting the bets. But the FOBT’s role on without limits.

I’m going to be as kind as possible here to the modern day ‘Giants’ of Betting. For firms comfortable with a £100 spin on a machine, it’s truly pathetic if you’re holding those same customers to a £20 bet on the horses – or less. Don’t you see their point of view?

A trader gave me some stick this week, he is or had associations with Bet365 most recently, so you’d think he’d have known better.

Anyways, he placed a wager his own firm unlikely to even consider to serious money to a Horse Race trader from a rival firm, given the likelihood the selection is ‘live’, and whined publicly about how he had been ‘restricted’ by my firm. Now, let’s not let the facts ruin a good razz, and note these are already in the public domain because he tweeted the same. The bet would have returned £3600, Laid at the very best odds available. I don’t lay a bet you see. I don’t mind anyone tweeting their disapproval, but a trader for Bet365? Well that takes the biscuit!

Winning and losing isn’t important to me, but I do demand a fair ‘spread’ of business from a customer – in other words I wouldn’t entertain from a client who’d wait like a spider for us to be substantially out of line before offering a bet. Evidently this trader had ‘marks’ in his office as to the pick, and can’t get on elsewhere, or we would have been left in peace. Obviously we will lay bets we don’t always fancy accommodating, but that’s the nature of business

It’s not policy to discuss my client’s business- ever. But you’ll understand I will respond to criticism unfairly levelled in open forums. Expect it if you’re house is made of glass.

Having placed his wager – he tweeted my website as ‘unfit for purpose’ – and that ‘I wasn’t the Bookie I claimed to be.’ Of course the Bet365 website was so much better than mine. Fine – I can accept that – except to say my own Website lays a very fair bet at all times. The same isn’t necessarily  true of Bet365’s, for example on the same event and selection – we could manage but £3.75 win. Hmm. Apparently my website works for placing wagers, it’s the roulette that doesn’t work properly.

e0Ag1hT

A picture says a thousand words tra la..

Anyway I’ve dealt with his barb.

Bottom line is choice -that’s precisely why people bet with me and I don’t go to bed wishing I were Denise, and she won’t be worried about me.  I lay a fair bet, or rid myself of someone who doesn’t offer me that – win or lose. That was the ethos of John Banks – and that will remain my policy till I push up daisies.

You see all I hear and read about are restrictions from customers these days. Fine, if we’re talking about professional traders, or those working a business through exchanges, I’ve no issue with closures. Step on my toes and I’ll put on the jack boots. But I do have a serious beef with restrictions. And I have been as forthright in that opinion, as I have about modern day traders themselves. Do Bet365 lay decent wagers? Of course they do, but the complaints from those who feel unhappy at ridiculous counter offers simply undermine the good. What’s the point if you’ve determined someone is no good in allowing them to make a meal out of you online? Even if you’re a fair layer – the odd derisory offer paints a false picture of you’re worth.

Now lads, let’s all get on the same page here. If you work for a company comfortable with offering derisory bets, or anything remotely similar, then you have to work to change that policy, or the odds you’re offering that force it. Instead of attempting to compete with the tenners on an exchange for such weak markets as the 3.55pm at Clonmel, price every book up to say a minimum of 2% per runner and offer the customers a better service – a bet commensurate with their ‘average’ stakes. But bets to £10 or less? Oh, come on, you’re making a spectacle of yourself. And as for moaning at me for accommodating you to a more than reasonable bet? Well, put up or bet elsewhere.

No?

Of course the industry is governed by marketeers.  The more names and e mail addresses they gather, the better it sits on their resumes. Add 10,000 new clients to your books and executives should be happy. Although the big five operators are all registering profits in the hundred million range – their net margin as a proportion of their turnover appears dangerously low.  And both Ladbrokes and Hills have announced recent significant profit dips. To be fair, there’s less complaints about what Ladbrokes and Hills lay, as to their rivals. I’m a little surprised to read occasional complaints about BetVictor. Spending too much on quality telly Ads over there?

