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Virtual racing claims 17% of betting on horses 13/08/2007
Simon Bowers

Nearly 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 terminals
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.

An 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 racing.

Inspired Group
Inspired 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.

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