Horse racing and bookmakers, or turf accountants as they were once known, are synonymous with each other. Just about as far as the sport goes back in history, wagers have been made on it.
Whether you partake in internet betting and are looking to enjoy the sport from home, or whether it’s the on-course atmosphere you love which bookmakers are crucial to, they have been integral to the sport for decades.
To help you choose the right brand for your own needs, we look into whether or not you need a racing-specific bookmaker, what makes each one different, how bookies support the industry and more.
Best Horse Racing Bookies
bet365 are our favourite racing bookmaker who offer a fantastic all round package. For the average punter on the street, we'd wager that an account with bet365 is probably sufficient for the majority of your needs.
BetVictor are our go to site for no-nonsense betting. With a big focus on racing, they have a number of promotions and features that you won't find at other sites, including:
- 'Run For Your Money' where you bet is refunded if your horse loses all chance at the start of the race (by refusing, whipping round, failing to come out or losing all chance at the stalls).
- 'Lengthen the Odds' which offers enhanced prices for horses you think will win by half a length or more.
One sorely under appreciated feature is how easy the site is to use. It's fast and to the point without needing to hunt around for your bet. There may not be too many bells and whistles, but if easily backing a horse in a race is your main goal then you'll probably like BetVictor.
Betway offer racing from the UK & Ireland, as well as plenty of international meetings from countries such as France, USA and South Africa. The name is probably already familiar with most racing fans due to their sponsorship of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
The site offers a nice, easy to use layout and a very good app for betting on the go. Odds are decent enough, and whilst they may not be the absolute highest you can get, they have a strong set of promotions and odds boosts that more than makes up for it.
Do You Need a Racing Specific Bookie?
As the second most watched sport in the UK, and once the most bet on sport too, you won’t struggle to find a bookmaker in the country to place horse racing bets with. Horse racing isn’t a niche sport in Britain, so there are always plenty of options.
The vast majority of top online bookmaking brands in the UK and Ireland were already well known as high street names. The familiar logos of Ladbrokes, William Hill, Paddy Power and Coral among others have been trading over the counter for decades.
Even the companies which didn’t start as bricks and mortar betting shops tend to offer odds on all well-known sports, with horse racing still a major part of their business. Many of the top names online actually began as horse racing and/or greyhound specialists, often on course before betting shops were even legal.
With that in mind, you don’t need to look for a racing-specific bookmaker online. There have been a few that opted for this approach over the years but in the main, the only bookmakers of that type are private on-course bookies you’ll see trading when you’re next at the track.
Will Every Sports Betting Brand Offer Racing?
One thing you can do is ensure that the brand you are thinking of wagering with indeed does offer bets on horse racing.
While a solely racing-focused bookmaker is not required, some betting firms, especially white label brands, surprisingly do not offer horse racing within their suite of odds.
This is because when they are based abroad, especially around Europe, horse racing is not focused on as it is in the UK and Ireland. As a white label platform, they may have simply had their product built as a standard ‘sportsbook’, capable of offering bets on football, tennis, hockey, indoor sports, eSports and the like.
This has often been the case in parts of North America, with brands offering a separate ‘racebook’ to fans of the sport. This platform often needs to be built separately from their sportsbook.
What Makes Each Bookmaker Different?
Even in terms of only the very biggest online brands, and not including the exchanges, you will easily find 20+ bookmakers offering horse racing markets every day.
Their traders and odds compilers may work in a very similar way. Their online bookmaking platforms may be built in a similar way. Their marketing may all be very punchy. So, what makes punters choose one bookmaker over another?
Well as you’d expect, there’s not one simple answer. Punters look at many factors before deciding on what bookmaker to bet with. We go through some of the most common variables customers take into account when choosing the right bookmaker(s) for them.
When looking to get a good return on our investment over time, we’re dealing with fine margins in horse racing. If a horse is 2/1 with one firm, it clearly won’t be 6/1 with another. It’s just not that type of sport.
That being said, once you appreciate just what a difference those fine margins do make over the course of days and weeks, you’d be surprised at how different various bookmakers’ odds can be on the same horse and how that influences the punters to shop around.
As a general rule; the closer we get to post time in a race, the closer the odds will be between firms. Each bookmaker may differ wildly in their opinion on a horse’s chance in the ante-post market, but as real cash bets flood in close to race time each of their liabilities on said horse will be broadly similar, pushing the prices closer together.
Many professional or semi-professional bets will be placed the evening before a race, or on the morning of it. At this point, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see the odds shape up like this:
If you have access to multiple accounts, you are always looking for the best price. That should go without saying. Sometimes, as with Hurricane Lane and Eldar Eldarov in our example, the best price is widely available. With other horses, some bookmakers’ odds stand out.
In the case of our favourite here, a reasonably hefty £100 bet yields a return of £210 with Bookie 4, or £225 with the best-priced firms. That £15 is better off in your pocket than in theirs so why accept less?
