Bobby Zen

In the 1960s British racing had the chance to own bookmaking. But it’s happening the other way round. Bookmakers are moving closer to owning racing.

Betfred’s headline sponsorship of all five Classics – the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Oaks and St Leger – from 2025 is manna to racecourse execs whose job it is to find backers for marquee events. With the Qatar-owned Qipco stepping back from sponsorship of the Guineas meeting and King George at Ascot from next year (they’re maintaining their support for Champions Day), the prestige of funding the five Classics passes to the most self-made of bookies.

And there is more. Betfred will offer a £2m bonus for winning the colts’ Triple Crown – the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger. Offering a bonanza for something that has not been done since 1970 is not the riskiest move a layer has ever made. But in a week when racing lamented the BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s decision to drop racing tips from its hourly sports bulletins (except for the biggest fixtures), adding glamour – and cash – to the Triple Crown was hardly likely to foment discontent.

Fred Done, Betfred’s chairman, set out with his brother Peter in the 1960s – the decade in which Britain passed up the chance to enforce a totalisator system and instead licensed High Street bookmakers.

The brothers shared a bed until they were 15 in Ordsall, known as the “slums of Salford.” Both left school at 15 without qualifications and found their vocation in the new betting shops of the time. Their first outlet was part-funded by a successful bet on Alf Ramsey’s team to win the 1966 World Cup. 

“We upped our game, we had carpets,” Peter Done recalled, in a BBC series offering tips from chief executives. The Dones would call their customers ‘Sir’ and congratulate them when they won. Five decades on, Betfred have 1,432 betting shops and “800,000 active customers.” In May last year The Sunday Times Rich List valued the brothers’ wealth at £1.87 billion – 93rd on the list.

“I want to put the British Classics back where they belong, at the forefront of global horseracing,” Fred Done said. Nobody would contest that aim. Plainly though the tie-up confers PR benefits. In July last year Betfred paid the Gambling Commission £3.25m after an investigation found failures in their social responsibility and anti-money laundering procedures. In one case “safer gambling interactions” had not applied to a punter who staked £517,499 in two months.

A more startling aspect is what the Betfred deal says about racing’s power balance

Coolmore have displayed a creditable urge to add a Triple Crown to their roster of historic feats and records. In 2012 Camelot came close to emulating Nijinsky, the last horse to tick off all those disparate tests, 54 years ago. Before Nijinsky, you had to scroll back to Bahram in 1935. The colts’ Triple Crown is to racing what 1966 has become to the England football team: more demon, than mere itch.

For publicity generation, it works well enough, and Coolmore, who still believe in the dream, were within their rights to welcome the extra two-mil they would harvest for their troubles. The Betfred bonus is not available to fillies, perhaps because Oh So Sharp completed it as recently as 1985. The Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million bonus was discontinued in 2019 after Stradivarius won it two years running. These prizes are sometimes meant to remain unclaimed.

With his Triple Crown bounty, Done, who already called himself ‘The Bonus King,’ found a handy synergy. Far more significant is his overarching sponsorship of all five Classics, which will calm nerves at Newmarket, Epsom and Doncaster. To think racegoers will attach importance to a prefix on a big race name is fanciful, but there is now consistency, at least: a sense that all five races are connected, which they are, by two and a half centuries. They are the foundations of Thoroughbred breeding and history.

Bookmaker sponsorship of races has become inherent. It’s entirely routine to see Sky Bet, Bet 365, Betway or Unibet in a race title. There was a curse of “Download the app” being added to make some of the race names read like essays. These long monikers have buried many a race’s identity.

A more startling aspect is what the Betfred deal says about racing’s power balance. The direction of travel is bookmaking not ‘supporting’ live racing so much as financing much of it directly, not through the levy, where it defends its pile tenaciously, but as the impresario. Only 0.6% of betting turnover in the UK is returned to racing, compared to 8.6% in France and 16.6% in Japan.

So when a big bookmaker plays the glamour shot of fixing its name to our five most famous races, everyone can sleep easy for a while, knowing the bills are paid. The peace though is disturbed by a nagging thought: who will own the sport 10 years from now, and what are the conflicts of interest?


The post The Classics: Connected by Centuries – and now by Betfred appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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