Talking Horses: starting price change could be 'worst of both worlds'

The Horseracing Bettors Forum (HBF) warned on Tuesday that off-course punters could “end up with the worst of both worlds” after the Starting Price Regulatory Committee finally confirmed it will largely abandon the 150-year-old system of reporting SPs from racecourse betting rings when crowds – and bookmakers – return to tracks later this year.

Bets at starting price have been settled using an “industry” SP, compiled from data supplied by major off-course betting firms, since racing went behind closed doors in June 2020. The Guardian revealed in February that the Press Association, which employs a team of starting price validators (SPVs) to collate betting information and compile SPs, was in the process of making several SPVs who had previously worked on-course redundant, suggesting that, despite denials by the SPRC, a decision had been taken to maintain the system of industry SPs after bookies returned to racecourse betting rings.

Those suspicions were confirmed on Tuesday when the SPRC said in a statement that in future, about 90% of data used to form the SPs will be from off-course sources and just “10%-12.5%” will be from an “on-course sample” of prices.

“The SPRC has considered this change long and hard,” Lord Donoughue, the SPRC’s chair, said on Tuesday. “We are now confident that the modernised SP system better reflects the market as a whole. Punters can continue to have total confidence in the SP.”

The SPRC’s statement acknowledged “concerns that the off-course based system would increase bookmakers’ margins at the expense of punters”, but added that its analysis showed that “far from increasing under the new [industry] system, overround per race [the bookies’ overall margin] has been lower in every month of the six months examined by the SPRC”.

The HBF, however, immediately cast doubt on that claim, pointing out that its own analysis showed that while the overall margin was unchanged or lower under industry SPs, this had been the result of bigger odds about rank outsiders balancing out shorter SPs for fancied runners.

Comparing data from September 2020 to January 2021 with SPs compiled from racecourse rings between January 2017 and March 2020, the HBF found: “The industry SP is better for the bettor if they are betting at longer than 14-1, especially if they are betting in the 40-1 and longer area.”

However, “between about 4-1 to 15-2, the industry [SP] is markedly worse or the bettor”, while “for prices shorter than about 5-4, the industry [SP] is slightly worse for the bettor”.

As the HBA analysis notes, 4-1 to 15-2 is the range at which “many bettors bet each-way” and will therefore be worse off on both the win and place parts of their bet.

“HBF analyses show that SP bettors are now worse off using the industry SP when betting shorter-priced horses, compared to when SPs were derived solely from on-course bookmakers,” Colin Hord, the HBF’s chair, said on Tuesday.

“HBF will discuss with the SPRC how the on-course and off-course prices will be merged to ensure bettors do not end up with the worst of both worlds.”

Many on-course bookmakers had anticipated Tuesday’s announcement, which threatens to further undermine the significance of the on-course market. For some, though, it could also be a chance to break with the past and advertise the competitiveness of racecourse rings, in the hope of enticing more punters back to the track in search of better odds.

“It’s a real shame but it’s been coming for ages,” Ben Johnson, who stands at 14 tracks around the country, said on Tuesday, “and as long as we handle it right, I think it’s an opportunity for us.

“We need to say to people: ‘Forget that 6-4 you’re getting online, and that you can only have £250 quid on [because of off-course bookies’ stake restrictions]. Come to the racecourse and get 13-8 or 7-4, maybe even 15-8 depending on the race, and if you want £15,000 to £8,000, you’ll get it.’

“People want a fair bet at a fair price. That’s what they’re going to get on a racecourse going forward and it’s not what you’re going to get online. Sure, we might be 66-1 about something that’s 100-1 with Paddy Power or Bet365, but we’ll be 7-4 about that 13-8 shot, we’ll be 9-4 that 2-1 shot and 7-2 that 3-1 shot.

“That’s where the money goes, and that’s where the punter is going to lose out [with industry SPs], on those horses at the front of the market.”

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