“You’ll have no problem filling the column this week,” an acquaintance said. “With those bookies getting fined so much.”
Well, yes and no; it’s not a racing story exactly. It’s a gambling industry story really. Except when it isn’t.
William Hill coming close to losing their licence in the latest of a series of multimillion euro penalties imposed by the British gambling commission has no more precise link to racing than it does to, say, football which generates just as much betting turnover these days.
However, despite gambling being transformed in the digital era, the age-old popular association between racing and betting remains; two sides of the same stereotypical coin from when punting the gee-gees was the only way to lose your dough.
And it’s why racing does have some skin in this reputational game due to collateral damage from gambling conglomerates indulging in skeevy behaviour.
Some of the details in the £19.2 million worth of penalties for William Hill, allied to last week’s fines for the parent company of Unibet and 32Red, underscores for many the betting industry’s grubby reputation for exploiting problem punters.
Treating a vulnerable minority as marks has been a shameful commercial pursuit for too many companies for far too long. It has eventually prompted government action both here and in Britain. The legislators though are only making ground up on large sections of public opinion.
If gambling is a primal instinct – just think of the schoolyard taunt “wanna bet?” – then rarely has its popular image been so ropy as it is now. Gambling firms have reaped what they’ve sown. They may be ubiquitous but only the naïve can fall for their pitch of good, smiley, healthy fun.
Far from any rakish hark back to the days of chalking up the odds at a racecourse, this is a targeted business model digitally designed to deliver a 24-hour hard-sell where it’s mostly heads the bookie wins and tails the punter loses.
Algorithms zero in on everyone but often leave those unable to control their gambling compulsion reduced to fighting desperate lonely battles. From a racing perspective, it’s a problematic look to be so closely identified with.
The link is more concrete in Britain where the sport’s finances are inextricably tied up in betting turnover. More betting increases the pay-off for owners, trainers, jockeys, and everyone at the industry coalface.
Ireland’s funding model is different with betting tax revenue from all sectors funnelled into the Horse & Greyhound Fund and guaranteed by Government. Such security doesn’t insulate Irish racing from public sentiment, though.
One calculator of such sentiment is sponsorship and advertising. The latter works on association so can be a gauge of any sector’s brand value.
There are limits of course. No one’s going to try to flog washing powder by sponsoring a race or backing TV coverage. Gambling advertising is a much more obvious target audience fit and so it’s no surprise firms pour huge amounts into it.
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In the upcoming big-race schedule, Easter Monday’s Irish Grand National is backed by Boylesports.
Most of the Grade One features at next month’s Punchestown festival are backed by other major firms such as Ladbrokes, William Hill, and Paddy Power.
Some of the most prominent figures in the sport are hired by those same firms. TV coverage relies on it in a major way.
It looks like easy money, particularly in an environment where Irish racing’s commercial sponsorship levels dropped to €5.7 million last year compared to €6.1 million in 2019. But it’s naïve to think being so visibly tucked in bed with a sector increasingly viewed as dubious is cost-free.
The old pigeonhole about racing and gambling didn’t used to prevent high-profile and blue-chip business entities putting their advertising into the sport. Some of the world’s most prestigious brands were keen to be associated with the Sport of Kings. Can the same be said now?
The Epsom Derby will take place in June and still doesn’t have a sponsor. The race was previously backed by Cazoo which sells second-hand cars online. Any sniffy instincts racing might have had about that ring hollow with Cazoo deciding it can rub along just fine without the “Blue Riband”.
Irish racing’s biggest sponsor is the European Breeders Fund. Other major ‘in-house’ backers include the major sales and breeding companies as well as industry participants such as Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. But the relative lack of partners with no such obvious links must be a concern.
It’s close to a sure thing that gambling advertising has percolated deep into the wider public’s consciousness when considering the sport. Whether it can sustainably continue to pay off, both in terms of finance and reputation, is far from clear.
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Updated gambling legislation is due to be finalised before Christmas. Given the murky mood-music around the betting industry generally, that could result in some surprise packages for bookmakers and a potential impact for Brand Racing too.
Something for the Weekend
MADE IN THE WOODS (7.10) could get the weekend off to a good start in Friday evening’s finale at Wexford. He is ‘wrong’ at the weights with Trickey Trix from Clonmel earlier this month but has won himself since and could relish very testing conditions more. Birdie Blitz is very ‘right’ compared to her hurdles mark but topweight may prove a big test for her.
Doncaster’s Lincoln looks as trappy as it usually does but the equine JIMI HENDRIX (3.35) could be worth checking in Saturday’s big handicap. He’s shown himself to be far from straightforward in the past but goes on soft ground and has been gelded since his last start.