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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Horse racing has shaped online betting

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

The Aintree Grand National in Liverpool, England, is perhaps the most famous annual horse racing event in the world, attracting vast numbers of bettors and equestrian enthusiasts from across the globe. It's the one race each year in which those with little interest in betting or horses are exposed to the challenge of a flutter.

The field jumps the fourth on the first circuit of Aintree
The field jumps the fourth on the first circuit of Aintree

Yet few realize that it dates back to 1839, while horse racing dates back much, much further (in Liverpool, for example, the earliest recorded races date back to 1576). Even in the race's early days, there was a strong element of gambling: the winner would receive a silver bell valued at £6 – a princely sum for the time.

It seems that humans are inclined to figure that wherever there’s a contest, there’s a wager to be made and money to be won. Cutting-edge new online bookmakers specializing in horse race betting, like scoopsix, for example, were almost a certainty once online casinos had demonstrated their popularity and commercial viability. So much so that online casinos are today pouring resources into providing excellent horse race coverage to the UK (where scoopsix is headquartered) and elsewhere in the world where open racing jurisdictions permit fixed odds operators other than their own totalisators.

Documented evidence, for example, shows that gambling was widely prevalent in Ancient China at least as far back as 200 BC – but pairs of dice were discovered in an Egyptian tomb estimated to be at least 5,000 years old. Use your best imagination to envisage the earliest Chinese bookmaker; it may help to explain the explosion of gaming brands headed into Europe from the Far East.

The historical record is murky about when betting on horse racing began: most historians think that horse racing as a sport existed in the early middle ages, but there’s little evidence of betting from that period. But we do know that King Charles II (1660-1685), also known as the "Merry Monarch", loved to watch horse races, so much so that he designated the small English town of Newmarket a royal resort – and horse racing seriously began to take off in British culture as a result.

Just as subsequent monarchs like Anne, and George III in particular, accelerated the popularity of racing as a social occasion, it was the Victorian era in which the establishment of race meetings and racecourses - over 250 in number - ballooned to the extent that racing became viewed as a social ill as much as a benefit, in need of regulation.

By 1928 in the UK, betting on horse races had become so widespread that the British government decided to regulate it: the Race Betting Act of 1928 sought to end off-course betting operations, which were deemed illegal. That meant that all profits from betting could be ploughed back into the sport and be taxed and regulated. This served to make horse race betting even more popular – gamblers no longer feared being carted off to prison or having their winnings ripped off by unscrupulous, illicit gambling rings.

But the bookmaker lobby in the UK and Ireland has always been strong, and through persistent statings of their case came about the legalisation of betting shops in 1964, with a complicated financial model to compensate racing for any loss of spectators. So began the uneasy relationship between bookmakers and administrators of the sport, largely avoided in other European jurisdictions.

Online betting was driven by the opportunity in the UK market

Fast forward to 1996, and the first online betting sites began to emerge. At that point, they were almost exclusively confined to casino games like poker and a range of other table games (and bettors couldn’t gamble with real money). The key point here is that the popularity of horse race betting led entrepreneurs to develop online gambling houses in the first place: it stood as overwhelming proof that betting was immensely popular among vast swathes of ordinary people.

As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:

“Horse racing is one of the oldest of all sports, and its basic concept has undergone virtually no change over the centuries. It developed from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a spectacle involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money, but its essential feature has always been the same: the horse that finishes first is the winner. In the modern era, horse racing developed from a diversion of the leisure class into a huge public-entertainment business.”

The UK financial model has many faults, but there is little doubt that it leads the world in terms of worldwide exposure and betting interest, and what it lacks in prize money as a result of its complicated relationship with betting, it compensates through media exposure and the sale of picture or betting rights all over the developed world.

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