one in five bets on horse racing in Britain's 8,700 betting shops are on horses
that do not exist. That is the proud claim of Inspired, the hi-tech gaming and
fruit machine group behind much of the growth in virtual racing.
Fixed-odds betting terminal
Last week, the
country's two largest bookies, William Hill and Ladbrokes, surprised investors
by revealing their takings had remained strong even though 75 race meetings
have been cancelled this year due to bad weather - the worst run since the 2001
foot and mouth outbreak.
Ladbrokes' chief executive, Chris Bell, and
William Hill's boss, David Harding, agree that a proliferation in the number of
betting opportunities has greatly reduced their dependence on traditional horse
and greyhound racing.
increasing number of punters are turning to football and other sports, but the
fastest growth area has been in fixed-odds virtual games, from touch-screen
roulette slot machines to computer-generated horse races - known to punters as
"the plastic ponies". Mr Harding said roulette machines, called fixed-odds
betting terminals (FOBTs), which first appeared in shops six years ago, now
account for a third of the take.
Virtual racing has also proved a hit.
Once ridiculed as a concept that would never catch on, its growth has taken
everyone by surprise. Two years ago bookmakers were taking £700m on the
computer-generated races, beamed on to bookies' TV screens like any other
sporting event. Since then that figure is believed to have soared higher still.
Virtual greyhounds are similarly popular, said Norman Crowley, joint
chief executive of Inspired. When the product was launched in one betting shop
chain in 2005 it took more in the first eight weeks than real dog racing had
generated in the previous 12 months. Feedback suggested some punters were drawn
to have a bet because they saw it as "less crooked" than regular greyhound
Group - suppliers
It may be anathema to many
punters but the bookies are delighted the product is doing so well - they
cannot be outdone by smart, high-rolling punters and there is no levy to the
horse-racing industry to pay.
Inspired supplies about 90% of the UK
market for virtual racing. A year ago it bought out Red Vision, a company
better known for CGI special effects, and is developing a next generation of
virtual horseracing software. A prototype seen by the Guardian is so realistic
that punters will strain to distinguish the computer-generated graphics from
live racecourse images.
Mr Crowley claims Inspired's FOBTs and its
virtual racing are generating about 40% of profits for at least one major
betting shop chain client, which he declined to name.