To those execs staring with rose tinted specs at their marketing departments, I offer you caution – in the world of the internet, you can order a competitively priced pizza and have it delivered to your door. If they invented a cyber doll on the internet, sex would go out the window in a week. Betting is flooded with offers from hundreds of firms – not least my own, – for our part we discount our clients payments. Does it therefore follow, that if you found custom through money back offers – and being that type of customer, you would simply migrate to other companies when the Bookmaker’s bottom line is constantly taking hits- and the offers cease? Experience proves market share wars end up with victims, on both sides of the coin. Middle pin companies and smaller go to the wall and become part of larger organisations. Customers suffer a worse standard of service as a consequence, because smaller firms tailor their service.

I make no bones about the expression – ‘The Ryanair School Of Bookmaking’ – because that’s the modern day thinking. ‘punters get the top of the market- don’t complain if we only lay you a tenner.’ That’s not good enough for me. It’s not customer focussed. That’s the ‘volume’ edict.

You know what happens, with short-sighted policies? Your clients become disaffected, even hateful of your policies. Why should a man who bets in fifties accept or begin to understand why you offer him £5? Yet he can have a spin for £100. When a Betfair comes along, and you’re part of that exchange by playing at Bookie – you almost feel a sense of achievement. Fine you’ll do your bollocks laying anything on the machine – you have to exceed Bookie prices, but that’s not my problem.

If you’re comfortable operating a high tech – high volume website and offering £3 bets from time to time– all well and good, but bear in mind that alienates traditional bettors. Many of whom have simply struck a winning run, as is common in gambling, and inexplicably find some Herbert whose spotted two winning wagers in a row, has dropped them to a silly restriction without due cause. Ensure you only lay the ‘mugs’. Disrespectful and narrow.

Now I give as good as I get. I expect to be ribbed from time to time. I’m not short on opinions on or off course. When you work for a casino operator, you’re bound to defend policy, even if privately you think some of the companies’ offers are a joke.  I don’t doubt the individual I’ve engaged head  on agree their own firm’s restrictions are occasionally difficult to defend. They’re certainly not based at me laying them bets to lose 3 or 4 grand at a pop.

To my mind, if you allow a customer on the one hand to sit on your fruit machine or play roulette, maxing out his cards, and do his brains on either, you leave an open goal when you offer a bet of £3.

Geoff Banks

November 2013

LONG RUN MAKES IT A LESS THAN SUPER SATURDAY

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LONG RUN MAKES IT A LESS THAN SUPER SATURDAY

I think everyone missed their traditional Boxing Day outing, but a treat was in store in January. A high-quality nine-race card, plenty of concessions and
the promise of Kauto Star, win or lose, to boot.

I was hopeful the old-timer would get round safely and provide a good test, which he did, and he lost little in defeat to the winner in tacky ground.

Two things came out of the King George for me. First, I will be standing Long Run for his boots in March. He hasn’t got home at Cheltenham, or jumped the stiffer fences well enough. Second, if Kauto Star wins the Gold Cup, I shall turn up with my toothbrush and clean his stable. That will have Mr Nicholls rushing out for toothpaste.

Kempton also delivered on the promise of affordable racing. A massive crowd turned up to enjoy the day for only £15 in the main enclosure, and in doing so a leaf was taken out of York’s book; that track leads the way with high-quality racing, excellent facilities, cheap champagne and good entrance prices.

Kempton has shown what can be delivered in the south and I know we’ll see more of this as some twilight meetings, for example, are to be free. For the bookmakers, it meant plenty of business; for the punters the day meant Nicky Henderson. I’m starting to dislike him. Five winners, which should perhaps have been six, and the forecast up in the King George. We practised our paying-out skills, honed by what appears to be a year of poor results on ‘Super Saturdays’.

