The consortium behind a scheme to give racecourses control of their pool betting operations from next July insisted on Tuesday that the decision of Ascot, the country’s premier Flat venue, to sign up with a rival operator will have no significant effect on its plans or viability.
Ascot announced on Monday that it had signed a five-year deal with Betfred, which holds an exclusive licence for pool betting in Britain that expires in July 2018, to offer its own “AscotBet” betting service to its racegoers when the monopoly expires next summer. The track, which is owned by the Queen, has the highest annual attendance of any course in Britain and attracted 621,000 spectators to its 26 meetings last year, about 10% of the annual total at all 60 of Britain’s tracks.
Ascot’s rejection of the chance to join the majority of Britain’s tracks, including the major venues owned by Jockey Club Racecourses, in setting up their own pool betting operation is a setback for what had been, until now, a consortium offering a rare display of unity among the main racecourse operators. Arena Racing Company and JCR, the operators of 31 tracks between them including Cheltenham, Epsom, Aintree, Newmarket and Doncaster, are committed to the project and are expected to be joined by several more independent tracks.
Ascot’s decision to strike out on its own was a source of frustration and some annoyance among the team putting together the racecourses’ betting operation, some of whom express a view privately that Ascot is putting its own short-term interests ahead of those of the sport as a whole.
There can be little doubt, for instance, that Betfred will have offered Ascot a more generous deal for access to its huge customer base than would have been available to other, smaller courses. Pool betting thrives or dies by the size and strength of its pools, and the liquidity at the five-day Royal meeting in June exceeds any event in the calendar bar the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Above all, though, there is disappointment on the racecourses’ side that Ascot has turned its back on a project that requires coordinated effort from as many tracks as possible to maximise its chance of success. Pool betting has always struggled to compete with the offerings of bookmakers and, more recently, betting exchanges, which give customers the chance to take a price. Dividing the pools between different operators risks reducing the strength, and therefore the competitiveness, of both. As a result pending decisions on which way to jump by tracks including Newbury and, in particular, York now assume added importance.
“It’s about racing being in control of our destiny as a sport,” one member of the racing consortium’s team said on Tuesday. “Once we get the [imminent] Levy reform, that’s hopefully the relationship between racing and betting sorted out for a generation. We want to settle things and then build on them, and that’s what this is about.”
Neil Goulden, a betting industry veteran, is chairman of the racecourses’ operation. “What our project offers is a partnership whereby racecourses collectively own and run their own on-course pool operation and share in a growing income from other channels of distribution,” Goulden said after the news of Ascot’s decision. “We continue to work with the vast majority of racecourses and hope to make an announcement [on future plans] shortly.”
The going at Aintree is now “mostly good-to-soft” ahead of the Grand National meeting, which opens at the track on Thursday, and Andrew Tulloch, the clerk of the course, said on Tuesday that some watering of the Grand National course has not yet been ruled out ahead of the big race on Saturday.
“There is a bit of soft ground by the Canal Turn, it is always a bit easier down there,” Tulloch said. “Going down to Becher’s, there is a bit of good about it. The ground is just drying out a bit each day.
“We will keep any eye on it and will put a bit of water on if we need to maintain conditions on the easier side of good.”
Derex Fox, who has not ridden in public for almost a month since a fall at Carlisle on 9 March, will return to the saddle at the same course on Wednesday, just four days before he is due to ride One For Arthur, one of the market leaders, in the Grand National.
“I’m 100% sound and I’m just looking forward to getting back now,” Fox said on Tuesday. “I schooled One For Arthur [on Tuesday morning] and he went really well. Lucinda [Russell, his trainer] was delighted with him.
“He definitely goes there with a big chance and you just have to hope you get a bit of luck on the day and everything goes well. It would be incredible to win it.”
Wednesday’s tips, by Greg Wood
2.00 Lord Ballim 2.30 Achill Road Boy 3.00 Mr Big Shot 3.35 Scooter Boy 4.05 Calivigny 4.35 Ouro Branco
1.50 Gulshanigans 2.20 Lou Vert 2.50 Innocent Girl 3.20 Thumb Stone Blues 3.55 Butlergrove King 4.25 Toby Lerone 4.55 Shall We Go Now
2.10 Powerful Dream 2.40 Pealer 3.10 Smiley Bagel 3.45 Ruler Of The Nile 4.15 Mr Red Clubs 4.45 Sir Jamie 5.15 Jack Blane
5.45 Malt Teaser 6.15 Bowerman 6.45 Archer’s Arrow 7.15 Spiritual Star (nb) 7.45 Gala Celebration (nap) 8.15 Priors Brook 8.45 McDelta 9.15 Fabulous Flyer