HBF, Me, and YOU…

As many readers will know, I am part of a body called the Horseracing Bettors Forum (ukhbf.org). This group was established in 2015 with support from the British Horseracing Authority and with the objective of making betting on horseracing a more attractive proposition.

As of this week, Simon Rowlands, hitherto chair of HBF, has stepped down and I have taken on this demanding role. Simon has made an impressive fist of the task, shaping a non-entity at its inception into a powerful voice in the industry as he now steps back. His will be a tough act to follow. A very tough act. Here’s why I have agreed to do it…

In the formative years of HBF, our first goal was to establish a position: to demonstrate ours was a voice worth listening to. We had to engender that credibility while attempting to represent an enormous polymorphous stakeholder group to which racing’s top table had historically turned its deaf ear.

And, thanks to a confluence of favourable external factors, and a receptive new CEO at the BHA, the Horseracing Bettors Forum has come quite some way.

Since inception, we have surveyed punters on data improvements, account restrictions and their impact on the appetite to bet on racing; we’ve been a driver for the publication of wind surgery on racecards and more accurate racecourse measurements; we’ve lobbied for the — now implemented — tighter control of non-runners; we pushed for, and have achieved, 48 hour declarations for all Cheltenham Festival races; we have contributed to a number of BHA consultations, including the most recent one on stewarding; and, as recently as January this year, Simon spoke on behalf of British racing bettors at an All-Party Betting and Gaming Group seminar in the House of Lords. His outline of the challenges punters faced with account restrictions was widely supported by members of both the Lords and the Commons, and across both main parties, who were in attendance.

So we’ve come a heck of a long way in a short space of time.

Naturally, in coming a long way from nowhere, when we began, we still have a long way to go.

We, as spokespersons for you, want to see more, and better, data provision in the sport, to enhance confidence in making — and taking — bets on British racing. This includes, amongst many others, more accurate and consistent work on raceday going descriptions; widespread publication of differences to advertised race distances; an extension of the provision and media availability of sectional timing, both in historical form and in real-time during races; and, potentially, data such as the publication of horse weights, mares in foal, and any veterinary reasons for extended layoffs. It also includes work to educate the betting public on why these data are important and how they can be utilised.

We want to see a more concerted effort by bookmakers to play fair with punters, through clearer terms and conditions; advanced funds protection; better communications with customers, particularly around the spectrum ends of problem gambling and potential account closure/restriction behaviour; improved internal resolution of bet disputes; and, a commitment to a minimum bet liability.

Furthermore, we have expressed, and retain, reservations about the starting price aggregation process, and some potential integrity issues therein.

Members of HBF have some wide-ranging, though not necessarily aligned, views on the approach to the handicapping process (on which point we look forward to further published details on the recently completed handicapping review).

For my part, I’ve been an active member of the Forum since day one. In the early days I had concerns that we might end up being little more than a ‘talking shop’; but those doubts have long since dissipated, to be replaced by a genuine belief in the power of our group to support the development of a better, more confident, product and a resultant increase in betting turnover, and also in our ability to reach out and work with wider regulators as representatives of betting’s consumers.

HBF’s standing inside racing has grown as a result of robust but always fair-minded challenge. As a lobby group, it is our job to request things which other stakeholder parties don’t necessarily want to concede. We must then engage in debate about what is possible and fair to all parties. Self-evidently, that has involved — and will continue to involve — compromise in some instances.

2018 will be a year when external regulators — Gambling Commission (UKGC), Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and the Information Commissioners’ Office (ICO) — will enforce guidelines and rules which have gone unenforced for much of a decade. Further, they will introduce additional criteria to protect consumers, i.e. punters (i.e. you and me), and their/our rights. Part of the driver for this has been work by HBF and other key consumer lobby groups, notably Justice 4 Punters.

In that context of a strong regulatory tailwind and a fair-minded seat at the negotiating table, I hope to help drive forward the work of the Horseracing Bettors’ Forum. I will, of course, be supported by an eminently capable group of Forum members, including the outgoing chair. That continuity is essential for our momentum.

It should also be said that we recognise we are imperfect. While I don’t accept we only represent the interests of professional bettors, as some who should know better have suggested, we do have diversity issues. The recent resignation of Tanya Stephenson leaves us as an exclusively male, white, middle-aged collective and we are all keen to broaden our demographic. With space for another one, perhaps two, Forum members we are currently considering how best to address this area.

It has also been said that our drive for minimum bet commitments represents the interests of that small percentage of restricted customers (estimated at circa 3% recently) at the expense of the majority. The argument goes that the introduction of such a commitment would mean the end of Best Odds Guaranteed and other punter-friendly concessions which help so-called ‘recreational punters’ lose less money more slowly.

I don’t agree with that. I don’t believe the provision of BOG etc and a MBL (minimum bet liability) are mutually exclusive. I feel that bookmakers should be encouraged to innovate their product set, perhaps through such as separate win and place markets when offering MBL, and so forth. I believe that bookmakers would benefit from stronger, more confident betting markets and greater, perhaps significantly greater, turnover as a result of MBL.

Offering a book on a race is about liability management. Dangling a 6/1 carrot that is only available for pennies to many in order to sustain the bold type on an odds comparison site should no longer be acceptable behaviour. If the price is there, it should be laid, for a few more quid to a few more people. Nobody is suggesting that this should be a commercial disaster to bookmakers. Far from it — after all, that is clearly not in anybody’s interests.

Rather, the suggestion is that bookmakers winning a slightly smaller overall percentage of a larger ‘handle’ of betting turnover ought to be a win/win/win for punters, bookmakers, and the funding of the sport.

One final thing I’d like to say is that, as a voluntary body, it will hopefully be apparent from the above that we have our hands full. We will be asked to do more in 2018 (and beyond) than we can feasibly accommodate. As a consequence, we may have to ‘choose our battles’ from time to time. Where that is the case, I will endeavour to make it clear on behalf of HBF. We have many irons in fires, we have many ongoing conversations both within racing and externally, and we want to engage in more discussion still with those yet to take our calls.

Please be patient with us, and please don’t be too hasty in your judgement either: where just a few short years ago there was nothing, there is now a clear route for British racing punters to have their concerns and hopes heard and acted upon. That’s a huge step forward.

And, of course, if you have any suggestions on how we can improve, we are always keen to hear them. HBF’s contact details are here.

I am looking forward to the challenge of continuing the Forum’s fine work under what has been excellent leadership from Simon; and if I can do half the job he has, British punters — and indeed all who have an interest in the success of British racing — will have taken further steps towards a fairer, better industry.

Matt