A report in this morning’s Daily Mail suggests that British racecourses want to ban the use of drones around tracks while racing is taking place, not because of fears for the safety of runners and riders but rather due to concerns that punters on Betfair are using real-time pictures from the drones to get an edge when betting in-running.
What the report fails to mention, however, is an obvious reason why many racecourses would want to stamp this practice out: it is competition for their in-house operations, which sell the same edge for thousands of pounds annually.
There is little doubt that lag-free pictures from above the back straight would give exchange players a significant advantage over anyone using the standard broadcasts from Sky Sports Racing and RacingTV, and offer a chance to see how a race is developing and then back or lay accordingly several seconds before television viewers.
The time delay on “live” racing tends to vary according to day, track and platform but it is rarely less than three seconds and can be as much as 10 seconds if, for instance, you are watching via cable on Virgin Media. That is an eon in the febrile world of in-running betting, in which a long odds-on favourite can turn into a no-hoper in the time it takes to jump a fence. An analysis by Betfair back in 2012 found that “nearly 28,000 horses were matched at 1.01 [the shortest possible price, equivalent to 1-100] in running from 2009 to 2011 inclusive, and 387 were beaten”. In the same time period, there were 108 winners which were matched in-running at the maximum price of 1000 (or 999-1).
These are extreme events, but they offer a hint of the steady money to be made in every race, every day of the week, by anyone with access to truly live pictures and a lightning-fast connection to Betfair.
This is, of course, nothing new. Betfair has been allowing punters to bet in-running for 20 years and the time delay on most punters’ pictures has always been a magnet for sharp operators with the resources and opportunity to exploit it. In the days before 3G and 4G data connections, for instance, it was not unusual to see spectators standing by the last fence at a jumps track with a mobile phone, hoping to relay news of a faller to an accomplice with a fast web connection.
But what is also nothing new is racecourses seeking to exploit the time delay for their own benefit. Many now rent unused hospitality suites to in-running punters along with a live feed of the action and a dedicated, high-speed internet connection, and charge four-figure sums annually for the service.
In November 2003, when Tony McCoy rode the 4,000th of his career at Warwick, the only way that the track could cope with the unprecedented influx of reporters and photographers was to squeeze some of us into the box usually reserved for in-running punters. The punters, understandably, were not best pleased about this having paid a good chunk of money for a discreet working environment. One told me that he alone was paying well over £1,000 annually for access to the box at all the track’s meetings.
In fact, many – probably most – small to medium-sized tracks will now make some dedicated provision for in-running punters, and the annual value of the market in live pictures is significant. So it is little wonder that they see drones feeding live pictures to Betfair backers as amounting to “theft”, in the words of a spokesman for Arena Racing Company (ARC) quoted in the Mail piece.
Some, though, would say that exploiting the time-delay to get an edge on other exchange users who do not have access to super-fast pictures is not a million miles away from theft in itself. Yet this seems acceptable to the tracks, because it makes them money.
Whether it is possible to do anything about the drones is also an interesting question, because most tracks are surrounded by land where flying drones is legal and pursuing the users through the courts for breach of copyright, even if you can track them down, would be expensive and, in all likelihood, futile. Perhaps the sight of a drone flying above the back straight will eventually become as much a part of a day at the races as the white-gloved tic-tacs one were, in an age when mobile phones and the internet were unimaginable.
Newbury offers some excellent action for both in-running and traditional punters this afternoon, when Carlos Du Fruitier (2.50) could be the answer to the feature chase and Le Precieux (2.15) should perhaps be favourite to beat The Russian Doyen in the novice handicap chase. Kodiline (2.25) and Beleaguerment (3.00) both have solid chances at Lingfield while Mauna Kea (2.35) should go well at Plumpton.