The turf

While some bookies behave admirably, the BetBright debacle is a disgrace

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

Encountering a generous-hearted bookmaker is normally as rare an occurrence as finding a picture of the Duchess of Sussex without her hand on the Markle pregnancy bump. All credit, then, to Coral and Betfair and one or two others for their behaviour last Saturday. After a thrillingly close finish to the EBF Matchbook VIP Novices’ handicap hurdle at Sandown Park, the topweight One For Rosie, ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies, was declared the winner over the public-address system.

Since I had backed him at 12–1, a certain amount of undignified jumping up and down ensued over which my racing companion was remarkably forbearing. But as I went to buy him a celebratory tea — I’m all give after a winner — there came a further announcement over the public-address system: the wrong result had been given and it was Third Wind, ridden by Tom O’Brien, who had prevailed in the photo finish. I would not, after all, have a comforting chunk of readies with which to go into battle in Cheltenham Festival week.

It was later explained that the technical boys of RaceTech had got it wrong. Two photo-finish cameras were supposed to have been focused on the same winning line but instead they had been focused on two different winning lines (there are separate lines at Sandown for the chase and hurdles courses) and the judge had been handed the wrong image. The correction was announced before the official ‘weighed in’ signal. No bookmaker is compelled to hand over cash for winning tickets before this signal, but a number of bookmakers had already paid out happy punters on the non-winner. Indeed I was introduced to a saintly lady who had already collected and who asked me, as a regular racegoer, if I thought she should go and pay the money back. Thinking of the number of times bookmakers have shortened the odds on my selection just after the previous punter has been accommodated, I counselled her firmly against doing so but I later learned that she had in fact gone back to offer to return her winnings. The layer was so astounded by her honesty that he took only half the money back.

When I opened the next morning’s Racing Post, I had a delightful surprise myself: I had backed One For Rosie with both SkyBet and Betfair and the two firms had, as a goodwill gesture, treated both One For Rosie and Third Wind as winners and paid out on both.

Credit where credit is due. But this behaviour was in sharp contrast to another story from the gambling world last week. The bookmakers BetBright, whose executive chairman was the aptly named former investment banker Rich Ricci, announced that it was shutting up shop having sold its technical arm to the online betting company 888. Just before the Cheltenham Festival, for which many of us strike more ante-post bets than we do in the rest of the year, BetBright announced that as well as giving customers just 30 days to withdraw their balances, all unsettled ante-post bets with the company would be voided, with the stakes for the bets refunded.

Predictably there was an outcry as loud as the checks on Rich Ricci’s tweed suits: a bet is a bet and this was one bookmaking business passing into the hands of another. The whole point of an ante-post bet is to get ahead of the game. If, as the result of your foresight and judgment, you are sitting on a 20–1 ante-post voucher for a horse whose price has dropped by race day to 8–1 or 6–1, you feel you have already achieved a victory, indeed you can trade off your bet to ensure a profit whether or not it then wins the race.

BetBright’s action led to complaints to the Gambling Commission, and amid the adverse publicity 888 announced that it would honour BetBright’s existing Cheltenham Festival positions as another of those ‘gestures of goodwill’. Mr Ricci, whose wonderful horses, trained by Willie Mullins, had already before this week achieved an astonishing 15 Festival victories and given race-goers untold pleasure, will not I suspect have found much personal goodwill among the Cheltenham crowds this week after insisting that ‘what we did was the fair and equitable thing by all our customers… we acted in the interest of trying to have a solution that’s equal for everyone’.

There may or may not be large sums involved but how can it be right for a betting firm that has not gone bust not to honour its obligations? BetBright should not have reneged on its ante-post bets. Before pocketing £15 million from 888, it should have insisted that, as part of the deal, 888 would honour them. I am not sure I like the sound of Labour deputy leader Tom Watson’s plans for the stricter regulation of gambling should Jeremy Corbyn’s party come to power but when gambling companies behave like BetBright has it is no wonder that they will be looking for curbs.

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