INTERVIEWED BY JIM CREMIN (TUESDAY 23RD JANUARY 2018)
SIMON ROWLANDS will hand over chairmanship of the Horserace Bettors’ Forum (ukhbf.org) to Matt Bisogno in March, well satisfied at the progress that has been made in the two and a half years since the pressure group was formed to promote the interests of those who bet on British horseracing. A potentially watershed moment came on January 23 this year when keen racing MP Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative) took up the complaint of a constituent about account closures/restrictions by bookmakers that had been backed by another pressure group, Justice For Punters.
Davies, co-chairman of Westminster’s Parliamentary All Party Betting and Gaming Group, decided to make the issue part of its seminar series, inviting a range of industry players with Rowlands speaking on behalf of punters, Sky Bet’s CEO Richard Flint putting the bookmakers’ position and Racing Post Editor Bruce Millington striking a balance between what threatened to be a proverbial ‘bear-pit’.
This proved far from the case with the discussion instead being impressively sensible and constructive. Lord Lipsey described it as "very encouraging." Rowlands afterwards was pleased that the case for punters was finally being acknowledged, paying tribute to Davies as well as the work by Justice For Punters.
“Philip’s commitment was both obvious and appreciated, it’s good that we’re part of this but it now needed to be broadened out.”
Bisogno was equally upbeat. “Richard Flint was empathetic towards our position, of course ‘talk is talk’, more than rhetoric is needed, yet I’m cautiously optimistic and his firm is progressive. Newer betting operators, in general, seem more receptive, but in our early days we wrote 13 letters to various bookmaking CEOs . . . Simon got replies from less than half of them, and only one at the time was even remotely approachable . . . that has improved somewhat since.”
Rowlands had told the gathering of the importance of a voice for punters and that since the HBF’s inception “the subject most frequently raised with us has been that of the closure and restriction of betting accounts.
“Contrary to some opinion, that has not just been from highrolling gamblers but from small staking ones as well, and not just from winners but sometimes from losers too.”
He added: “At present too many innocents are being caught up in restrictions and closures.” Rowlands, calling for a better environment, said possible solutions included a £500 minimum bet commitment from bookmakers similar to that operating in a number of Australian states. Also a ‘no frills accounts’ without promotions such as best odds guaranteed but with the minimum bet.
“We would also like to see better communication between bookmakers and customers prior to closure or restriction. We believe customers should be told which behaviours may lead to this outcome.”
Flint by contrast stated that 97 per cent of his 1m active horseracing customers had no restrictions on their account, but two per cent were restricted to win £1,000 for major races, and the remaining one per cent limited to win £100. He also said around 25 per cent of Sky Bet’s customers had won over the course of 12 months, but added “We are a business, not a public service, that employs 1,300 people and pay millions in levy, media and sponsorship payment. We need the ability to manage our business liabilities . . . and unprofitable customers . . . however we do not close accounts.”
He agreed with Rowlands on the arbitrary nature of restrictions: “We need to improve how we tell them at the outset that they might have their account restricted, and if they do, why we are doing so. We’d be very happy to work with the Forum on what that communication might look like.”
On minimum bet commitments, he added: “We already lay bets to win £100. I know the charter calls for this to be £500. I’m happy to discuss where in the middle we might meet.” He continued: “Regarding betting rules, we would be delighted to work together to make these easier to find and understand . . . We completely support the principles of fairness and transparency.”
Millington had summed up: “It does not seem fair that anyone who enjoys the challenge of beating the bookie should find their activity curtailed significantly if they behave in such a way that suggests they have the skills to carve out a profit.
“It’s an issue that affects Racing Post readers and it also threatens to harm the general popularity of horseracing, which is something that is in nobody’s interests. I hope a workable solution can be found.”
Both Rowlands and Bisogno afterwards paid tribute to outgoing Gambling Commission CEO Sarah Harrison. “She has done an excellent job,” added Bisogno, “showing the Commission’s teeth and, in conjunction with CMA [Competition and Market Authority] and ICO [Information Commissioner], encouraging bookmakers to be more transparent and, generally, to raise their game.”
Of course not everyone agrees - that day will never happen! Bernard Marantelli, himself a legendary punter and today CEO of Colossus Bets, is promoting more exciting jackpot betting. Yet he described the HBF in a recent tweet as “Self appointed, self interested ‘protectors of racing’ - going to do more harm than good if they succeed. Madness rarely seen even in racing.”
Marantelli’s own earlier advice to punters was ‘take it seriously’: “The most successful punters I have known over the years work the hardest and there are few (legal) shortcuts. Work hard, manage your bankroll well financially and emotionally, and success will come.”
It’s clearly not easy for the HBF to capture or represent the ‘ordinary’ betting shop audience although Rowlands has embraced social media and carried out roadshows at racecourses and racing clubs.