The difference in price with the second-favourite is starker. That same £100 stake with Bookie 1 would yield £550, but with two other bookies it would return £700.
Some online bookmakers are very often best-priced on many favourites and second-favourites daily. Some fluctuate quite a bit, and others are rarely top-price on any well-backed horses and frankly, this is the main factor when it comes to choosing a bookmaker.
While smaller, up-and-coming bookmakers will no doubt offer basic odds on the biggest races and festivals, many punters in the UK want to have access to as much racing as possible.
Not only should every race in the UK and Ireland be covered every day, but also all the major overseas markets too.
Many familiar horses from these shores go off to run in France, Dubai, Australia and the USA. Some head elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East, while daily betting on races in Hong Kong and South Africa remain popular.
The better online bookmakers offer a full service on all of these racing territories. To compliment this, racing TV channels show full coverage and feature analysis of racing in France, Hong Kong, USA, Australia and others which gives punters the chance to get involved in an informed manner.
The familiar win and each-way markets are just the tip of the iceberg. While these markets still bring in most of the cash for bookies, so many others are used every single day by thousands of punters.
Different betting markets on races don’t just offer punters the chance to increase their odds, it allows them to bet cleverly when they see an opportunity.
Such an example would be when there is a heavy odds-on favourite in a race. Betting each-way against it may not appeal, as you may feel the win portion of the bet simply isn’t going to come in. But, when place-only bets, cover bets and ‘without the favourite’ is available it opens up what previously looked like an inopportune market.
Just a snippet of the markets available within horse racing with some firms are:
- Win and each-way
- Tote betting
- Cover bet
- Not to win
- To be placed
- Not to be placed
- Betting without the favourite
We’re not talking here about sign-up offers, as naturally they are a one-off. Once you’ve joined up with a bookmaker though, you’ll want them to be kind to you all the time and the best bookies will be.
Some of the offers that bookmakers hand out to horse racing punters include:
- Faller insurance
- Free bets for finishing second
- Odds boosts
- Each-way extra places
- Loyalty bonuses or bet credits
These offers are important, and not just because you’re getting something extra.
If you don’t want to sign in and out of various accounts, but notice that the prices are fluctuating, sometimes getting loyalty bonuses and offers from your regular bookie may compensate for taking 9/4 with them when 5/2 was available elsewhere.
We’re betting in a very modern world now. Some horse racing bookmakers offer so much more than odds on each race and that’s something that separates the better ones from the others.
Here are some of the features a top online bookmaker will offer:
- Apps/mobile betting. Many of us bet on the move now. A strong app, or at least a good mobile site, is crucial for the modern punter. No longer should we need to wait to get to the betting shop, or even open up the laptop, to back our horse. As soon as you want to strike the bet at the best price, you can via mobile.
- Live betting. When a race jumps off, the live odds fluctuate hugely. Many people can spot opportunities here and so being able to bet ‘in-running’ is a great feature.
- Streaming. To compliment live betting, live streaming is also a good thing. When you’re betting on the move and/or don’t have access to specialist racing TV channels, watching races streamed live on your phone is the perfect way to keep up with the sport and see your result as it happens.
- Best odds guaranteed. BOG, as it is known, is now standard with the biggest firms but not all bookies offer it. With BOG, you take the price offered for your bet and if the SP is bigger, you are paid out at the higher odds.
Loyalty and Familiarity
Surely the weakest reason for customers choosing to stick with a bookmaker, but one worth noting all the same.
On the high street, loyalty was often born out of a customer living closest to a certain bookmaking brand. In the online world, it can be about transferring that loyalty or simply getting used to a certain platform over the course of time.
Another reason for loyalty is simply that you’ve noticed that your bookie is top-price on most horses and if so, carry on!
One genuine reason to stay loyal however, as mentioned above, is when your brand will hand out more bonuses and free bets to you which means it can cover for the occasions when your bookie is not offering the best odds around on your races.
This sometimes comes in the form of loyalty points which can be earned then turned into bonus cash etc. too. Just like Nectar points for the bookies.
How Bookmakers Support Horse Racing
Broadly speaking, the bookmaking industry in Britain helps to support horse racing.
Without rich benefactors, the sport wouldn’t exist in its current format. Major owners put a minimum of around £30,000 per year into the game in costs for each horse in training, and all for minimal comparative prize money.
Unlike with football, around half of a racecourse’s revenue to this day still comes from punters going through the gates, buying tickets, food and drinks. There are no billions from TV revenue.
From their side then, we delve how to how bookmakers help to support the sport and how money flows from the punters, via the bookies and back into the game.
Traditionally, the main way that bookmakers paid money back into horse racing was via the levy.
The Horse Racing Levy Board doesn’t receive government funding to help run horse racing, but is part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The Levy board is tasked by the Gambling Act to collect a statutory levy from bookmakers trading on horse racing. It then hands out funds for the improvement of the sport, breeding and for the betterment of veterinary science.
