Horseracing Bettors Forum: Chair’s Annual Statement, September 2016

The Horseracing Bettors Forum recently had its first anniversary, which included a “meet-the-public” event at Doncaster Racecourse and a number of media appearances, all of which sought to explain what HBF is and what it hopes to achieve.

A link to a leaflet which aims to do the same – produced with the help of the British Horseracing Authority – can be found in the “Notes and News” section of this site. Now seems a good time to take stock with a look back on the first 12 months.

Many issues have come up in the first year, and better progress has been made in some areas than in others. There have also been more than a few misunderstandings along the way about what HBF is and what it can reasonably be expected to achieve.

As an officially-sanctioned body seeking to represent those who bet on horseracing, HBF is a first in British – and arguably in world – racing, and some of the finer details of its aims, influence and terms of reference have inevitably evolved along the way.

The HBF was set up in the first place with the assistance of the BHA but it acts independently of that body and sees the holding of the BHA to account as one of its objectives.

The initial HBF consisted of nine members – all of them voluntary and unpaid – who were asked to understand the hopes and concerns of bettors, and to represent those hopes and concerns independently in discussions within the HBF and between the HBF and other bodies. Members are required to state if they have a conflict of interest at any stage.

The original members were chosen jointly by me, as Chair, and the BHA. My emphasis was on ensuring that the initial HBF had people with useful skills and a good knowledge of the betting landscape the Forum was seeking to influence, and I believe this was achieved.

Members of the HBF have expertise in statistics, data analysis, legal matters, the media, project management, running websites, local politics, the running of The Tote and much more besides. Several of them also have significant past experience in dealing with the betting industry.

All of them are punters, and all of them have demonstrated their desire to treat the interests of the British horseracing betting public as paramount.

There was never any obligation – and nor should there have been – that the HBF would perfectly reflect the betting public, just that it would represent that public, which I believe it has done well in sometimes trying circumstances.

That has been against a backdrop of HBF having no statutory powers and so being unable to force change. What HBF can do, however, is heighten awareness of issues, seek to influence debates and policies which concern punters, contribute meaningful evidence to discussions, and lobby those bodies which do have the power to affect change.

Over the first 12 months, HBF has corresponded extensively with (and sometimes met directly with) the likes of: the Starting Price Regulatory Commission; the Gambling Commission; significant individuals within the BHA; the Racecourse Association; the Independent Betting Adjudication Service; Members of Parliament; and executives of leading bookmakers.

Some of those individuals and bodies have been more helpful than others.

For instance, the SPRC has failed bluntly to answer HBF’s public criticisms of their report into the starting-price procedure or to give details of how SPRC members gain their positions. This lack of response, and apparent lack of accountability, is a matter of concern, especially as HBF foresees a conflict of interest for individuals involved in both the SPRC and the Press Association when the latter begins collating starting prices from ARC courses in 2017.

The HBF identified at an early stage that its views about betting and the importance of punters were similar to those expressed publicly by Alex Salmond, MP, and so wrote several times to him (including about specifically Scottish betting matters) but, disappointingly, at the time of writing has received no response to any of its approaches.

Further, HBF wrote to the Chief Executives of a dozen major bookmaking firms – setting out its concerns about account restrictions and closures in particular, suggesting constructive steps that could be taken and seeking further discussions – but was roundly ignored by some, including the non-ABPs Betfred, Paddy Power, Stan James and Boylesports.

Other leading bookmakers did respond, though not all of them positively, and the HBF is currently in discussion with some of them about this and other matters.

The HBF has had a fruitful relationship with the BHA, despite some differences in opinions, and with the likes of Arena Racing and various media outlets. A senior representative of the BHA will be present at future HBF meetings to ensure proper understanding and dialogue on both sides.

The HBF hopes to build on initial encouraging contact with the Gambling Commission, which has indicated that it would be interested in discussing a range of matters with representatives of the betting public.

In order to fulfil its role, the HBF must do its best to understand the wishes of the British horseracing betting public. To this end, it has established its own website, its own Twitter presence, and a contact email address. HBF has engaged in discussions on social media, responded to scores of emails, and surveyed the public about matters like account restrictions/closures and the need for better data provision.

The knowledge it gains from this interaction informs the recommendations the HBF in turn makes to the likes of the BHA and the messages it puts out through the media.

Positions will become available on the HBF in future, starting in September 2017, and the Forum would like to hear from individuals who are interested in contributing in the context outlined above. There is no reward – and sometimes some hassle! – other than that derived from attempting to improve the lot of the betting public and of the sport of horseracing itself. That is motivation enough for some, gladly.

Unfortunately, one of the initial Forum members – Jason Brautigam – recently felt obliged to step aside due to other demands on his time. The HBF thanks Jason for his effort and insight in its formative months, and it hopes to call on Jason’s considerable expertise selectively in the future.

The HBF has also decided to discontinue having dedicated special advisers in favour of the above arrangements, and would like to thank Tony Calvin, Rory Jiwani and Neil Channing for their significant input over the last year or so. Again, we hope to tap into these individuals’ expertise, as well as others, when required.

It is difficult to tell what the next 12 months will hold for the HBF, but I would hope it will include an extension of the mutually-beneficial relationship between the Forum and the BHA, and good progress in discussions with the Gambling Commission, including about account restrictions/closures, tracking software, terms and conditions and the role of the SPRC.

The HBF is actively involved in advising and lobbying in the area of improved data provision (and has already brought about improvements in race measurements), of the impact of non-runners, of the accuracy of official going descriptions, of the attractiveness of the racecourse betting experience, and of the kind of openness and fairness in betting that the Gambling Commission states is important but which the betting industry has not always seemed so motivated by.

The vast majority of public sentiment has been supportive, for which HBF thanks you, and I would like to  encourage members of the public to continue to share their opinions on betting matters with us.

Simon Rowlands

Chair, HBF

September 2016