I placed my first bet with a bookie today.
No, my bookie wasn't wearing a fedora and didn't threaten to break my legs, although I admit, that comes to mind when I say those words. Instead, my bookie was a pleasant middle-aged woman sitting behind a counter at Ladbrokes, one of the largest bookmaking shops in Britain. I stepped into the shop just in time to see the winner of the Gold Cup at Ascot storming home to Fame And Glory in the stretch. Unlike the OTB's I'd been to in the States, no one was shouting, “Come on with this five, now! Come on with this five!!” or slapping a rolled-up racing newspaper into their palm repeatedly. The dozen or so patrons just watched the TV screens with pleasantly blank faces. I had no idea who was winning or who might be taking it on the chin with this five romping to victory.
My bookie was kind enough to give me a free copy of the Racing Post, so I sat down to give the next race at Ascot a look. When I saw the entries, I thought it might be a list of all the possible runners for the event, but no, there were actually thirty horses in the next race. I spent weeks handicapping the Kentucky Derby, and there were only 20 horses in that one! How was I going to pick a winner from a field of 30 three-year-olds in 20 minutes?
I also played a “match bet,” something you can't do in the U.S. I was given a choice of two horses, and to win the bet, my horse simply had to finish in front of the other one. They could finish 29th and 30th – I just needed my horse to be 29th.
The horse I bet to win, Sagramor, went off at 8-1 on the board, and I'll be damned if he didn't step up in the late going to win by half a length. I almost slapped the Racing Post on my leg and shouted, “Come on with this 27 now” or whatever number he was, but I kept my cool and did the polite British thing while I congratulated myself on making my first bookie wager a winning one. As for the match bet, I thought it would be impossible to tell from the TV whether my horse beat the other one, but it wasn't. My horse finished dead last. In a field of 30.
Tim Capps, director of the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program, which is putting on this trip, had given me a heads-up earlier in the day on an Aidan O'Brien runner who was in the next race, so I placed a small wager with Sheila and took a stroll up the street. Twenty-five minutes later, I ducked into a different Ladbrokes to catch the race. How great is this? There's a bookmaking shop every few blocks. It's like betting on the Internet except with exercise involved. I stared at the TV with my best British expression as my horse finished off the board.
Earlier in the day, we visited Parliament and met with Bill Wiggin, a member of the House of Commons. He didn't seem to follow the racing industry closely, so he didn't give us much insight in that regard, but he was a pleasant fellow who told us a few stories about Parliament's Westminster Hall, which was built in 1099. I stood in the very spot where King Charles I accepted his death sentence in 1649 before he was taken a few blocks away to have his head chopped off.
I mention that because the King's son, Charles II, was highly instrumental in creating the modern sport of horse racing. Charles II came to the throne a few years after his father was beheaded, and Charles II replaced the puritanical Oliver Cromwell, who had banned gambling and in some districts, horse racing altogether. Charles II loved racing, and under his rule, he literally transformed it into the Sport of Kings.
While Wiggin, the House of Commons member, didn't voice much opinion on the racing industry, he did give us a packet of information which I found helpful because it explained some of the issues I'd been reading about recently concerning the bookmakers and the Tote. The Tote is the public pari-mutuel entity originally created to drive revenue for Britain's racing industry. At the time, the government had no regulation over bookmakers, and therefore, didn't see a dime of their business. But in 1961, the government passed the Betting Levy Act to take a piece of the bookmaking action, and to this day, every year, a new levy is agreed upon. The levy is crucial for the industry because the handle from bookmakers is far, far higher than the Tote's wagering revenues.
The controversy emerges because the Tote was just sold to a bookmaker. Betfred, Britain's fourth-largest bookmaking operation, will take all of the 517 Tote shops and turn them into Betfred locations. It's quite a coup, and it didn't sit well with many in the racing industry who wanted a racing “consortium” to win the bidding war for the Tote. The bookmakers threatened legal action if the racing industry were awarded the Tote despite not being the highest bidder. If recent history is an indication, the bookmakers might have won that legal battle. A few years ago, when the Tote tried to get the Betting Levy abolished and take “ownership” of all horse racing wagering in the U.K., the European Commission ruled in favor of the bookmakers.
The bottom line is that while the structure is different, British racing still contends with the same issue the U.S. racing industry faces – namely, a lot of hands trying to make sure they get a piece of the pie. With the Tote now in private hands, Britain's racing industry will rely even more on the betting tax until someone comes up with a new plan to “fix” things, a phrase we hear a lot in U.S. racing.
Is the British system better? I don't know. I did enjoy getting my fixed-odds wager, but I also enjoy the “competition” of the pari-mutuel system, where being a contrarian can pay handsomely. For now in Britain, the odds are fixed in favor of the bookies, something U.S. racing jurisdictions took care of a long time ago by abolishing bookmaking. Rich Wilcke, another professor in the Equine Industry Program, posed an interesting question last night. What if the states hadn't taken control of racing and banned bookmaking? What kind of system would we have in place now? One like Britain's? And since our paths did diverge, whose racing industry is better off today?
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