About 150 of horse racing’s great and good will converge on Claridge’s in Mayfair on Tuesday afternoon for a ceremony to reveal the ‘world’s best racehorse’ in 2017. Meanwhile, at 3pm, a much smaller audience will gather in committee room four of the House of Lords to consider another subject of considerable interest to racing fans and, for that matter, anyone who likes a bet. There will be no food or fine wine but it is the latter event that could, in the long run, prove the more significant.

The subject for discussion, in front of an audience including MPs with an interest in betting matters as well as officials from the Gambling Commission, will be the widespread use of account closures and bet restrictions by online bookmakers, to avoid taking money from successful punters (or, for that matter, from any punter who appears to put some thought and effort into his or her betting, for instance by generally betting at the best price on offer).

Closures, and restrictions on individual accounts that amount to the same thing – for instance, a bookie offering to lay 10p at 5-1 when a customer has asked for £20 – are standard practice for the majority of online firms. They do not release figures – perhaps to avoid embarrassment as much as anything else – but 878 respondents to a survey conducted by the Horserace Bettors Forum in 2016 reported a total of 4,576 restricted accounts – about five each, on average – in the previous six months.

This is, without doubt, a frustration that afflicts thousands of ordinary punters from week to week. In the long run it will drive people away from betting, which is racing’s most important revenue stream, if they cannot get even a trivial bet laid at an advertised price. Now, thanks to a punter whose infuriation prompted him to raise the problem with his local MP, the issue of restrictions will be considered by an audience that might actually be able to begin the process of doing something about it.

The MP in question was Philip Davies, better known perhaps as a voice for the bookies in parliament and a staunch defender of betting-shop fixed odds betting terminals but also co-chair of the all-party gaming and betting group. Davies has convened Tuesday’s seminar, at which three leading figures in racing and betting will give 10-minute speeches before taking questions from the audience.

The three speakers are expected to be Richard Flint, the chief executive of Sky Bet; Bruce Millington, the editor of the Racing Post; and Simon Rowlands, chair of the HBF. While the invited audience will hear tales of laughable cowardice on the part of the bookmakers, Rowlands will have a proposal that could begin to address the problem.

The idea of a “minimum bet rule”, which would require a bookmaker to lay an advertised price to lose a specified sum, is not new. New South Wales, one of Australia’s main racing jurisdictions, introduced a minimum bet policy in 2014 and other Australian states, including Victoria, the home of the Melbourne Cup, have followed suit.

It has proved to be straightforward, effective and, most interesting of all, popular not only with punters but also some of the layers, who have found it easier to trade in a marketplace where turnover is strong and a price must be honoured and available to all.

Flint can be expected to argue that bookmakers have a right to refuse any customer a bet, in the same way that a publican can refuse to serve someone beer. A landlord, though, cannot offer a thimbleful of lager instead of a pint, any more than Tesco is allowed to refuse you a box of cornflakes for £2 but offer a single cornflake for a penny as an alternative.

The bookies can also insist that restrictions affect only a small percentage of their customers – “no more than 5%” was one recent claim – but even 5% of a big online bookies’ customer base is tens of thousands of punters. Their standard practice now is to attract new accounts by offering vastly inflated odds about near certainties and then weed out anyone who threatens to be uneconomic, a description that covers not only winners but also those who do not lose enough to be worth the effort.

One of the Gambling Commission’s duties is to ensure that gambling is “conducted in an open and fair way”. Bookies are not open about the widespread practice of laying a price to one punter while restricting another to pennies and it is most certainly not fair. But the regulator could, if it wished, introduce a minimum bet rule as a condition of a bookie’s licence. Tuesday’s seminar could be an important step along that road.

 

 

 

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