Horse racing is one of the world’s oldest forms of entertainment, and in Britain the ‘Sport of Kings’ dates back to Roman times. A sport intrinsically linked with the betting sector, there is perhaps no company more closely connected to racing than the UK Tote Group.

The company is the operator of the UK’s pool betting network on racing, and in recent years has been building up extensive links with other pari-mutuel wagering horse racing stakeholders throughout the sport’s worldwide network. 

Jon Knapman, Chief Commercial Officer - International, UK Tote Group
Source: UK Tote Group

Horse racing has been facing challenging times, however, with the financial impact of the 2019-22 pandemic still being felt. In discussion with Insider Sport, the UK Tote Group’s Chief Commercial Officer, Jon Knapman, emphasised the sport’s resilience and how it can clear the hurdles it faces.

Insider Sport: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Jon. Could you start by giving us an overview of the challenges facing horse racing? What are the major hurdles in the sports future?

Jon Knapman: Horse racing is very good at talking itself down when in fact it has unique assets built on a rich history and heritage. Absolutely, there are challenges facing the sport in various jurisdictions but there are also pockets of innovation and great success. As I see it there are three main challenges facing horse racing:

  • Changing views and increased scrutiny on animal welfare around the world which challenges horse racing’s social licence.
  • The increasingly competitive sporting, and by extension betting, landscape we’re all operating in. 
  • The complex stakeholder landscape to navigate across horse racing. 

IS: When it comes to broadcasting and media engagement, are there any ways horse racing’s strategy can be improved in these regards?

JK: Racing needs to find a balance between keeping existing and knowledgeable fans happy whilst at the same time trying to engage and find a new audience. There is a relatively high level of assumed knowledge in racing in order to understand the myriad of acronyms, the classification of races and the handicap system to name but a few. 

For the keen racing enthusiasts there should be as much free historical form, past performance video and any other relevant data to maintain and grow their interest. 

For potential new customers, we have to simplify and demystify as much as possible for the modern day attention span. Bring human and equine stories to the fore and make stars of jockeys, trainers and horses so if nothing else there is a recognisable name in the race card or on the television.

IS: What can horse racing learn from other sports to help address these challenges, particularly when it comes to media and content usage?

JK: The most successful sports in the world are close to, if not fully, vertically integrated. As a result they control key aspects including frequency of events, the integrity of the sport, media rights distribution and financial income/distribution. 

Crucially, they are also relentlessly positive about the product they are serving up to customers. The Premier League don’t apologise for showing a dreary relegation battle in the same way racing coverage apologises for a race with a small field of runners.

However, horse racing in most countries has a wide variety of often competing stakeholders from racecourse owners, media rights companies, participants, fixed odds bookmakers, totes and many more. 

As a result, the sport is fragmented which makes it difficult to comprehend from the inside, let alone as a customer, or would-be fan. For racing to survive and thrive in the long term, a more cohesive, positive approach in order to compete with other sports rather than compete within racing, will be a necessity.

IS: Focusing on the UK Tote Group, what efforts has the company been making to protect horse racing’s future?

JK: As a horse racing led brand, the growth and sustainability of the sport is intrinsically linked to our own success. We are strong believers that global pool betting can play a key role in aiding that sustainability by providing a vibrant, regulated betting medium which returns a viable amount to the underlying sport. 

The bringing together of fragmented global pools into deeper more predictable pools of liquidity is an essential part of racing’s future and something we are working hard to drive as Co-Chair of the World Tote Association.

Given the nature of pool betting, winning customers are not restricted which has become a big problem in predominantly fixed odds jurisdictions and seen some people move away from horseracing to other sports. 

As we operate in a fixed odds dominant market we have had to innovate in order to compete, bringing in the Tote Guarantee for example to add an element of price certainty that UK customers are used to.

IS: The Tote has spoken to Insider Sport previously about the success of the World Pool. How significant has this been in contributing to racing’s sustainability?

JK: Every full World Pool day contributes £500,000+ to the host racecourse which in most cases goes towards higher prize money to make the racing more attractive to owners. This helps create a clear calendar of top class competitive racing which is vitally important in attracting and retaining horse racing fans. 

We are still in the early stages of World Pool and it will continue to grow in the coming years, providing a much needed new funding stream for those involved.

Speaking from a UK perspective, World Pool has also helped bring pool betting back to the forefront of customers and industry minds. Outside the UK, every strong racing jurisdiction in the world has a healthy pool and so our mission is to bring that back to the UK and in turn help support the sport.

IS: How can the horse racing betting product be developed to better engage customers, particularly those from a younger audience?

JK: Sports such as the NFL and Formula One have been very successful in recent years at winning new and younger audiences. Their ability to take the customer on a journey from entry level through to more informed and well explained, well presented media and content is something racing should absolutely be looking to emulate through simplification and a modernising of presentation. 

One of the biggest challenges for horse racing in terms of attracting a younger audience is that it is at its core a betting product. As a result, horse racing has an identity crisis when talking to younger people that the NFL and Premier League do not and therefore they capture fans at a much younger age that never look back. 

The raceday experience is still the best way to pique an interest in racing at younger age, so racecourses should have an intense focus on making racing affordable and attractive to attend for a younger crowd.

IS: How can betting stakeholders work with horse racing authorities, the media and fans to secure a sustainable future for the sport?

JK: Without trying to oversimplify things, betting stakeholders need to pay a fair price to horse racing in return for a quality betting product. Racing needs to ensure that the betting product remains attractive when compared to alternatives that the betting operators can offer.

If there is too much low quality racing, the product will degrade, become less valuable to betting companies who will promote it less, turnover will drop, prize money will fall, racing will put its price up to compensate and it will be a race to the bottom. It’s incumbent on all stakeholders to think clearly about the consumer and how racing is competing versus other sports as a product. 

We have successful jurisdictions and operators to learn from, including the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Japan Racing Association and the PMU in France. Clearly I’d be in favour of a tote monopoly in the UK but that horse has long since bolted. But the premise remains, whatever the mechanism, the right amount from each bet has to go back to the sport that puts on the show. If it doesn’t, then eventually the show won’t go on.

IS: What do you hope SBC Summit attendees will take away from the event regarding horse racing and its future?

JK: Despite a long list of questions about the challenges that racing faces, it remains a fantastic and successful sport. It is one of the few in which men and women compete on a level playing field, with a long tradition and wonderful high profile events throughout the year and around the globe. 

Yes, it has to evolve to compete in a changing world, but that challenge should be embraced rather than avoided.

Jon Knapman will be sharing his views at the SBC Summit in Lisbon, taking place from 24-26 September 2024. The event will see countless other betting and sports stakeholders discussing a range of topics. 

Secure your spot with a special offer granting access to all three core days of the event, including the exhibition floor, conference agenda, and evening networking parties, all for the discounted price of just €400.

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