Binocular was the most expensive for us – as I suspect it was for most – landing a string of big bets. I’ll admit that we managed to win on the day, a feat right up with the loaves and fishes trick. We bet late, and never more than ten minutes before each race, in part here because it took 20 minutes to pay out on the previous race. We found prices had moved somewhat in our favour as larger rates had been taken by then for the fancied runners. Long Run, backed in to 9-2 from 7-1, won very little. But it was a different story in my office, where glum faces greeted me. Traders Elder and Dave had started placing the office furniture on eBay as it was one of the most expensive days of racing for a year. There were a series of wagers on the Pricewise tip, Long Run, including a single wager of £2,000 at 13-2, and oddly enough very little for Kauto Star. Ladbrokes declared the day to be lousy and I would endorse this description. I’m guessing the day was a disastrous one for the off-course firms. I sent my cv to Ronald McDonald.

MORE QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY

The big betting news of the fortnight was the punishment meted out to the individuals involved in the Sabre Light episode. Such incidents tarnish the image of our sport and doubtless put people off betting. You can hardly blame those who abandon wagering on events that are subject to this behaviour. But it was good to see the BHA robust in pursuing this case. However, I would like to see recognition of the wider responsibility for the root causes of these affairs. Races worth £1,700 simply don’t pay the bills. The Horsemen’s Group has it right, recommending a tariff for races. Owners should withdraw their support if those values are not met.

Racetracks enjoy a bookmaker funded bonanza with the new picture-rights deals. They should not be encouraged to feed us a diet of poor-quality, low-prize-money affairs. Such events, often riddled with gambles, are counter-productive in levy terms. Racing is funded by the betting cake and condoning the
current set-up is to accept less levy. Quality and quantity. Precious little of the former; far too much of the latter.

UNIFORMITY’S NO FUN

I Struck up a conversation on course recently with a gentleman who came up to shake my hand and pass the time. What he had to say gave pause for thought. He was in his 50s, well turned out and evidently a long-time punter, the type of client we should be concerned with.

He said that the uniformity of odds on course tended to put him off having a bet these days. He used to frequent the betting ring and found it normal to see a wide variance of odds. Punting was fun, as indeed it should be. Part of the sport was grabbing the best odds and, of course, everyone offered the same place terms, so that wasn’t an issue.

While the best value for the punting dollar remains on course, competing with exchanges has become uniform practice. Certain short-sighted layers may have persuaded the Levy Board that was the route we should take, but in fiscal and service terms it has been a mistake.

Originally featured in The Racing Post Sunday, January 23, 2011

TROUBLE GETTING A BET ON HORSES? HERE’S WHY

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Not easy getting a bet on horses these days. You hear it everywhere. Forums, papers even telly. Bookmakers roundly criticised for offering inflated odds on horses, then laying them to derisory amounts. It rather sticks in my throat to be in any way associated to such behaviour. I mean I came from a father who epitomised fearless in laying – often standing in the back lines at tracks he would dominate the far more cautious firms at the front. I took over that business some 20 years ago now, and I’ve tried to distance myself from restrictions and £10 bets. But this isn’t about me. Is the criticism levelled at modern day bookies justified? If you’ll indulge, I shall try to put this difficult subject into context.

Bear in mind there are broadly 3 different arms of the industry involved here. Exchanges, large bookmaking ‘chains’, and independents.

One of the things that strikes me about the complaints is they’re rarely levelled at exchanges. To my mind they’ve always been the smart ones. By investing heavily in marketing and advertising, you sanitise your product from some of the more important critics, such as journalists. Don’t bite the hand that feeds, even if it lives under a rock. Yet they often claim the moral high ground. Good job there lads.

