On the eve of Royal Ascot, a group representing punters has warned the risk-averse practices of major bookmakers are undermining public interest in horse racing. The Horserace Bettors Forum believes as many as 20,000 accounts of British-based punters have been closed in the last six months, with perhaps twice as many restricted.
Those estimates are the result of a survey conducted by the HBF during April, the results of which are now published for the first time. The 878 respondents reported more than 1,000 closed accounts and more than 4,000 restricted accounts in the previous half-year. That led 59% of respondents to state their interest in betting on racing had been reduced.
The HBF also reports having had the co-operation of one major bookmaking firm, unidentified, discussions with which led it to the “conservative” figure of 20,000 for the entire British betting industry. Allowing for the fact punters hold multiple accounts, the HBF estimates 7,000 individuals have been affected and 4,000 bettors will have a reduced interest in racing every six months as a consequence of bookmaker action against them.
“On the face of it, this is a significant problem, if the appeal of betting on horse racing is possibly being seriously eroded by the trading practices of individual bookmakers,” said Simon Rowlands, who has chaired the HBF since its creation last year. “If customers are turned off by that experience, racing suffers.
“Right from the outset, this was the issue raised most frequently with us by the public and until recently there has been a lack of media coverage in this area. I’m not greatly surprised by our findings, in that we thought it was a big issue, but the size of it has exceeded even our expectations. You still need to take it on trust that people are reporting their situation faithfully and I’m sure that some people will remain sceptical.”
The next step, Rowlands hopes, is the British Horseracing Authority and other powerbrokers in racing will recognise the issue as requiring action. “This subject came up in discussions with senior figures at the BHA some months ago. They’re aware of it as an issue. They may not have been aware of the magnitude. That discussion was one of the reasons we felt we needed something more than anecdotal evidence, something to present to the various stakeholders.
“It is damaging to racing if bookmakers are using racing as a loss-leader and weeding out punters who happen to be profitable or, in some cases, appear that they may become profitable at some point in the future.
“HBF believes this survey should inform discussions about how racing and betting deal with their customers. British horse racing can’t continue to haemorrhage punters and people who just like to follow horse racing and have the odd bet.
“I’d like to think that enterprising bookmakers will see an opportunity for them to corner some of the market by using more enlightened risk-management practices but horse racing can’t wait for that to happen, for the market to correct itself. Racing needs to do something to tackle this problem now.”
It appears the prospects of a supportive response from bookmakers may be slim. The Guardian approached a small number of firms for an initial reaction to the survey but was not offered an on-the-record response.
One bookmaker source, speaking on condition of anonymity, roundly rejected any suggestion the issue could be a problem for racing or that the HBF may be justified in involving itself. “The vast majority of customers” are unaffected either by closure or restriction, the source insisted.