Dating back to 1780, the Epsom Derby is the one of the oldest continuous events on the sporting calendar. The latest running is Saturday. The Aidan O’Brien-trained Saxon Warrior will start as favourite. If Saxon Warrior wins, it will give O’Brien a record-equalling seventh Derby.
Last year, O’Brien trained Wings Of Eagles to a shock win at 40-1. Punters were deflated; bookies delighted.
On May 31, 1838, the London Times contained a report on the previous day’s Derby.
The now 150-year-old report recounted another shock winner of the race: Amato striding to victory at racecourse odds of 40/1.
The 1838 Derby was a historic one as it was the first to be raced on a Wednesday, a tradition that continued until 1995. It was held on a Wednesday because that suited the timetables of the innovative transport technology of the era — the railways.
Trains from the newly-opened Nine Elms station in Battersea ferried thousands towards Epsom on the emerging London to Southampton line.
Railways would later play a huge part in the success of the nationwide leagues and cups organised by the Football Association from the 1860s onwards.
In fact, railway workers were among the most enthusiastic founders of football clubs in England. Manchester United, for example, traces its origins to 1878 when it was established by the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath.
The passengers on the first Epsom trains in 1838 were not amused by Amato’s win.
Somewhat suspiciously and like the great prize fighters of the era, on winning the title, the horse was promptly retired, undefeated.
The Times’ newspaper correspondent reserved his ire for the on-course gamblers and bookies noting acerbically: “The judgment of betting men has little to do with any knowledge of the powers of a horse [it is] a knowledge collected by bribery and peculation, and communicated in treachery and falsehood; the regular betting men concoct upon this intelligence an organized system of calculated events; they make up their ‘books’ with the certainty of a remunerating profit [from those] sufficiently silly to become their dupes and milch cows.”
As a modern industry, horse racing remains an adjunct of the gambling trade.
Having spoken at a recent Asia racing conference held in Seoul on the future of the racing industry, there was, unsurprisingly, a recognition by leading figures in the industry that this close commercial link will never be sundered, as racing is simply not commercially viable without gambling.
Nevertheless, even in countries where the sport is traditionally strong, the age profile of those going racing is rising and TV viewing figures are falling.
Moreover, those younger punters still interested in the sport are moving away (as is their money) from betting on horses to other sports and they are doing so online and not off- or on-course.
Recent figures from the UK Gambling Commission show that so-called ‘remote’ gambling (mainly online on smartphones) is now the largest sector accounting for almost a third of gambling in the UK. In the remote gambling sector, football betting accounted for 31.2% of the total; horse racing was a distant second, generating 19.6%.
In light of these statistics, what was interesting about this month’s Asia racing conference is how the horse racing industry is planning to ‘rebrand’ itself as a global sport.
The sporting calendar is not as sparse as it was in 1838. The Derby has slipped from the consciousness of even the most ardent of sports fans. The industry must now make the most of week-long or weekend festivals or carnivals of racing.
Indeed, the moving in 1995 of the Epsom Derby from Wednesday to a late Saturday afternoon slot was a recognition of racing’s battle for viewers and relevance.
More recently, four leading racing festivals worldwide — Flemington in Australia, Ascot, Goodwood, and the Breeders’ Cup (USA) — have launched a global online platform called World Horse Racing to promote the sport. The long-term idea is, like tennis and Formula One, to establish a global circuit or a series of grand slam events for racing.
In Asia, the key player in the horse racing and gambling industry is the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). HJKC is probably the most remarkable sporting organisation you have never heard of. Its last annual financial report (from 2016/2017) highlighted that its customers used it to bet HK$216.5bn or €24bn.
The HJKC has identified that in order to grow, it must appeal to a younger audience including families and provide them with an excuse to go racing — by way of entertainment and first-class facilities — beyond simply an opportunity to gamble.
The HJKC has also recognised that the integrity of the sport is vital and that it has three, inter-linked aspects: — race rigging and money laundering; doping and animal welfare; and a correlation between poor regulation and problem gambling.
On the first point, if those who attend are of the view that races are fixed or only those with inside information have any reasonable chance of making money, they will not return to the sport.
As a result, the HJKC probably has the most sophisticated betting data analysis systems in the world.
In some ways it has to because in many countries adjacent to it, betting is either illegal or unregulated and used to launder money by international criminal syndicates.
In Singapore alone, for example, illegal betting turnover is estimated at US$6.5bn (€5.5bn) annually. Worldwide €100bn is laundered by illegal gamblers on fixed sports events every year.
The second element to integrity is where a horse is doped to win or lose. Racing globally is trying to appeal to an increasingly urbanised middle class. It is exactly people in this category who are most sensitive to animal welfare concerns.
Recently in Australia, the authorities uncovered a conspiracy whereby cobalt ‘top-ups’ were being given pre-race to horses.
Casual viewers of the sport in Australia have associated the administration of such drugs to horses not just with betting scams but with the mistreatment of the animals.
Finally, where gambling is not properly regulated, there is an associated increase in the rates of problem gambling. Put simply, those addicted to gambling will often seek out the unregulated, extremes in order to place bets by way of phone, credit cards, or online.
In addition, the loss of revenue associated with unregulated betting markets means that taxes ordinarily raised on gambling cannot be directed to preventative or treatment initiatives.
Here in Australia — the country that loses the most per head annually on gambling (Ireland is third) — about 10% of those who bet with regulated bettors have been found to have gambling-related social problems. That figure rises to 26% in the illegal betting market.
In Ireland, the Horseracing Regulatory Board is well aware of the importance of
integrity in protecting the sport’s brand and the welfare of animals but there is a weakness in the system.
In Ireland, our gambling laws are outdated. They are based on legislation drafted in the 1930s and on principles that would be familiar to those punters who took the train to Epsom a century and a half ago.
Until the Gambling Control Bill is enacted in full by the current Oireachtas, it’s not just Irish sport that has a problem with dated regulation; it’s Irish society that has a gambling problem.
Jack Anderson is Professor of Law, University of Melbourne and Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Limerick.
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