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Talking Horses: is this a turning point for the Tote, or another false dawn?

·6 min read

“The problem we’ve found is not that people think the Tote is poor value,” Jamie Hart, UK Tote Group’s product director, says. “They know the Tote is poor value. It isn’t, because we’ve changed it, but it’s not even like it’s an opinion. It’s more like if you ask people in the street, “which is more expensive, Waitrose or Lidl?”, they know it’s Waitrose.”

It is a candid assessment of the Tote’s current position in the landscape, 93 years after the pool-betting operator was founded by Winston Churchill, a decade after it was sold to the bookmaker Fred Done, and a little under two years since UKTG completed its purchase for around £115m. The overwhelming majority of bets on British racing are placed with bookmakers, and punters who struggle to get their bets accepted can head to an exchange such as Betfair instead.

UKTG agreed to return at least £50m to Britain’s racecourses over seven years as part of its deal to acquire the Tote. In annual terms, that is around 9% of the £80m Levy yield from bookies and exchanges in 2020-21, despite pool-betting still bumping along with a market share in low single figures, as it has for many years.

Related: Adayar shows ‘endless power’ to follow up Derby with King George victory

Few punters, understandably, prioritise the slice of their betting turnover which will be returned to the sport when they decide where to place their bets. But if you are planning to have a flutter on Glorious Goodwood this week, it could be a good moment to test Hart’s claim that the Tote has changed.

For one thing, many of the pools on the first three days of the meeting – which opens on Tuesday – will be huge, as this year Goodwood will make its debut in the Hong Kong-based World Pool system.

The effect this will have on pool sizes is apparent from Saturday’s King George at Ascot, when the race was part of the World Pool for the first time. The win-pool for the King George was £68,000 in 2018, £118,000 in 2019 and just £19,000 for a three-runner race in 2020. On Saturday, as Adayar beat four opponents, it was £677,000.

Big pools are robust pools, giving punters confidence that dividends will not be skewed by a couple of lumpy bets on the favourite. Punters who bet directly via the Tote’s website, meanwhile, will benefit from a more fundamental change under its bonnet: a 10% bonus added to win dividends on all races, whether they are part of the World Pool or not.

As a result of the bonus, the Tote’s effective final book on the International Handicap at Ascot on Saturday, for direct online customers at least, was 3% over-broke, versus an SP over-round of 20%. For the four-runner handicap won by Southern Voyage, it was 4% over-broke, versus 8% per cent over-round at SP.

This raises an obvious question: how can the Tote – or any betting operator for that matter – offer over-broke markets to punters without going bust? The answer highlights an issue that had been well known to industry insiders for years, but one to which 99.9% of Tote customers always remained oblivious: rebating.

The betting pool for Adayar’s win in the King George at Ascot on Saturday was worth £677,000.
The Tote’s betting pool for Adayar’s win in the King George at Ascot on Saturday was worth £677,000. Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

Churchill’s vision when the Tote was created was of a system which allowed ordinary punters to bet against each other without the need for a bookie in the middle.

Pool betting is nothing without liquidity, however, and in the past, the Tote – like many other pool systems around the world – has allowed professional punters with huge bankrolls to bet with a guaranteed rebate on their turnover – a cashback, effectively, which allows them to squeeze any value out of the market.

But not any more. No one, at Tote HQ or anywhere else, expects the “Nanny” to replace the bookies as the first port of call for most punters any time soon. Even a point or two on pool-betting’s market share, however, would mean a big extra injection of cash for the sport.

There have been false dawns in the past, moments when it seemed that the Tote might bounce back to relevance in the betting market and give the bookies a run for their money. It didn’t happen then and it may not happen now. But the odds, while hardly stacked in pool-betting’s favour, look better than they have for a very long time.

Goodwood Tuesday preview

Stradivarius came up short in his attempt to win a fourth Gold Cup at Royal Ascot last month and he is a drifter in the betting for Tuesday’s Group One Goodwood Cup, a race he has already won four years running, following heavy rain in Sussex.

John Gosden’s outstanding stayer has now won just one of his last five starts and while he got into traffic problems before finishing seven lengths behind Subjectivist at the Royal meeting, his aura of invincibility two seasons ago is long gone. Whether Trueshan is a valiue to get a first Group One win on the board is a different question, though, as Spanish Mission (3.35) also got caught in traffic in the Gold Cup and still finished nearly two lengths in front of Stradivarius.

Andrew Balding’s five-year-old has progressed steadily since joining the yard after finishing sixth of seven in last year’s Goodwood Cup, and looked like he is almost the finished article at Ascot.

Goodwood 1.50 It’s Good To Laugh outran his 50-1 SP to finish a close second on soft ground at Chester last time. That was over an extended 11 furlongs but another strong second over this track and trip last August reads well in the context of today’s race, and the booking of Oisin Murphy also suggests a big run is expected.

Goodwood 2.25 Berkshire Shadow and Lusail are both Group Two winners already and even under their 3lb penalties, it will require plenty of improvement from a rival to beat them both. Marginal preference is for Richard Hannon’s July Stakes winner as he is already proven at this trip.

Beverley 1.00 Sed Maarib 1.30 Flower Power 2.05 Le Beau Garcon 2.40 Ava Go Joe 3.15 Cuban Dancer 3.50 Langholm 4.25 Dandy’s Angel

Yarmouth 1.10 Hunters Step 1.40 Power Of Beauty 2.15 Summer’s Knight 2.50 Villanelle 3.25 Royal Partnership 4.00 Habanero Star 4.30 Pretty Shiftwell

Goodwood 1.50 It’s Good To Laugh (nap) 2.25 Lusail 3.00 Creative Force (nb) 3.35 Spanish Mission 4.10 King Of Stars 4.45 Scattering 5.20 Urban Violet 5.50 Caroline Dale

Worcester 5.35 Uncle O 6.05 Elios D’Or 6.35 Miss Velveteen 7.05 Coral 7.35 Floral Bouquet 8.05 Ginger Du Val 8.35 Pillar Of Steel

Goodwood 3.00 Charlie Appleby fields the top two in the betting and Creative Force could edge out last year’s winner, Space Blues.

Goodwood 4.10 King Of Stars returned from a break to put up a career-best when just a neck behind an improving three-year-old at the July meeting and will be hard to beat if he turns up in anything like the same form.

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