You see, the deal with exchanges is simple. First off most punters are small, and don’t wager more than £20 in a bet. Second, it’s accepted you can’t get a place bet on the same. I don’t see an exchange offering an each way bet. Third, not easy to blame the exchange for what is often pitiful liquidity levels, when you’re supposed to pony up and add to the ‘lays column’ is it? That aside, the effect of exchanges on British Racing margins cannot be overstated. Obscenely they govern the on course bookmakers, many of whom have turned into arbers, playing exchange odds off against what punters will take. Low liquidity is ridiculously easy to manipulate. If you’re trying to get 10 – 20 thousand or more on a horse,  simply feed in a relative low amount into the lay side and watch it drift as bots and the ill-informed react. Alternatively, pick a random ‘gambling stables’ no hope 33/1 chance, pop a grand or two on it and watch it collapse to 9/2. In the meantime, you’re favoured selection drift from evens to 2/1. Your 20 grand profit becomes 40, for an investment of 1. It’s a childishly simple example. Surely it’s not that easy you say? Oh but it is. Plus if you have the second in the market ‘squared away’, in knowledge or integrity terms, you’re flying.

It’s not just the track which obeys the pennies on exchanges these days. It’s the off track ‘odds compilers’ at the large bookmaking chains. And here’s their sub plot. Go onto LinkedIn, type in ‘Corals’ or ‘William Hill’ and you’ll be met by picture after picture of guys in their 20’s – fresh faced out of school, describing themselves as ‘traders’ or ‘odds compilers’. It’s a grand term, or used to be.

In my time, such individuals would spend years working hefty on course markets, working figures and percentages. Or perhaps work their way into the trading room after due time in the trenches answering phones. But in an environment which puts so much stock in exchange movements, all these spotties really do these days is monitor the price movements on their screens and shave their odds appropriately. Same as most racecourse clerks do. Neither group are particularly skilled. I accept some may have an inflated view of their abilities. That comes with youth. In this game, experience counts for everything and they bring little of that to the table. Policies such as these have led to large concerns being assaulted by a new two new breeds of punter. Arbers – very much the same as many track bookies, and those putting ‘job’ monies on for the connected. Both groups, in a world of odds which are more often than not both unrealistic and manipulated, are extremely difficult to beat. As a consequence they’re restricted. By extension this has a knock on effect for the less ‘professional punter’. An accident of circumstances I suppose.

Similarly if you spend your time following certain tipping lines, backing shorteners, betting mainly on the inflated morning odds markets, backing each way when the favourite is odds on or happening to back the same selections as per say Patrick Veitch, you’ll find your half-life as a punter with such firms shortened dramatically, along with what you can get on.

It’s also important to understand the world of Ralph Topping. In his time, boardmarker to boss, he’s witnessed William Hill turn from a traditional bookmaker to a casino operator. This is a key point. Let’s call a spade a spade here – were I king Ralph, as things stand, I’d do exactly the same as he’s doing. You see the oil in the machine is precisely that. The machines. Large chains have engorged themselves on legislation permitting them to site shops anywhere and that growth remains unchecked. Witness the recent case in London against Paddy Power, brought by a Newham Council who argued they had piles of shops already in the region and that the shops were merely a vehicle for their Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. FOBTs. The case was quashed on the grounds there’s no law against serial proliferation of betting shops. Let me be honest here, Newham was right in my opinion. They didn’t need the shop, nor its machines. This situation is true in many of our towns. But Paddy won the day, arguing they made a ‘positive contribution to High Streets’. Of course that’s nonsensical hyperbole. Essentially though Newham hadn’t proved their argument and were kicked out. Each FOBT generates a gross profit of circa £900 a week for such firms – and they can have 4 in every shop. That’s £3600 in gross profit a week. Add in a ‘manager’ who gives out the change, a cashier, and a rolling ‘relief manager’ and you’ve a very low staff cost, maintenance and risk business. Providing that is you don’t get too involved in the poor margin horse racing product.