“That’s been a challenge,” agreed Rowlands, “but we’ve made progress and there is increasing recognition that ‘the punter’ is the key customer and credit to Nick Rust [BHA CEO] for encouraging HBF involvement. He’s happy for us to be both independent and to criticise them, indeed calling them out at times, but it’s been part of a mature debate . . . the same as today’s [Westminster] one.
“Bernard [Marantelli] is passionate about jackpot betting and we will be doing our best to support the development of pools, including racing’s new ‘tote’ concept under Nigel Roddis.
“Today was as much about putting the case for our Betting Charter [see full details at end of this piece] and we’re looking forward to assisting the Racing and Betting Liaison Group too - exactly how will be a matter for the BHA, but clearly the fixture list, race planning and pool betting are something that concern ordinary punters everywhere."
Rowlands, 54, started off as a betting shop manager in London for William Hill but said the arrival of the Racing Post in 1986 gave him his chance: “Timeform had lost several key staff to the newspaper and there was a great opportunity there.” He remains a freelance journalist and racing analyst, he has also joined racing's Disciplinary Panel, in itself an impressive compliment.
Rowlands will hand over to Bisogno while remaining keenly involved with the group. Bisogno, 46, has been a punter all his life. A former software development project manager, he runs geegeez.co.uk and has been delighted that the BHA agreed with critics, including HBF, to bring in notification of wind operations. “This against a backdrop of extreme reluctance from trainers, owners and breeders,” he wrote on his website.
Mike O’Kane has been one of the leading bookmaking operators and attended the Westminster gathering. In a subsequent tweet he noted: “Interesting discussion at APPG on account restrictions. Richard Flint of Sky Bet gave good account of himself. However, how big is this issue for recreational customers - NOT AN ISSUE. However operators must communicate their position better.”
O’Kane’s point, following the reverse bookmakers have faced over gaming machines, suggests that lesson, at least, has been learned.
Favourites of Simon Rowlands (SR) and Matt Bisogno (MB):
SR: Kempton (and that’s always been the case, I’m not reacting to the closure threat!)
SR: Steve Cauthen
MB: Ryan Moore
Young Rider to Watch:
SR: Rossa Ryan
MB: Jason Watson
SR: Archie Watson
MB Anthony Honeyball (geegeez sponsor his racing yard!)
Horseracing Bettors Forum: Its Betting Charter
The purpose of the Charter is to identify and acknowledge those practices which promote healthy relationships between bookmakers and customers and which thereby increase interest in betting on the sport of horseracing more generally.
Following initial discussions which also included the BHA and some bookmakers, HBF has published the following points as an initial version of a Betting Charter.
1 Advanced protection of punters’ funds
HBF expects betting companies to have ‘medium’ or ‘high’ ratings for customer fund protection, as defined presently by the UK Gambling Commission. That body already requires that the level of customer fund protection be made known to the customer at the time of deposit and any alterations communicated to them prior to implementation in Terms & Conditions.
2 Dealing appropriately with problem gambling
Details of profit/loss over a chosen period – which is an existing obligation from UKGC under its technical standards – including deposits and bonuses must be easily accessed and operated.
3 Evidence that restrictions/closures have been adopted as a last resort and after adequate communication with those affected
There needs to be clear indication of reasons for possible account restrictions/closures early in the process.
4 Helpful, concise and transparent Terms & Conditions, applied fairly, with improved accessibility and with clarity when there are amendments
More specifically, unhelpful, excessively complex and unclear T&Cs, which are difficult to obtain or where it is difficult to identify which amendments have been made and when, will be viewed unfavourably
5 Transparent account verification procedures which are not excessively onerous to the customer
Methods and procedures used to determine customer ID – including at withdrawal – should be clearly defined and brought to the customer’s attention on opening an account.
6 Evidence of honouring advertised prices
More likely to be evidence that advertised prices are not being reasonably honoured
7 Minimum bet commitments, at least for certain races/at certain times
HBF has liaised with co-operative bookmakers about this matter. The guidelines below would be regarded as a minimum
(i) Lay to lose £500 per selection per race minimum from 8am on day of race: all Listed, Graded and Group races on flat and over jumps, plus class 1, 2 and 3 handicaps
(ii) Lay to lose £500 per selection per race minimum from no later than 1 hour before advertised off: all races not included above
8 Evidence that betting disputes are being resolved satisfactorily and in a timely manner without superfluous referral to third-party arbitration
There should be no evidence of the opposite: namely, that disputes are being unnecessarily drawn out, possibly with the intention that the customer will lose heart
9 Engagement with HBF and BHA when reasonably requested
Both HBF and BHA see a productive relationship as important to the growth of betting on horseracing as a sport to the mutual benefit of all parties
10 Punters should comply with rules and obligations, providing they are fair, reasonable and transparent, such as referred to above
HBF does not condone any behaviour on behalf of punters which is unethical, deceitful or illegal