'The problem we’ve found is not that people think the Tote is poor value,” Jamie Hart, UK Tote Group’s product director, sê. “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 Sir 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 like 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.
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 hierdie 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 will see Goodwood making 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, intussen, 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.
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, egter, 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. “In the past,” Hart says, “it used to be all tied up with a couple of very big international pros, who would be massively rebated while everyone else was stuck with poor payouts. We’ve got rid of those rebates so they don’t have us over a barrel, and we’re putting the money back into dividends for customers who come directly to us.”
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, egter, would mean a big extra injection of cash for the sport.
“We’d say that it’s something you need to bring back into your portfolio now,” Hart says. “It’s also something we’re trying to make more relevant to punters who get restricted where they are, or are winners.
“If you beat the SP more than about 60 per cent of the time with a bookie, you’re going to get restricted. But winners are better for us than losers, because we’re all about turnover and winners turn over more than losers.
“We genuinely want winners, whereas the bookmakers don’t want winners. So as part of the UK [market], the Tote is there to fill that hole and we’re quite happy to take people who have been restricted.”
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.