By Geir Stabell
Twenty-five years ago John R. Gaines in Kentucky came up with an idea: the Breeders' Cup series. Gaines felt that Thoroughbred racing needed a high profile day, which would make it possible for the sport to compete with NFL, NHL and NBA in the media picture. Everyone involved in racing agreed, just as much as they agreed that Thoroughbred breeding and racing needed new innovations, offering opportunities for more international competition with chances of winning bigger purses. Has it worked? Partly, and the Breeders' Cup has most certainly been more a star actor than just another face to the stage.
Last year, the International Federation of Horseracing has been working on another new idea, of a totally different nature. Again, the reason for exploring new products for the sport is that we are badly in need of legs to stand on in the increasingly competitive betting market. While turnover on horseracing, according to figures released by the bookmaking industry, has levelled out, it has increased markedly in other sports. In Europe, football is the sport attracting the biggest betting figures. One big difference between the two sports, as far as betting is concerned, is how international football has become. The Champions League, the UEFA Cup, World Cup Finals, European Cup Finals and their qualifying rounds, and the Copa America, combine for a huge, huge betting market – just in Europe. Add in markets like Hong Kong and Australia and the total figures are truly staggering
With football fans from all over the world logging on to bet on and tuning in to watch these big international matches on a weekly basis, it is almost unbelievable that no betting firm has come up with a weekly "Football Superbet." For instance, a multi-leg wager where you need to predict home win, draw or away win in, say, ten or twelve high profile games. With a global, massive pool, it would become a lottery for the thinking fan. Strange as it may seem, quite a few in this world still prefer to use their brain, their own knowledge, when betting. They do not want to bet on numbers games where the odds are stacked heavily against them. Without products to stimulate them, these brains will soon no longer be potential players, not when it comes to horseracing betting, that's for sure. They will either turn their backs on betting altogether or they will look for other challenges. There is no longer a shortage of alternatives. Poker and bridge, to name but two card games, are tailor made for internet wagering involving thinking players. And these products are considerably cheaper to produce, and run, than horseracing. There is no comparison.
Let's get back to the idea of a superbet. While other sports do not seem to have grasped such an idea, horseracing is, for a change, a couple of lengths ahead. Last year, the International Federation of Horseracing began developing and testing a new bet, called the "Global Trifecta." This wager is very much in its infancy, and it has been a complicated baby to conceive, but it is an excellent idea that ought to be given all the backing it can get. It has already been tested with international pools on a small number of flat races this season, but with a "soft launch approach," according to Totesport's PR manager Damian Walker. If it can be refined, and marketed, in the right way, it has every chance of becoming a big success. Not just as a betting product, but also as a tool to promote the sport of horseracing worldwide.
"Mauritz Burggink, at the IFH in Paris, is the man behind the idea of a superbet," Damian Walker explains, "it is all quite simple. With bigger liquidity in the pool, there will be bigger dividends, and a bet like this can compete with all the lotteries. A lot of work has been done already, and the ultimate aim is to have a Global Superbet every week. We have tested it, but I must stress that the betting on a few races in 2007 has been nothing more than ‘dipping a toe in the water' as there are various complications to overcome. Not least the fact that different countries have different IT-systems, and local laws also affect what we can and cannot do."
Walker explains how punters in big markets like Australia, Hong Hong, USA, South Africa, Singapore and Europe were last year given the opportunity of betting into a global trifecta pool on some Group One events.
"The product cannot be properly tested without real bets, though testing such a product must begin on a relatively small scale," he says, "and that is why we have given this a quiet launch. I am convinced that this will be a big success, and it can change the world of betting on horseracing dramatically. The progress of this project will be high on the agenda when representatives meet in Tucson, Arizona."
The global trifecta – where one has to select the first three home in the exact order – was opened for betting on the Prix de Diane at Chantilly in June, 2007. This is not a high profile race internationally, my guess is that a large proportion of racing fans in Australia, Hong Kong and USA have never heard of the race. Walker agrees, but a guinea pig is a guinea pig, and he has some interesting figures from this race. "The turnover was 60,000 euros," he tells us, "and the dividend was 1,767-1. If the bet had been settled on the UK pool alone, the dividend would have been just 929-1. This shows what a difference a bigger pool can make."
That may be, but the pool was nowhere near what it will, hopefully, be one day, and it was too small to provide the operators any sort of hard conclusions. To the customers, however – the punters – a 60,000-euro pool is big enough to enable them to assess the value of the product. Did this trifecta pay over the odds, under the odds, or just about normal? Well, UK punters probably would not have a clue, as they are absolute beginners when it comes to trifecta betting, most of them not even that. Most gamblers in the USA, on the other hand, would have been able to take a quick glance at the result, the odds for the first three home, the number of runners, and say whether a 1,768-1 return was good or bad value.
