As G Force burst through to win the prestigious Betfred Sprint Cup at Haydock, I began celebrating my biggest priced winner of the flat season, having backed him at odds of 25-1. But my joy at such a profitable day’s gambling was soon tempered by the realisation that yet another account with a bookmaker was effectively being shut down. After nearly four decades as a punter my betting is heavily curtailed. Not out of choice, but because I have had the audacity to win several thousand pounds.
Most of my internet betting accounts have either been closed by my bookmakers or so “restricted” that they might just as well be shut down. Time and again my attempts to place bets of £50 or less are greeted with responses such as “Alert – your bet has not been placed.” Instead, I am offered wagers of just £2 or similar amounts: bookmakers’ less than subtle code for “Get lost: we don’t want your custom.”
I am not a professional gambler; racing is simply my hobby. My love of horse racing began almost half a century ago. My late father, a freelance writer, took me to see Arkle race in 1966. I was just eight years old, but watching the greatest steeplechaser of all time had me hooked.
Today I still love the athleticism of the magnificent racehorses. I admire the courage of the undernourished jockeys.
Most of all I love the thrill of a bet, pitting my wits in a gladiatorial contest between punter and bookmaker. I can’t resist listening to the whispered racecourse tips from those supposedly in the know, that horse X is “catching pigeons” (showing great speed) on the training gallops. And I spend a couple of hours every evening after work poring over the horses’ form on my computer.
I bet on form, not inside information. Over the past four decades I suspect that, like most punters, I have lost more than I have won. However, in 2010 I won £700 and the following year I won £2,079.61. 2012 was a disaster: I lost £6,626.68. In 2013, I fared better and won £451.56. Yet 2014 was – by my modest standards – a remarkable year: my Cheltenham Festival winners included Sire de Grugy, backed at 28-1 for the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase, and my Aintree winners included Pineau de Re, backed at 40-1 for the Crabbie’s Grand National. I finished the year exactly £18,012.92 in profit.
The first email officially closing one of my accounts arrived on a Saturday morning, just as I was choosing my bets for that afternoon’s televised horse-racing on Channel 4. The email from BetVictor read: “We are contacting you today to advise that a business decision has been taken by our Senior Traders and I must inform you that your business account has now been closed and no further business may be executed on your behalf… As explained in our Terms and Conditions, a Traders [sic] decision is final and will not be overturned.”
Other account restrictions followed and I was finding it harder and harder to get my bets (typically between £50 and £200) placed with my bookmakers, many of whom I had been a client of for more than 30 years. G Force’s win last autumn came after I opened a new account with Sportingbet solely in order to back the horse at 25-1, when other bookies were offering just 16-1.
When that punt was duly landed, my new account was effectively closed overnight after just two £50 bets – one a winner at 25s, the other an unplaced loser. When I rang up Sportingbet to ask why I had been offered £7 to win online instead of the £50 I was requesting on a horse as my third ever bet with the firm, I was told that I was on the “restricted list” after placing just two bets. I pointed out that if I couldn’t have £50 on a horse, I would never bet with them again. “That’s your choice, sir,” came the polite reply. Our brief association ended with me £1,200 in profit.
My experiences are not unique. Every week, up and down the country, leading bookmakers are closing accounts or severely restricting some gamblers’ bets because that individual is deemed to be – horror of horrors – a “winning punter”.
The news that bookmakers refuse to accept wagers from winning clients was met with incredulity by my non-gambling friends. “That’s outrageous,” said one. “Surely that’s against the law?” said another.
In fact, refusing to strike a bet at their advertised odds may break the spirit of the regulations, but it does not break any law. However, more and more bookmakers only want to accept bets from “mug punters”: those without discipline who bet far too much almost every day of the week and consistently lose more than they win.
Bookmaking can be traced back to the late 18th century in the UK. However, the punter-versus-bookmaker battle has been raging in earnest ever since the Gaming Act was passed in 1845. The bookies are usually the winners because, on average, they aim to shape a “book” in which they will make a profit of around 20% of all bets struck on a single race or other contest.
In the past two decades, however, the industry has changed significantly with new technology resulting in the spread of internet gambling and this, in turn, has made it easier for firms to identify winning punters than in the days when bets were mainly placed anonymously in smoke-filled betting shops.
“The large bookmakers increasingly employ mathematicians and risk managers, rather than those knowledgeable about sport, to ensure that they maximise profits – and have no chance of losing money,” said one senior industry source.
Like all businesses, bookmakers need to make a profit and no one denies them this right. But today, they make the rules, set the odds hugely in their favour and, with all these advantages and having already made healthy profits, they then increasingly refuse to take a bet. Is it any wonder that so many punters feel they are getting a raw deal?
Some “banned” punters try various tricks to strike their bets: some open accounts in the name of friends – but bookmakers then track internet addresses to try to thwart this tactic. One successful punter recently told the Racing Post that he had operated some 500 betting accounts under 30 different names over six years, but “the restrictions got so ridiculous I knocked it on the head”.
