Could horse racing survive without betting?

In the current Irish Field, a thought provoking piece interviewing Noel Hayes and Darren McGrath, founders of Sunday, ” a three-tiered process to bring people on a journey to get closer to racing’s core.”

Ronan Groome’s piece begins with a consideration of the gambling industry’s boom, and the relatively smaller part played by racing:

Horse racing and betting. Betting and horse racing. Inextricably linked, many say, many presume.

It used to be that neither could survive without the other, now it looks like one side is less and less reliant on the other. It’s easy to decipher which but if you don’t know off hand, you only have to read the news this week that industry leader Bet365 have enjoyed another eye-watering turnover figure of £2.72 billion in their last annual report.

Worryingly, racing seems to be going the other way. The see-saw is tipping to an uncomfortable height. It’s why everytime the budget comes out, you hear words from HRI like ‘baffling’, this with regard to the strategy of the government with regard to taxing the online arm of the betting industry.

But the betting ties run deeper than just funding. When ITV took over racing coverage from Channel 4, Mark Johnston suggested they should scrap their betting coverage altogether. He was basically laughed at from the majority of the industry, some members of the media referring to him as a dinosaur.

Later in the article we get a sense that within horse racing itself there is an increasing sense of the unhealthy relationship with betting:

t doesn’t surprise at all that the lads report that all of the high profile

trainers and jockeys they’ve approached to sell their idea in exchange for help with content have been hugely helpful and supportive of what they are trying to do.

There seem to be a few more of the so-called dinosaurs around, most notably Davy Russell, who took a similar viewpoint to Mark Johnston when interviewed on sports radio and online video broadcaster Off The Ball in April.

“I have no interest in betting,” Russell said. “I don’t regard it as it having any bearing on anything to do with racing. Only for some reason over the past 10 to 12 years it is all betting.

“I don’t know what it is about horse racing and betting but it takes a little bit away from what is the most outstanding sport for me, personally. The bookies are creating their own advertisement the whole time generated by television and I would much rather they analysed things a little bit better. There’s any other amount of things you can talk about, other than betting.”

Darren McGrath gives an example of how betting deforms coverage and analysis:

Racing has never changed [in terms of media coverage]. To give you an example, I was at Down Royal three Saturdays ago and Bryan Cooper won the first race on Coeur Sublime. For much of the way he was trapped in on the rail, he did a great job to get out, get his horse travelling to the last two flights and go on and win from there. What a great opportunity for an interviewer to ask him about that. Instead what you got was, this horse is 20/1 for the Triumph Hurdle.

Having worked in banking before PaddyPower, BoyleSports and BetBright, Hayes has an insight into the power of the gambling industry:

We are at the start of a revolution. The betting industry got there before regulation and now regulation is starting to catch up – that’s the reality of it. There are certain cases you read in the paper over the last few years and it would make me feel deeply uncomfortable. It’s not healthy.

As an example, thank god we don’t have FOBTs (fixed odds betting terminals) in Ireland. You see in Britain the government decided to reduce the maximum stakes from £50 down to £2 but initially this was going to take 12 months to implement. I guarantee if it was happening the other way, an increase in the stake – £2 to £50, it would happen tomorrow. It took the sports minister to resign in protest before they brought forward the implementation to April, last week.

Sunday seems an interesting project. As someone who would like to know more about horses and horse racing, without necessarily being all that into gambling, I would certainly consider it.

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