This is where leaders such as Paul Bittar are so blinkered in their view that more racing equals more levy. A childishly simple claim, and one with no data to support it. The reality is quite the opposite. A punter has a fixed amount to spend. More racing won’t make him draw out more money. The machines claw for his cash, and they’re clearly addictive. When the racing is competitive, it becomes the draw.If it’s low grade 5 runner races on offer, they become the background rather than the vehicle that pulls people into the shop to start with. The BHA is far too tight in with the bookmaking-exchange fraternity to be healthy. Ostriches see a little more. Am I a little unfair to the new Chief Exec? I don’t believe so. Within a month of his arrival he had thrown his hat into the ring with big business and declared 1450 as the right ‘level’ for Racing. Was that an informed decision based on hard data he hadn’t been provided with by the way, or just towing the establishment line? I’ll let you decide on that one. There isn’t a third option, except for the PR merchants from the chains.

I haven’t mentioned the casino side of most modern day bookmaker or exchange businesses. These super profitable products yield enormous profits. Why focus your attention on the 4.05 at Plumpton and the risks involved, when you can push your customers to bet on the areas of your business you absolutely know represent a no-lose situation. To boot there’s been a substantial market share war going on between the large concerns over the last 3 years. It’s routine for the morning price market for a feature race on a Saturday to be actually overbroke between the majors. The King George at Ascot ran to 89% at best odds available. This represents a net loss to racing of 11% in real terms. Will such top of the market offers make it more likely you’ll get your £100 each way wager? Evidently not.

Of course the whole margin debate is pretty much a nonsense these days, except perhaps for Bruce Millington who majors on the 9.30 at Wolverhampton. So many horses effectively priced out of events; we never saw horses going off at 400/1 in the sixties and seventies. One of the major issues affecting the laying of bets is the integrity of the sport. The bottom line is, the lower the prize fund available, the more likely the integrity of the event will be affected. The great scandals in racing of late can be directly attributed to serial failures at the BHA who should insist on a strong, well-funded and staffed integrity division. In fact in a period where there’s more racing than ever before, the integrity division at the BHA has had its budgets slashed. Being kind it’s poor management, but I lean towards a dereliction of their responsibilities to police the sport. The key phrase ‘shut the stable door after the horse has bolted’ wouldn’t be out of place here. All the spin in the world from Mr Bittar cannot hide the fact it’s grossly understaffed and most certainly lacking in the experience necessary to break down the vital betting markets. In fact, in a bizarre twist of fate, it’s Betfair who highlight most of the scandals perpetrated on its own exchange, but then only when amounts are excessive. Hong Kong has 238 people tasked with maintaining the integrity of its programme, which races 6 days a month. Here with 1450 fixtures we have less than 20 including those running around testing horses and the like. The numbers don’t stack up. It’s time to get proper with integrity, and not just when Channel 4 ask the questions on doping. Non-triers and ‘explosive last to first’ gambles have become the accepted norm. Why? How does it affect your punting dollar? Will it be easier or fairer to bet when people in the industry don’t trust the ‘lesser’ events?

One smaller factor to consider is the time delay. On course traders react swiftly to volatile exchanges in proffering odds. However, the actual shows fed into betting shops will reflect those movements by anything between 1-2 minutes later, and may be made up by some trader betting to a sixth of the odds on the place book. This creates a clear arbing situation of betting shows vs exchange odds. Don’t forget the modern day punter is armed with super fast broadband links to exchanges – they know the reality and can gain significant advantage over the bookmaker in the High Street.

How do these points relate to how much you can get on? Well you have to understand what you’re betting on; racing is up against the other products a bookie is offering. Sure if you do your nuts you can call your own tune with any bookie. That’s obvious. But if they don’t know you – and you just have a lucky run? Well I’m afraid the outlook is dim.

Let’s encapsulate racing in this simple equation:

Exchange – On Course Traders – Delayed shows to LBO’s + Glut of Racing = Low margin out of date product open to serial manipulation v Fixed Odds Betting Terminals and casino products.

