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Betting and gambling may be different but it’s a tough distinction to sell to government

Racing is caught in the reputational backwash of the gambling industry’s exploitative greed, making it harder to plead the case for exemption from new legislation

There is a difference between betting and gambling. It’s a thin distinction, a bit like giving one an “easy” rather than a blatant “stop-job”. But just as there’s an implicit element to such racing vernacular, the same applies when it comes to punting.

Parse everything down and it is the basic proposition as to why racing pleads itself a special case when it comes to gambling legislation moves that are causing ructions in the sport on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The argument goes that online gaming, or playing the lottery every week, is for mugs who are either unaware or don’t care how the house can’t lose. Every so often one of them might win big but it has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with dumb luck.

In contrast, there is no such inevitability about playing the horses. Those consistently coming out ahead might be a tiny herd increasingly being tagged for conservation purposes, but they are at least allowed room to try to work the percentages in their favour.


One is a test of skill and judgment; the other little more than bait to hook compulsive unfortunates who get reduced to addiction and misery. Or so the story goes.

As is its wont, racing tends to over-egg the point. Some breathless commentary suggests those sticking on their Lucky 15s are possessed of MIT-standard mathematical brilliance. It also manages to conveniently ignore how real problem gamblers don’t care about the medium so long as they get on. The gee-gees are often a gateway gamble, and plenty don’t feel any need to go further.

No one ever got poor betting on racing’s sense of its own exceptionalism. There’s rarely a profitable angle it doesn’t feel entitled to. Nevertheless, the basic proposition at the heart of all this isn’t an illegitimate one, even allowing for some of the more blatant self-interest underpinning it.

Legislatively categorising those vast numbers of punters who will enjoy a harmless flutter at Cheltenham the same as a wretched minority compulsively betting on anything and everything is heavy-handed measure with the potential to be badly counterproductive.

Such appears to be the case in Ireland where Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne’s long-awaited gambling Bill has many worried about the potential impact on coverage of the sport from a proposed ban on betting advertising between 5.30am and 9pm.

Both specialist racing channels have said such a ban will make their business model unworkable. Racing TV, which has daily coverage of the sport behind a paywall, says it would cost €2 million to create a special Irish stream without gambling advertising. It is not prepared to do that.

Potential loss of coverage has provoked dire predictions by many professionals of owners leaving because they can’t see their horses run on telly. Although it’s hard to shake the suspicion that filling a €2 million hole wouldn’t be beyond the industry’s big breeding beasts, the concern over punters migrating to betting sites if pictures are lost is reasonable.

Getting the message across to Government that specialist racing channels merit an exemption, as is the case in Australia, has so far fallen on deaf ears. That ties in with what’s going on cross-channel and the prospect of proposed affordability checks that threaten the sport’s financial structure there.

There appears to be no sign of any backing down on proposed checks, which could be triggered by an individual losing as little as £125 in 30 days or £500 in a whole year. The process also involves supplying bank details – which raises questions about threats to individual freedoms, while there is already evidence of disgruntled punters drifting into black market betting.

Here too, a justifiable desire to tackle the scourge of problem gambling sees racing wrapped up in blanket proposals that ride roughshod over its specific nature. The fluctuating realities of betting the horses means some punters could easily lose £125 in a single day but still win big over a year.

Pleading racing’s case that it is entitled to some sort of exemption status from such laws has proved difficult. It reflects how the sport is caught in the backwash of the sins of a gambling industry so grubbily exploitative for so long that change is vitally necessary.

Racing and betting have long been both sides of the one coin. But the sport’s business model is wrapped up in a commercial bed with a sector so reputationally damaged that politicians of all hues feel comfortable getting stuck into it. Racing is reaping the wind of that association.

But for its own part, expressing concern about problem gamblers now smacks of opportunism considering it didn’t seem to trouble too many minds when the going was good for so long.

Pitching the line that racing is different, based on abstract definitions of betting, is a tough ask. Such distinctions might be taken as read within the game but persuading politicians to row back on broadly popular policies is an unenviable task anytime and anywhere.

Something for the Weekend

Spring Note (3.00) boasts a perfect two-from-two record around Newbury to date and can stretch that in a handicap there on Saturday. She is 13lbs higher for winning at the end of December but gets weight all-round including from Brentford Hope who has flattered in the past.

Co Meath-based John McConnell has declared a pair of hopefuls for Kelso’s Grade Two novice hurdle, and the inclusion of Intense Approach (2.17) looks significant given the talented bumper performer is still a maiden over flights.