The Diane had 14 runners and was won by West Wind, who returned 9-2. She beat Mrs Lindsay (14-1), with Diyakalanie (40-1) third. Almost as a rule of thumb, a North American exacta, on a race like this, will return at least the product of multiplying the tote win odds on the two horses involved. Plus some if the shortest priced horse is second, minus some if the shortest priced horse in the winner. In this case that would be 5.50 (9-2) multiplied by 15 (14-1), which is 82.50. So, with a 40-1 shot finishing third, was 1,767-1 good value? Finding a race to compare this to in the USA is not at all difficult. The Breeders' Cup Mile has a habit of returning trifectas that include both a winner at a fair price and a real longshot, and also excludes the favorite. And it is a race with a pool made up of punters from all kinds of corners of the world. The 2003 edition of the BC Mile produced an almost identical trifecta to the one seen in the 2007 Diane. Six Perfections (5-1) beat Touch of The Blues (12-1) and Century City (39-1). The race had 13 runners. The trifecta returned 2,627-1.
Which is a whopping 48% higher than the global trifecta on the Diane. Although interesting enough, this is not at all a fair comparison, as the trifectas on the Breeders' Cup races nearly always pay well over the odds, simply because the majority of the pool is made up of punters with little or no knowledge of racing. The pool on the Diane was almost certainly made up of punters who knew racing well, and also knew enough about the sport to know that the bet existed. 1,767-1 was therefore a very good return, indicating that it could easily have paid 2,600-1 with a bigger pool. For the record; the trifecta pool on the 2003 BC Mile was $2.3 million. A whole different ballgame, and also where one is aiming to take the global superbet.
"The global superbet does not necessarily have to be a trifecta," Walker continues. "There is a good chance that it will be a carbon copy of the Triple Trio, a highly successful bet in Hong Kong."
The Triple Trio is a multi leg bet where one has to select the first three finishers, in any order, in three consecutive races. At last year's Hong Kong International day, when the bet was made up of two handicaps and the Hong Kong Sprint, the dividend was 301,707-1. No space here to take an analytical look at the combined odds of all the nine horses involved, but it makes sense to mention that the three winners paid 14-1, 5-1 and 3-1. A win treble at these odds would return 359-1. It may be a pure coincidence but it is interesting to note that the Triple Trio returned 840 times the win treble, which is not at all 840 times easier to predict. We can understand why a bet like this is a real alternative to playing the lotteries. On the other hand, offering a global triple trio may have its disadvantages, as one is then asking punters to analyse three races, possibly staged in three different countries. Nobody, nowhere, will be confidently familiar with the form of all the horses. Thus, perhaps a trifecta on one race is a better way to go.
"Another issue we need to address is the cases when the bet is not won, and creates a rollover, or jackpot if you will," Walker comments. "Punters in one country may not be too happy about their money moving on to a different jurisdiction, where they will be at a disadvantage when getting involved."
When betting on horseracing, local knowledge does count for a lot, but these are changing times, and he or she who can find the right angles on and the right understanding of international racing will stand the best chance of collecting on a global superbet. Nevertheless, without the local customers - the two-pound, two-euro or two-dollar punters joining in - the pool will never be massive enough to compete with the lotteries.
Perhaps there is a simple solution to this problem. The weekly races will probably have to be scheduled in advance, but "reserve races" could be assigned the following week in the country where the race or races take place, meaning that, when there is a rollover, the global bet stays in one place until it is won. Of course, this could take weeks, especially if the bet is a triple trio, though perhaps not if it isa one-race trifecta. Has an American style superfecta been discussed at all?
"Yes, it has," Walker replies. "The global trifectas we have had have mainly been like lab testing, and various models will be discussed and analysed before we land on one model. We are testing technical solutions just as much as we are testing the nature of the bet."
I love the idea of a global superbet, but wonder, will it really happen? Will it be a success? This is early days, but, please, make sure that those two words are not too easily swallowed too often within horseracing, in particular when it comes to creating and promoting new products. We have heard them so many times before. Sometimes those ‘early days' become ‘all time.' Horseracing authorities and regulators, in Europe in particular, so often come across as so incredibly conservative and as such a stubborn bunch, that the one word that springs to mind is ‘immature.' Racing still seems to be run from offices that are, if not totally then at least seriously partly, lagging behind the rest of the world.
I would be delighted to be convinced that I am wrong about this, as I also fear that this state of affairs will be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for a new global superbet. Things are simply moving way, way too slowly.
Take the lack of European racing rules, a topic that came to the fore after the 2007 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Of course, this has been discussed before, but nothing seems to happen. Why not make a couple of quick moves, why not just do it? Make those changes. Toss a couple of coins if need be to settle a couple of disagreements between the English and the French, and get on with it.
Bookmakers taking more and more and more bets on football, and fewer and fewer on racing, do not care about the lack of a sensible set of international racing rules. They are busy making money, and giving the gambling market new, lucrative products, which is precisely why the development of a new global bet must be speeded up.
Why? I'll tell you why. Because as soon as this concept becomes more high profile, through proper marketing and media coverage, bookmakers will grab the idea, adapt it to some other sport, maybe even other sports, and create a new product within a matter of weeks. All of a sudden, racing will be behind, again. The International Federation of Horseracing may be a couple of lengths ahead with their development of a global pool bet at the moment. A couple of lengths, however, is not exactly a comfortable and commanding lead on a playing ground which is changing so fast, and is so volatile, as the betting market.
Not when you are involved in the race for the betting dollar, euro, or pound. Unless you are by far the biggest, financially strongest player, it can actually be a disadvantage to lead the way. It is only an advantage if you are smarter, considerably smarter. Let's hope we are.