The last cog in the wheel are the independents. They’re either shop based, or running telephone and internet operations such as my own at geoff-banks.com. Many do not possess the vital casino products, nor are they able to operate relief manager situations to rotate their staffing and keep costs down. They shoulder increased share of costs such as taxation and Gambling Commission fees and they’re competing with offshore low cost firms to boot. Smaller firms tend to rely much more heavily on their racing product. As a result they’re struggling to remain competitive with set down by firms who are reluctant to lay much more than an egg at those paper odds. Does it really matter if they survive, any more than does it matter if the on course market does? I’ve heard the argument for natural selection in business. And I fundamentally disagree. In my view, it’s an unhealthy situation. Big business is getting bigger, they’re paying less taxes than small business and most certainly giving a vastly inferior standard of service. Who hasn’t sat on a phone line to speak to a world weary operator with little training or the ability affect change to improve the lot of the customer they are serving?

Decisions are made at boardroom level by ‘executives’ who won’t have to sit waiting to be served by the individuals they employ. They’re in no way into ‘customer facing’ or ‘customer focussed’ initiatives. They’re about money.

The internet has most certainly improved many areas of our lives. But unchecked it spells the death knell for many businesses we used to take for granted which are the very fabric of the decent society we grew up in. I’m one of life’s survivors – I lay a fair bet. My boys answer a call within two rings, or answer a textbet within a minute. But businesses like my own are in the minority. The bottom line is: the larger the firm, the worse its service standards. But they’re cheap. They offer deals and money back offers and price guarantees.

If you want real change in the service you receive, including how much you get on – you have to accept such standards involve you being prepared to take slightly less in return for a more civil way to bet. It’s a choice. Want an exchange price? Accept it’s only going to be to their stakes. Not a lot these days.

Ryanair aren’t British Airways, and they treat their customers with a disdain that’s breathtaking. But they’re cheap. They lead on low cost travel without frills or service standards or conduct codes respected by rivals. So are Paddy Power, Bet365 and William Hill. If you believe in SP guarantees, money back if your horse falls and so forth, all well and good and they will happily accommodate you to lower stakes. It’s simple, you cannot offer the top of everyone’s market and lay whoppers. So bet away with the offshores but expect to pay for it elsewhere.

TALE OF THE RING

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My last blog about modern day racing, and its sanitized ways, seemed to attract a lot of attention or hits as they say. And more than a few compliments from like-minded souls, or perhaps concerned, individuals on Twitter. It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am…in future my rate for such scribing shall be ten pounds an article, and I’m not budging from that.

What was absent was the contra view which I expected from trainers and connections of horses boxed away in padded cells for months on end awaiting their glory moment. Shame that. However, all is not lost. I did receive one rather hateful response from a fellah describing himself rather grandly as ‘a proper Bookmaker’ who ranted about my attitudes to modern day betting rings. He wasn’t quite brave enough to tell us all who he was, doubtless of the view should he reveal his true identity, some would have realised the true worth of his business practices.  Few punters thoroughly approve of modern day Bookmakers. The horrible truth. Exchanges are the ‘good guys’ wherever they trade from. Who’s going to criticise someone for low liquidity when you’re part of the problem?

It’s perhaps helpful if I illustrate the problems as I see it in the modern ring, for those who do not understand the issues. Anyone who goes racing, midweek in particular, can’t have failed to notice the distressed state of the ring. A handful of Bookies, usually with just one member of staff each, huddling for warmth whilst serving but a few customers. In an environment where racetracks claim attendances overall are holding up, it’s a paradox that rings are so quiet. Of course, were I the RCA, I’d be talking up the product. And yes, if they don’t address the problem of stable stars retiring as 3 year olds or worse sitting out for Cheltenham, they’re going to have attendance issues; we’re agreed on that. On a Saturday, and at the major meetings however, the crowds still look good to me, but the public aren’t betting as they used to.