The levy brings in almost £100 million per year, though this can fluctuate. It can cover the cost of staging race meetings, handing out loans and of course it goes towards prize money.
While education and training are covered as well as other special projects, prize money is the main focus of the levy. Without prize money, there is no racing. Without racing, bookmakers lose profits which is where the levy comes from in the first place which at a glance, seems fair.
A familiar site to many racegoers will be race titles such as the bet365 Gold Cup, the Ladbrokes Trophy or the William Hill Northumberland Plate.
This sort of sponsorship, along with the many advertising boards placed trackside and the live ads appearing during racing coverage, helps to fund the sport or at least drives up prize money.
In one famous case, a bookmaker even owns a racecourse and therefore funds the whole thing.
BetFred, a popular online and high street name, owns Chelmsford City Racecourse in Essex.
Run centrally, horse racing brings in money from various angles with then bookmaking industry being just one of them. Each racecourse however, or at least each racecourse owning group, has to generate its own revenue.
As we mentioned, without billions wishing to watch from South America, Africa and Asia, the TV revenue generated is more localised and doesn’t amount to what football gets. Racecourses rely on ticket sales, food and drink sales and of course the money they too get from bookmakers.
Each on-course bookmaker attending a meeting must pay for their pitch. The price they pay depends on the popularity of the meeting and what part of the course they are standing on.
This counts as revenue to the course and to the industry as a whole. But we mustn’t forget that if the bookmaker makes a profit, which they invariably do, then after costs including pitches the money that is in their satchels goes home with them and back out of racing.
Would Horse Racing Survive in Britain Without Bookmakers?
In its current format, no. That is the simple answer. Things will have to change.
While many are traditionalists and like the way we’ve done things for decades, without a major shift in how we bet horse racing will face some very tricky times financially in the future.
Bookmakers provide a service, that’s true. In the age of digital technology however, we don’t need tic-tac’s on course to communicate prices and the computer is doing the sums for the bookie anyway.
Racecourses, ownership groups or even the BHA could simply employ people to complete the job of being a bookmaker, or a teller, as is done in the States.
Horse racing in theory is a financially viable sport, but that is largely because people not only want to watch but also want to bet.
It seems sad then that hundreds of millions of pounds pour in via betting but most of it just heads back out, as mentioned above, in the form of profit for major bookmaking firms.
So, what do we need to do differently? Well, we’d hate to mention a problem without offering a solution. The issue is that we are too traditional. Times change. Things move on.
In the USA and America, prize money is absolutely huge. This helps them to buy horses. It attracts owners. It attracts jockeys and it attracts TV audiences.
Why is their prize money so big compared to ours? The principal reason is that their betting revenue doesn’t leak straight back out of the sport.
They are not obsessed with a fixed-odds system, nor an independent bookmaker. Their courses run on a tote-style system.
The course runs that system. The money piles in and when payouts and running costs are taken out, the rest is profit for the racecourse, not the bookmaker. That money is then reinvested in facilities and in prize money. Simple really.
Prize money in Britain is driven by the levy and by the generosity shown by major benefactors which could end at any time. Much, much more could be achieved by using the money the good old punter puts in every day.
Online Bookmakers Operating On-Course
We’re all used to the flashy, digital imagery and logos, but do any of the well-known online bookmakers also trade on the racecourse.
Some of the better-known names on the market were also known as high street bookmakers. The likes of Ladbrokes, William Hill, Coral, BetVictor, PaddyPower and others are or were very familiar sites around the country. Some of them in fact began on the racecourse.
Helen Vernet joined Ladbrokes in 1919 and was the firm’s main representative on racecourses around the country.
Birmingham-born William Hill took bets ever since he was a kid, and eventually became well known on the racecourses and greyhound tracks in the south of the country.
In 1961, the government legalised betting shops under the Gambling Act, and such brands became a fixture in towns and cities around the country but they continued to operate on course.
When the internet betting revolution came in the 90’s, these major brands were best-placed to hit the ground running online, which is why we see a crossover between on course, high street and internet bookmaking.
BetVictor, run until 2014 by Victor Chandler and his father and grandfather before him, was a top online bookmaker who stood at the top pitch at Sandown Park among other places. Those pitches were sold, but the brand was a familiar site to racegoers for years.
In the modern day, familiar online names are fewer and further between at the track. One good example of a bookmaker crossing over between those two worlds is Star Sports.
Star Sports is beginning to make a name for itself. While smaller punters are more than welcome with the brand it seems, their major pulling power is that they tend not to restrict punters or close them down for winning.
Star Sports are trying to attract the major bets. They do this online of course, but have no fear at the track either and in fact their representative mentioned losing £450,000 at one point during Royal Ascot.
It would be great in future to see a better spread of familiar names operating on racecourse, as long of course as they are always keeping prices fair for punters.