Racing: Tote Direct route proposed to Superbet

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The Independent Online
Frankie Dettori's seven-out-of-seven at Ascot last month was one of the most explosive performances in turf history, so it is fitting that the fallout is still arriving. The bookies have paid up and the punters have started to give it all back, but the most significant effect of Dettori's achievement may yet prove to be the seed of belief it planted in the imagination of Mark Openshaw.

Openshaw is the sales and marketing manager for Tote Direct, the company which supplies and services Tote betting terminals in about 25 per cent of Britain's betting shops. He was impressed by the media coverage the jockey generated, on the front page of many newspapers and the serious end of television news programmes, and by the number of people prepared to pursue an improbably high return for a small stake. It convinced him that the time might finally have arrived to launch a weekly, pool-based bet offering the possibility of a huge return for a small outlay - the long dreamed-of Superbet.

The concept of the Superbet has been bouncing around bookmaking circles for several years, but to such little effect that the mention of its name can set off a chorus of cynical sniggers. The idea last floated through racing's consciousness about three years ago, when Tote Direct launched the betting terminals which would allow a national pool bet on, say, the first six home in the correct order in a big handicap. Yet again, though, it generated a few columns-worth of copy, some vague statements of intent, and precious little else.

But as Openshaw points out, much has changed since then. In particular, a general public with limited previous experience in playing numbers games for big money has taken the National Lottery to its heart, and the notion of entering six numbers on a betting ticket is familiar to the average infant-school pupil. So too are the mechanics of a winner-takes-all pool which can be rolled over when no-one picks the right combination.

"I think the timing could be just right," Openshaw said yesterday. "It could be a bridge between Lottery players and betting-shop punters, with a skill factor involved but not enough of one to put off fun punters. You would need a handicap of at least 18 runners each Saturday, and on about half of the Saturdays each year we already have a suitable race, like the Ayr Gold Cup, Stewards' Cup or Cambridgeshire."

Like all good ideas, of course, there would be major hurdles to overcome, not least the reluctance of many bookmakers, most notably Ladbrokes and William Hill, to allow Tote Direct terminals into their offices. In order to guarantee the sort of pool which would pull punters off the streets, that barrier would need to be breached.

"They need to realise that Tote business would be an add-on, not competition," Openshaw says. "Their commission on the bet would be 20 per cent, which means that they get the thick end and the Tote gets the thin end, but with a bet like this, the margins would be enough to satisfy everyone.

"What it would take is a leap of faith, not just from the bookmakers but also from the BHB, which would need to ensure that the races were there to bet on. But it is something which could benefit bookmakers big and small, and racing too."

Unless both the BHB and the bookmakers can be persuaded to share his vision, details such as how to guarantee enough runners and whether to impose an upper limit on the field, not to mention who would pay the set- up costs, are irrelevant. What is certain, though, is that both sides of racing's traditional divide are suffering under the assault of the Lottery, and a Superbet would, unlike the arrival of fruit machines and betting on Irish Lottery numbers, offer a direct, positive benefit to the sport as well as the bookies.

"Racing is a small world," Openshaw says. "This could help us to break out."

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