The current outbreak of foot and mouth disease has cast a grim pall over horse racing (as well as a few other sports) in Great Britain, but while land-based betting offices have been hit hard by the frequent cancellation or rescheduling of major racing meets, Internet bookmakers seem to be coping well with the problem.
Horseracing typically represent as much as 70 percent or more of turnover for betting shops, while online sportsbooks have less vested in the sport. Further, Internet operators aren't as dependent on local races.
Ladbrokes, for example, has added horseracing from other nations to its online menu. "We are now taking bets on racing from France, South Africa, Italy and Dubai to make up for this (the postponing of the Cheltenham Festival)," spokesman Andy Clifton said, "and the racing from Dubai in particular has proved very popular, as there are a lot of familiar horses and jockeys racing over there."
British Betting Offices Association Chairman Warwick Bartlett concurred. "Foreign racing, particularly from Dubai, has been good because of the English horses and jockeys racing there, but the Italian hasn't gone down very well," he said. "One horse finished third and the judge made it the
winner. U.K. punters are not stupid enough to stand for this!"
Seventy-four percent of Blue Square's customers bet on football, according to spokesman Ed Pownall. While the delay of the popular Cheltenham meet cost the company about £2 million in turnover, Pownall said its loss was balanced by the increased earnings resulting from its recent decision to offer tax-free betting.
"We had a record increase in turnover last Saturday," Pownall said. "It was our best ever." In addition, the site had increased betting on football, likely related to the decline in horseracing.
"The impact on sportsbook turnover online has been very small, as people are tending to bet more on other sports, especially soccer," explained Clifton. "The last two weeks have seen the very strong start to the year continuing with high turnover levels and good margins being maintained."
Should foot and mouth disease lead to the delay or cancellation of the Grand National race scheduled for April 7, the crisis might have greater effect on some Internet bookmakers. Considered the biggest betting event in Britain, the Grand National would be sorely missed. Its cancellation could, for example, cost Blue Square substantially in lost advertising expenditures alone. The group spent huge amounts of money for Grand National advertising to attract "a completely new audience," Pownall explained. It's the one event guaranteed to attract punters in droves, especially those who never bet on any other event the rest of the year.
Pownall remained optimistic that the event would continue as scheduled because it will take place in an area not yet ravaged by the disease.
Sportingbet.com has felt very little effect from the crisis, since British horseracing and British punters make up a very small portion of its customer base, according to Finance Director Nigel Payne. "One advantage for Sportingbet is the breadth of our operations. We have customers in 104 countries and take bets on 22 different sports," he said. "Only 2 percent of our business is U.K. horseracing; you're only talking about three-quarter million pounds being affected by the crisis," he added.
While the crisis is affecting betting, its impact seems to be less than expected--something that may have far-reaching consequences. As Clifton pointed out, "I think it is just demonstrating that whilst U.K. racing is very important to us and over the course of the year accounts for a good chunk of our turnover (about 35 to 40 percent), we could survive and prosper without it."
He concluded, "I'm sure that the British Horseracing Board is taking note of this as negotiations about how much we pay to cover U.K. racing continue this year."