The future of the Tote, which offers pool betting on British racing, appears to be more secure following the news that the Alizeti consortium, led by owner and breeder Alex Frost, has finally secured the backing it needs to buy the Tote from its former owner, the bookmaker Fred Done.
The announcement on Wednesday brings down the curtain on a difficult and often controversial eight years in the long history of the Tote, which was created by Winston Churchill during his time as Stanley Baldwin’s chancellor of the exchequer in the 1920s.
It was designed to offer the betting public an alternative to bookies, which is one reason why its sale to Done for £265m was decidedly unpopular with many in the sport. Another was the suspicion that Done’s real target was the Tote’s estate of 500 off-course betting shops, which could be home to four of the cash-generating FOBT machines that each squeezed a risk-free £1,000 or so from punters before stakes were limited to £2 this year.
The Alizeti consortium paid £20m for 25% of the Tote in May 2018 and had taken its time finding investors to enable it to buy the remaining 75%. Its funds increased significantly last week, however, when billionaire investor Michael Spencer took a 10% stake, and Alizeti said on Wednesday that it is now the sole owner of the Tote and that it has changed its name to UK Tote Group to mark the occasion.
UKTG’s ideas to increase the Tote’s current, paltry 4% share of betting on racing will be revealed in the coming weeks and months, but plans will definitely include a major overhaul of its online offering and a return of the once hugely popular Tote Ten To Follow competition.
Overall winners of the TTF used to pick up life-changing amounts – the winner in 2009, for instance, received around £450,000 – but it was discontinued in 2014 due to what the Racing Post, its co-sponsor, described as a fall in entry levels.
In what seems to be an increasingly quick hit world, it will be interesting to see if the Tote’s new owners can rekindle interest in a contest that demands a considerable investment of time and effort.
The Tote will also continue to be the public face of pool betting at most British racecourses via its partnership with Britbet, which had seemed poised to go it alone on Britain’s tracks until an agreement was reached last year to ensure that a single pool would operate on British racing.
As a result, the future for the Tote looks brighter than it has for many years. “Pool betting plays a leading role in racing jurisdictions around the world,” Frost said on Wednesday, “and we believe the Tote can play a similar role in the UK, while supporting and growing British racing in the years ahead.”
The racing jurisdictions where pool betting thrives are the ones where bookies are banned and the pool-based alternative is the only show in town. In Britain, where punters have a choice between bookmakers, pool betting and, more recently, exchange betting, the Tote trails in a distant third place and it is hard to see that changing any time soon.
Many of the investors in the UKTG are involved in racing as owners or breeders and there will doubtless be an attempt to sell the new Tote as racing’s in-house betting operation. For all the goodwill it may generate, however, backers generally prefer to know what price they are getting and have also become accustomed to offers such as best price guaranteed. The process of tempting even a small number away from the bookies promises to be difficult, expensive and time-consuming.
That said, co-mingling of pools with overseas jurisdictions with a strong pool-betting tradition is expected to increase significantly in the years ahead and British racing has an outstanding product to bring to the party. There could also be another attempt to crack the “small stake, big win” formula that generates huge pools elsewhere but has never quite captured the public imagination in Britain.
Maybe, just maybe, Wednesday’s claims of “an exciting new era for the Tote” will prove to have some substance.