Nick Rust took over the reins as chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority in January of this year, the first to be chosen with a background in the bookmaking industry. He spoke recently to BOS Magazine editor Mary Pitt about what he hopes to achieve in his new role, which many have described as being ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’.
MP: In the November/December 2014 issue of BOS, I wrote in my ‘Comment’ column, ‘Rust is unlikely to act as a game changer, but instead more of a game evolver’. Is that how you see yourself, with your background in the bookmaking industry, as building on the success your predecessor, Paul Bittar, had in bringing the racing and betting industries closer together?
NR: Time will tell whether you’re right about being a game changer or a game evolver. I suppose all I want to say is that I haven’t taken this role just to bide my time. I have a huge passion for this sport and I’m looking to move things on for the better. On the betting side of things, I’m committed to developing relationships with the betting industry, and going further than what Paul achieved, which was good. We’ve now held two meetings of the Racing and Betting Group, with senior industry figures, and I think we’re making progress.
I started as a board marker in betting shops and I worked in and around betting shops for more than 20 years of my 27 years in betting so I’d like to think I understand the business model very well and would hope that will assist in building trust and achieving improvement on the betting side. Ultimately I want to see betting on British racing improve and I can only do that if I build a relationship with the betting operators.
MP: The newly created Horseracing Bettors Forum will report to the BHA’s Racing and Betting Group – who is involved in that group and what is their remit? Is there representation for small independent bookmakers?
NR: The Racing and Betting Group involves major betting operators and also Alan Delmonte from the Levy Board at present. It’s designed to focus on major initiatives to drive betting on British racing, but also to discuss funding matters as well. There’s no reason why a representative of the smaller operators can’t be included. We only got going two meetings ago, and if a representative can be put forward who carries the smaller operators we’d be delighted to include them.
MP: If the proposal for Arena Racing Company and Racecourse Media Group to provide racecourse pictures and data directly to bookmakers comes to fruition, might this new arrangement replace, or negate, the need for a ‘racing right’ type of agreement?
NR: No, but it will keep the overall costs of media rights and distribution of those pictures and data down. The Horserace Betting Right is needed to ensure that the levy, which has served racing and betting pretty well up until the last decade, can be replaced with something which closes the major loophole around the majority of bets being placed through digital means not paying anything towards the levy as things stand. Unlike betting shops, many of the digital operators are free riding, or partially free riding, and this potentially creates, or has created, a bigger burden on betting shop operators.
As I mentioned before, I’d like to think I understand the betting shop business model. I don’t want to see increased costs for betting shop operators under a Horserace Betting Right versus the levy. Unless of course we manage to grow betting on British racing, in which case if there are more profits coming in then betting shop operators will be prepared to pay a bit more. But as things stand we’re not seeking to generate more money from betting operators through the Horserace Betting Right. This is really about closing the loophole in the digital space.
MP: Several tracks, including Chester and Ripon, have introduced their own tote. Would you consider it a positive step for racing if more tracks went down this route?
NR: There has been a bit of innovation at some tracks following the acquisition of the tote by Betfred. Ultimately it’s good for competition for consumers if there’s a bit of variety. When the exclusivity for pool betting on British racing ends in 2018 I think we’ll see a number of organisations seeking to enter the market and racecourses will obviously play a key role. I think maybe the racecourses will wait and see what their options are over the next two years. But I expect more variety for consumers, more choice moving forwards.
MP: Following on from the previous question, would you consider a model similar to the US, whereby a certain percentage – say five pence, for example, of every pound bet on British racing in betting shops – went directly to racing? Might this resolve the argument that smaller shops face an incrementally higher percentage of fees?
NR: We’re considering a number of variations to the rate card model for the Horserace Betting Right, and all will be carefully designed to suit the business models of the various types of betting operators offering bets on British racing and also to provide an incentive for growth. As I mentioned before, I don’t see betting shops, particularly smaller operators, paying more than they do currently under a Horserace Betting Right.
MP: We interview a lot of small independent bookmakers for BOS, and they often question why, as racing makes up a diminishing percentage of turnover in shops, they continue to pay such a high rate of levy for it. How would you respond to that?
NR: There are some thresholds in place which means that smaller betting shops, including those operated by the major operators, I’ll accept, do start paying levy after a certain amount of profit is earned. If betting on British racing falls, they pay less. I’m committed to working with the betting industry to grow betting on British racing, and whilst a lot of that growth may come in digital channels, I’d also like to see some in the betting shop side. Obviously, if we can’t achieve that, individual operators will continue to pay less in levy over time.
MP: One of the items in the BHA’s Strategy for Growth is to ‘align GB and Ireland race timings and other race timing improvements’. On July 17, a delay to the start of a race at Pontefract to allow a race in Ireland to finish had a knock-on effect to that evening’s biggest betting race, the Scottish Steward’s Cup at Hamilton. Should there not be some discretion (such as adding ‘wherever practical’) within the rule stating that a race can’t start until another race has finished in order to maximise betting turnover when the latter race is more attractive for betting purposes?
NR: The Pontefract race was difficult for several reasons in that we had an injured horse at the start following the delay as well. The delays in starting races to accommodate the finish of other races so that more betting can be facilitated were brought in after requests from betting operators through the Levy Board. They were brought in about 18 months ago and have been refined since. On the whole, they’ve worked well. The Levy Board itself estimates an improvement in levy generation in 2014 of about three quarters of a million pounds on the back of these changes They’re not perfect at the moment, as the example you gave shows, and I’m committed to reviewing the situation to ensure we balance the needs of betting shops, punters, media companies and horsemen as well as we can, but ultimately to try to ensure that we give as much opportunity as possible for betting shop punters to bet on the next race.
MP: Thus far in your career, what has given you the most personal satisfaction?
NR: I’m proud of a few things, really, and I couldn’t single one out. I’m very proud of starting out working in betting shops. I love betting shops. I worked my way from board marker level to executive board level at Ladbrokes. Most of your readers will remember what board markers are, some may not!
The second is taking Surrey Sports, which was part of BSkyB, converting it to SkyBet and subsequently setting it on the path to being one of Britain’s most successful betting brands.
I think, finally, to be asked to come and lead the British Horseracing Authority, having come from the betting side of things, was a very satisfying moment, but obviously it’s only going to be satisfying if I help deliver growth for our sport.