Robin Oakley

The new Tote is a ray of hope for British racing

Now the challenge is to get people to believe it

The new Tote is a ray of hope for British racing
Cause for celebration: Rachael Blackmore, on Minella Times, wins the 2021 Grand National. The Tote offered better than the bookmakers’ starting price on 37 of 40 runners in the race. [Photo by Tim Goode-Pool/Getty Images]
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There is nothing like visiting a stud early in the foaling season. As amiable mums-to-be saunter up to the paddock rails, it both rekindles the basic passion — admiration for the magnificent animals that give us such pleasure contesting their prowess — and recharges the optimism sometimes sapped by racing’s structural problems. In Friday’s winter sunshine, at Alex and Olivia Frost’s Ladyswood Stud near Malmesbury, the Dubawi mare Empress Consort, once trained by Andre Fabré and now in foal to the mighty Frankel, nibbled my notebook while Malaya, formerly a classy hurdler with Paul Nicholls, arched her neck and nuzzled up to help Alex reach her favourite scratching spot. In Tom’s Field was Spring Fling, whom they hope will produce a speedy youngster from her mating with Starspangledbanner. Amid 14 mares there were two young fillies bought to race with Henry Candy, one by the increasingly popular Wootton Bassett, another by Night of Thunder.

Alex and Olivia have jumpers, too, with Oliver Sherwood and the promising Naughtinesse in Ireland with Lorna Fowler. A breeder only since 2017, Alex’s first significant success has been with Grand Bazaar, a 210,000 guineas sale who has won three races for John Gosden. His importance to racing, though, lies in a different sphere. A managing director of Merrill Lynch at the age of only 29, he retired from the City at 40. As he muttered about the poor prize money that bedevils British racing, with more and more owners diverting horses to jurisdictions such as France and Hong Kong, which enjoy rich Tote monopoly funding, Olivia declared: ‘You can either drive me mad by moaning on for 20 years or do something about it.’ He drew up a business plan for the Tote and showed it to Simon Larkin, ‘the best analyst in the City’, who resigned from his job and joined him. In 2019 the Alizeti Group they formed bought what has become the UK Tote Group, funded by 160 owners, breeders and others ‘whose essential DNA’, says Alex, ‘is a passion for improving racing’s finances’.

Racing is so plagued by conflicting groups who sit on their own hands while insisting that ‘somebody should do something’ that it has since failed to notice how the new Tote, with Frost as chief executive, has become both a much better deal for Britain’s punters and a ray of hope for racing’s finances, based on linking with Totes across the world, notably in the big-gambling Far East where people have been betting heavily on major British races without any of their stake money being channelled into our racing structures.

Bookies have it made. They give themselves a so-called ‘overround’ in framing the odds, so guaranteeing a profit whichever horse wins the race. Ninety-three years ago Winston Churchill set up the Tote pool to give punters an alternative and to channel some betting money back into financing racing, but it had been in decline for years with only a low single-figure share of the betting market dominated by big bookmakers. Kickbacks given to large operators ensured that Tote odds could be ruined by a couple of big-figure bets.

Now the picture has changed. The Tote has become genuinely competitive. Its overround is always lower than the bookies’ and sometimes negative. In last year’s Grand National, the Tote offered better than the bookmakers’ starting price on 37 of 40 runners. Derby winner Adayar’s SP was 16-1 while the Tote paid £20.24. Crucially, since November, the Tote has offered a guarantee: back a horse on course or online with the Tote and the price will be as good or better than the bookies’ SP. So by betting with an organisation that gives more back to racing than the bookies, you too are guaranteed a better deal: what’s not to like? The Tote doesn’t close winning accounts or put a limit on bets. Says Alex: ‘To us winners are genuinely welcome. They are much better customers than losers. It’s a question of sustainability… Having customers who lose badly is profitable for bookmakers. That doesn’t feel like a long-term business model.’ The Tote, too, lets digital customers watch streamed races even without betting on them and is building its popular ‘exotics’ such as the Jackpot and Placepot.

UK Tote Group is pledged to give racing at least £50 million over seven years as well as paying the Levy. The key to providing more, says Alex, is World Pool betting, linking the UK Tote with big pools overseas in Hong Kong and elsewhere. In 2018 the win pool for the King George at Ascot was £68,000. Last year, with World Pool involvement, it was £677,000. Big liquidity in robust pools builds betting volumes and World Pool days generate between £600,000 and £800,000 to racecourses. Nick Smith, Ascot’s director of racing and public affairs, calls it ‘the most significant change in the landscape for decades’. For once racing has a good news story, but so negative has the mindset become that it’s a struggle to get people taking notice. As Alex Frost says: ‘Our challenge is to persuade people that the Tote is as competitive as it is.’