Talking Horses: Jockey Club’s Playtech deal feels like a new low | Horse racing

There is a long and inglorious history in racing of individual bodies or businesses opting for short-term gain ahead of the broader interests of the sport. But even so the Jockey Club’s decision to sign a five-year deal with the gaming giant Playtech, which was announced last week, feels like a new low.

The result, according to Playtech’s casino director, James Frendo, will be “a full range of exceptional and exciting cross-product content”. Or the Jockey Club flogging Playtech some racing-themed wrapping paper for software that mechanically grinds a fixed percentage of turnover from its users, depending on your point of view.

And of all the moments to jump into bed with a gaming company, they have done it now, just before a government White Paper with proposals for reform of the gambling laws which could have a profound impact on the sport’s revenue stream from betting.

The ideas that have been floated to reduce gambling-related harm include a blanket ban on advertising, “affordability” checks before customers are allowed to deposit or gamble, which would require punters to hand over extensive banking and financial details to a new regulator, and a monthly cap on gambling “spend” of as little as £100.

Where the policy-makers eventually decide to draw the lines remains to be seen, but it has often been compared to a choice between regulating gambling like alcohol or, much more strictly, like tobacco. Racing can cope with the former but it would on a long, slow slide towards oblivion if the government opts for the latter.

The fundamental differences between betting, where the odds are fluid and punters can win, and gaming, where the fixed margin is unbeatable, were appreciated and understood by legislation until the 2005 Gambling Act blurred the distinction. The big off-course firms – which had built their brands on betting – were delighted, and they spent the next 15 years raking in billions from gaming machines in “betting” shops until the maximum stake was finally cut from £100 to £2 in April 2019.

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But the distinction was blurred in the exploding online sector too, allowing the big-name brands to not only offer slots and casino products to their account holders, but actively cross-promote gaming products to racing and sports punters. This led to what is now a fairly standard business model across the industry.

First, use big racing and sporting events, such as the Jockey Club’s crown jewel at Cheltenham next month, to sign up new accounts. Next, use profiling to weed out anyone who promises to be “uneconomic” – they can tell within three bets, apparently. And then push as many of the remainder as possible towards the gaming side of the business, via “free” spins and so on.

The bookmakers’ stall before racing on day two of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown. Photograph: Seb Daly/Sportsfile/Getty Images

It is grubby and cynical, and also highly effective. It deters punters from betting on racing – what’s the point if they restrict you the instant you have a decent win? – and, perhaps of most concern, pushes potential problem gamblers towards casinos and slots, where the rapid-fire spin rate could be seen as addictive by design.

No one is suggesting that betting, on racing or anything else, is entirely safe for all gamblers, and that needs regulating too. But the problem-gambling rate associated with slots and gaming products is significantly higher. As the Gambling Commission pointed out in 2020, “activities that permit high-frequency participation are more likely to be associated with harm and more readily facilitate problematic behaviour, such as loss-chasing”.

The best outcome for racing from the latest review of the gambling laws would be alcohol-style regulation for betting and a tobacco-style regime for gaming.

That would require, for instance, complete separation between the betting and gaming sides of a firm’s operation, including separate licences and sites as well as a blanket ban on cross-promotion. The penalty for any breach would be suspension or loss of the firm’s gaming licence, which would help to focus the compliance department’s attention on the importance of sticking to the rules. Nor is there any obvious reason why the real-world £2 maximum spin on the slots should not apply online, too.

To reach that point, or somewhere close to it, racing needs to argue for as much regulatory blue water as possible between betting and gaming, and ideally to do so with one voice.

Few events demonstrate the difference between betting and its drab, soulless distant cousin quite like Cheltenham, where everything from the backdrop to the wild uncertainty and intensity of the competition adds to the experience.

And yet the Jockey Club is willing to hawk the Festival’s name and reputation to a gaming company in return for … well, probably rather more than 30 pieces of silver, but a miserable, unworthy sum all the same. That is the same Jockey Club, let’s not forget, which operates under a Royal Charter that requires it to act for “the long-term good of British racing”.

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Charlie Boss, the Jockey Club’s chief commercial officer, said last week that “we did some very serious due diligence into the player safety capabilities [at Playtech] and what they offer there”.

That they were willing to consider a deal in the first place, however, suggests they either get the difference between betting and gaming but do not think it really matters, or they do not understand it all. It is 10-11 each of two on which would be the deeper cause for concern.