Or perhaps they are. I mean who goes racing these days and doesn’t have a bet? Racing’s pretty dull if you don’t have some kind of interest other than an anoraky view of form or breeding. Why does the Queen have so many ladies in waiting when she’s in attendance? Quite right, they’re running her bets out! She’s no fool. Loves a Union Jack does the Boss. Everyone’s having a play in reality. Because if you’re racing, and not betting, you must be wondering what all the fuss and noise is about!

As to the Punters, they’re just getting bored. 98% of Bookies these days have turned to trading as a simple and cheap method of making a living. From the moment the interminably ignorant Rob Hughes, of the then controlling Levy Board, cast his vote in favour of opening up the Ring to outside influences, in particular exchanges, the die was cast for the Bookies. Led by ‘pioneers’ like Martyn of Leicester, who I recall describing it as the new Holy Grail to me one day, many leapt from odds, percentages and margins, to trading every dollar they took with an exchange, at better odds. Presto, easy money – minimal risk. At the outset the gap between the odds offered by the trader and the exchange was wide, and the method simple. It was a golden time. As the years progressed, with traders chasing a diminishing pound, and their own silly greed for every bet available, the odds soared to the punters. Traders found with what profits could be engendered, squeezed so tight, they couldn’t breathe. Even when the crowds were good, they moronically bet so tight to the exchange, the profits, if at all, were derisory.

In the same period, liquidity on exchanges fell markedly. Now we had a situation where traders would offer 7/1 about a horse trading at 8.2 on the exchange but only to £20. Lord-A-Mighty if someone asked for a couple of hundred each way – a bet far larger than they could stand, trade or even dump with the few proper Bookmakers betting to opinions. Casually they knocked the larger punters back, without thought for their future. They turned to following the exchange win price, but restricting the place returns, making something off of that book instead. Tossing casually away years of agreements and the code laid down by Tattersalls. This code has, and still is, respected in betting shops and credit offices and even improved upon. They laid off staff, and finally stopped going in some cases, altogether. So when ‘a proper Bookmaker’ tells me I shouldn’t be going about criticising their business plan, I have to laugh. Proof of the pudding is in the eating. It gives me little pleasure to be proven totally right. I said this operandi would fail on every platform available to me, to whoever would listen and many who would not. If there’s no work – you’ve failed.

I’ve covered the traders, what about the views of my customers? First off, make no mistake, I like a laugh with my punters, especially when they lose – but I don’t mind the jibes when I do either! It’s part of the fun of betting with the old enemy. Because I am, the old enemy in all but age… I still offer odds which reflect my views and I don’t knockback bets from genuine punters, ever. Why aren’t the punters flocking to a ring where they can very often beat an exchange price and pay no commission? Because my friends, like me, they’re so famously bored of a ring with rows of Bookmakers betting like soldiers – all offering the same odds. There’s no variety or choice. It’s uniform and drab. Worse it’s an exchange driven cartel. Most punters believe the Bookmakers win, whatever the result. If everyone has the same price it appears like price fixing. They disapprove of restrictive practices such as 1/5th odds on the Grand National, and traders who dress as if they’ve  just stepped out of their front rooms. And worse, they just want the fun of a bet. It really matters little to them whether a horse is 5/1 or 4/1 when the nags are toiling up the straight. One of the loudest punters in the ring I love, little Tommy, makes the most noise. He doesn’t bet big, but to him it’s still the buzz, and I love him for his enthusiasm. These days, customers are afforded little of the respect of past days, when giants like John Banks and Stephen Little battled them with a smile, a thumping bet at their odds, and a tie.

I offer two thoughts for punters at this stage, out of balance. If you moan about poor place odds and you give those traders who offer them your fiver each way at 1/5 the odds on the Cambridgeshire because they are 17/2 about something which is 8/1 elsewhere, then you’ve only yourselves to blame for supporting them, in any race.  I believe you should identify the culprits and never bet with them; period. That’s how you rid the ring of scoundrels without the business acumen to appreciate exchanges aren’t the savior, but their death knell. Oh, and tell your friends. Second, although I enjoyed the banter from Big Mac, even if it occasionally made no sense, the culture of moreism always has a price; go for service over value, every time. Think I fly Ryanair if British Airways head in the same direction?