Barney Curley, now 75, is a legendary punter and former trainer, who has masterminded several seven-figure betting coups over the past 40 years. In recent years he has had to go to extraordinary lengths, getting scores of “foot soldiers” to place tiny bets the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland, in order to land wins totalling millions of pounds. By placing a succession of small bets at advertised odds, Curley can, for a time at least, avoid suspicion that someone is planning a raid on the bookies. By the time firms wake up to the fact that they are facing huge payouts on one or more horses, they have to honour the bets already struck.
Curley says: “Today the bookmakers, along with the racecourses, run racing. No one has the knowledge or the power to take them on, and there is no one to represent the punters’ interests. There is no one who will upset the applecart and say: ‘This [not taking bets from winning punters] is an absolute disgrace.’”
Curley no longer has any bookmakers willing to lay him bets with accounts in his own name. “I have to try to get my bets on with losing punters which is a pain in the arse because then you have to get them to pay you your winnings. I retired from training because it was so hard getting any money on my horses.”
In fact, bookmakers have rarely been under such scrutiny as they are now, after a series of complaints that they are ripping off punters in other ways, too. In April it was revealed that there had been an “over-round” of 165% on the 2015 Grand National – meaning there was a theoretical profit margin of 65% for the bookmakers built into the available odds at the time the race started. Allegations were made publicly that off-course bookmakers were manipulating the system to the detriment of punters, though these were denied.
It was announced in June that there would be a public consultation on whether the present system of producing a starting price – the odds at which most bets are settled by bookmakers – should be changed.
Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland and a keen punter and race-goer, told me that he intends to raise the issue of bookmakers refusing to take bets from winning punters in his new role as vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Racing & Bloodstock.
“It is not acceptable for bookmakers to refuse to take a reasonable-sized bet because the client has a record of winning,’” he said. “If it is not a breach of advertising standards, then it should be. Bookmakers today simply don’t want to take any risks.
“In my new role, I intend to bring this to the attention of the Gambling Commission [which regulates gambling in the UK] and Ibas [the Independent Betting Adjudication Service, which rules on disputes between punters and bookies]. There is a difference between bookmaking, an entirely respectable profession, and fleecing people, which isn’t.
“Maybe it is time that the distinction was made harder in terms of the law. There is a difference between being risk-averse and being responsible for misleading advertising. An unreasonable refusal to accept bets should, in my estimation, be a reason for disqualification from a bookmaker’s licence.”
BetVictor refused to respond to specific questions about its trading or accounts’ management, but a spokeswoman said: “BetVictor reserves the right to refuse the whole or any part of any bet request for any reason… We also reserve the right to close or restrict any account without obligation to state a reason.”
Sportingbet declined to respond to any questions. However, most bookmakers will acknowledge, either privately or publicly, that the activities of winning punters are curtailed, although they stress that the desired bets of most punters are accommodated.
Craig Reid, head of trading for Betfred bookmakers, said: “The guys who are factored really well down [heavily restricted] are 2% of our whole database. They are shrewd. We will try to offer them some sort of bet, but they will get restricted.”
A spokeswoman for the Advertising Standards Authority, the advertising watchdog, said it had received more than 250 complaints so far this year about gambling advertisements, but she did not think any related to punters’ grievance about being restricted from placing bets.
Ibas said its primary role was to adjudicate on bets that have been struck. A spokesman said it would require a change the industry’s regulations, such as forcing bookmakers to accept bets of a specific size on advertised bets, before it could address complaints relating to restrictions on the size of bets.
I should point out that not all my bookmakers have turned away my bets. Ladbrokes and bet365 have invariably been willing to lay me a fair-size wager, but they are in the minority.
I can always bet as much as I want, within reason, on modern-day betting exchanges such as Betfair – in which one punter bets against another – but that is not my preferred way of gambling. In order to have a chance of a winning edge in the long run, I need to be able to back a horse at the best possible advertised odds. I often bet “ante post”, days, or even weeks, in advance of a race.
So I now have no fewer than 17 accounts with bookmakers and one with a betting exchange in order to have some remote hope of striking the bet I want. Of those 17 bookmakers, I would struggle to get on a bet of £50 at, say, 10-1 on the evening before a race, with most of them. I regularly get my intended £50 or £100 wagers reduced to £7, £6, £5 or even less (the record low offer for a bet is £1.67).
At one point, I lived in west London and could walk, anonymously, into a high -street bookmaker to strike a bet. If I needed a larger than usual bet placed, I employed the (free) services of my mother, who is now 87, to double my stakes. After she collected on two successive big wins at one shop off the King’s Road, the regular punters started revering her like a Mafia boss. However, I now live deep in the countryside miles from any betting shops and so using the internet is my only regular way of gambling.
Today I spend as much time plotting how I might be able to strike the occasional big bet as I do studying the form of racehorses. However, old habits die hard and, whisper it, I think I might have discovered a cunning method of getting one up on the old enemy…
The author’s name is known to the Observer, but it has been withheld at his request