Caballos que hablan: punters right to ask why the Tote is still playing its own game

If you place a bet on the Tote, who do you think you are betting against? For most of its customers, the answer today would probably be much the same as it was when Winston Churchill helped to set up the UK’s pool-betting operation nearly a century ago. The Tote is there for recreational, relatively small-scale punters, and racegoers in particular, who want a fiver each-way for an interest, or a few quid in the Placepot in the hope of a decent return at the end of the afternoon.

And while hardly anyone on a day out at the races is bothered about the mechanics of Tote betting, one key point is generally understood: there’s no bookie. En lugar de, all the cash goes into the pool, the Tote takes a cut off the top and then divides what is left by the number of winning units to get the dividend.

Since May 2020, sin emabargo, there has been a new player in the pools: the Tote itself. Faced with the problem of maintaining liquidity in a post-lockdown world with no racegoers, the Tote came up with a Pool Guarantee Service (PGS) cual, according to its website, “seeds wagers into the pools … in order to provide robust pools into which all customers of the UK Tote can bet. By increasing the size of the overall pools, PGS helps to stabilise pricing within the pools so that the published ‘will-pay’ figures [the on-screen estimated dividends] reflect as closely as possible the final UK Tote dividend that is declared after the result.”

The Tote accepted at the outset that situations might arise in which it would effectively “win” money from its customers, while also saying that its ideal scenario would be “to come out neutral in the long term”. Imagine, por ejemplo, that a once-a-year punter finds an outrageous Tricast because three rank outsiders remind them of their husband, their daughter and the next-door neighbour’s dog. A potentially life-changing payout awaits … unless the PGS managed to find it too and reduce the dividend accordingly.

An important point here is that the successful punter will only see the dividend and the number of winning tickets. Whether one or more actually belonged to the Tote itself is not disclosed, and so that potentially humungous win which turns out to be a little underwhelming might be because someone else was blessed with the same divine inspiration. Or it might be because Nanny’s automated betting system had covered all the bases.

It is only fair at this stage to acknowledge that the homespun notion of a Tote where small-scale, casual punters could bet between themselves is ancient history, and has been for at least 20 años. There are big professional operators using automated programs of their own to squeeze cash from every major pool betting system on the planet. In many cases, the operators actually pay them to play, via rebates, because of the precious liquidity they bring to the pools.

But it is unusual, por decir lo menos, for the pool operator itself to get involved in the same way. And although its precise mechanics are not verifiable, being in a position to see exactly how the big players operate could presumably give give the Tote’s programmers a decent head start on them.

Now few tears will be shed over that, but it still leaves no one the wiser about exactly how much the Tote is making from PGS, what proportion of the money in its pools is “proprietary”, or why PGS is continuing now that crowds are back on track. If the Placepot pool at Cheltenham, por ejemplo, really requires “seeding”, then the game is surely up. For the sake of fairness and transparency, these are all questions that deserve an answer.

One claim – in a document seen by the Guardiansuggests the Tote could have made at least £3m from proprietary trading since PGS made its debut, and that as much as 40% of many day-to-day Placepot pools is actually comprised of the Tote’s own money.

The claim is hard to verify and, when contacted on Monday, the Tote declined to comment on these figures on the record. It insists, sin emabargo, as it did when PGS launched, that its aim is to make pools more stable, transparent, fair and better for all customers.

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