Fine, I’ve given my thoughts. What of the future? For those leading Bookmakers these days, and for the empty vessels in the ring, standing looking at the tumbleweed, bitching away, and blaming everyone but themselves for the problems, I offer these solutions.

Number one; allow the racetracks to dictate the terms of business in the rings. Fundamentally to restore order on place markets, introduce a guaranteed minimum lay to lose amount for each ring. This stops traders betting to pennies, offering unsustainable odds, and knocking back the larger punters. It’s so tiresome to hear dinosaurs claim tracks ‘shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the terms of business’. What a narrow view, especially as even now, they already do! It’s hardly in the favour of racetracks to do away with the draw of their betting rings, is it? Chesterbet is a success, but only in parallel with Bookmakers bringing the punters to play into the track in the first place. On their own, and without a ring, tracks – whilst they can deliver on the bet at more restrictive odds – can’t deliver on the flavour and atmosphere people in this country enjoy about the ring so much. Think that Simon Bazalgette and Charles Barnett are rubbing their hands with a go it alone approach? They’re no fools. They would prefer a symbiotic relationship. Every time we say no to their requests for improved service standards, they become just a little more unsympathetic to our problems. They will naturally turn their vast expertise in running business, into taking betting under their wings and employing people like me to show them how it’s done successfully. And yes, I would, if the alternative is to stand amongst a bunch of fiddlers trading dollars in their jeans.

Number two, for racetrack bosses. Extinguish the cosy little relationship between RDT and Betdaq, with software capable of skillfully enabling traders to hive off bets at lightning speed to the exchange. Do away with track broadband and WiFi altogether. Outlaw data cards, secondary laptops and hand held PDAs for Bookmakers. No, it’s not air tight, but it does go an awful long way to restricting the ability to trade with exchanges. Especially at festival meetings where mobile phone networks like Vodafone do a total runner. Fundamentally, switch off the exchange displays on laptops provided by companies such as RDT and return rings to a lower tech environment. Give serious pause for what I’m advocating if you value a vibrant ring, its draw and income. Stop worrying about losing a few traders who do not approve of restrictions. Believe me, they’re no loss! En fin, if you’re showing exchange odds on a big screen at your Racetrack, you’re doing yourselves no favours. It isn’t about price.

Number three Bookies, get into the modern day age of cashless societies and find bank’s willing to offer the new fast generations of swipe debit cards to enable punters to bet without the need to queue for hours and days at cash points.

I accept there will be a variety of views out there to this. If you’re a hard working Bookie, you have my respect for your efforts, but you’re going nowhere, if you don’t adapt, and you know this is true. If you’re the blinkered sort, who believes the Son of John Banks got here through luck rather than focusing on service standards, or if you’re worried someone else in the ring on a mobile will break the mould and have a huge mass of punters at his joint, whilst you have nothing, then you’re missed the point. It’s greed and an unworkable long term business plan that got you here in the first place. You have to work as a collective, rather than a series of individuals, and you have to act now and stop thinking of what’s good for you, but what’s best for the customers you’ve lost. The tracks have the power to lay down sensible practices, if you’d only let them. One thing’s absolutely for sure, the one you’re using right now has failed, miserably. I don’t think anyone could argue with that. For those that view some of the points as ‘legally challengeable’, I point you to the free for all 2008 Gambling Act. Good luck in Court trying to get a decision as to what is, or isn’t legal anymore, because the Gambling Commission certainly don’t.

One final point, Bookies. Just a few years ago, many of these points were laid down by the NJPC articles. I don’t recall anyone at that time complaining, or challenging the terms. We can change, and we must, if the whole shebang doesn’t migrate to GoodwoodBet in a very short time.