No crowds at the Cup, but bookies banking on big online bets

Flemington Racecourse will be empty trackside when the Melbourne Cup is run next week but bookmakers expect a bumper result from the race that stops the nation after COVID-19 lockdowns have driven an uptake in online gambling.

Betting giant Tabcorp’s head of wagering Adam Rytenskild said he expected the positive numbers seen so far this spring racing season to continue, with turnover on Caulfield Cup day last week jumping 32 per cent compared to last year.

Tabcorp's managing director of wagering, Adam, Rytenskild with the Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott-trained Dorothy of OZ.
Tabcorp’s managing director of wagering, Adam, Rytenskild with the Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott-trained Dorothy of OZ. Credit:Rhett Wyman

Mr Rytenskild said people “looking for something to do” while stuck at home during COVID-19 lockdowns had led to a rise in online wagering accounts, while retail betting was getting a boost as restrictions lifted. Venues and TAB betting agencies will open in Melbourne on Wednesday.

“People have been keen to get out, get back down to their local pub or club or agency for that matter and actually see some people – have a meal, have a beer, have a bet,” he said.


Dean Shannon, chief executive of GVC Australia which owns the bookmakers Ladbrokes and Neds, also said the pandemic had driven an increase in betting on horse races, which has been able to continue through the crisis as sporting codes and other entertainment options shut down.

“We have seen an uplift as consumers have been limited in their entertainment options,” Mr Shannon said. “We have seen solid increases in turnover on both the Sydney and Melbourne carnival races… and we would expect that to continue into Cup week.”

Tony Mohr, executive director of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, said the rush to online gambling during COVID-19 was a concern and that a big betting carnival could not come at a worse time. “So many Victorians and all over the country have lost their jobs or are under really extreme financial stress and we’re doing everything we can to keep people afloat,” Mr Mohr said.

“We’re really concerned that some of the drain on people’s superannuation that they took out during COVID could be going into the horse races.”

Mr Mohr said Victoria could be set for a double hit, with the possible reopening of poker machine venues within weeks. Pokies losses jumped 30 per cent year-on-year in Queensland and 20 per cent in Tasmania in the month after venues there reopened.

A survey by the federal government’s Australian Gambling Research Centre of 2019 gamblers published this month found that almost a third signed up for a new betting account during COVID-19. The proportion that gambled four or more times a week increased from 23 per cent before COVID-19 to 32 per cent.

Betting was subdued on last year’s spring racing carnival. Tabcorp’s turnover on the Melbourne Cup fell 7 per cent to $106 million, amid a downturn in betting as online bookmakers offered conservative odds to protect their profit margins following the introduction of state-based “point of consumption” taxes.

Meanwhile, rivalry between Tabcorp’s TAB brand and online bookmakers such as Sportsbet and Ladbrokes has entered a fiercely competitive period, with heavy advertising spending, better odds and generous inducements such as sign-up bonuses on offer.

Australian bookies now had the most punter-friendly levels in at least 12 months, according to JP Morgan gaming analyst Don Carducci. The industry wide “over-round” – which is the bookmakers’ theoretical profit margin, as implied by their odds – in September was 1.4 per cent below the same month last year.

And bookmakers were offering “unprecedented levels” of inducements, as they scramble to maintain or gain market share following the merging of Sportsbet and BetEasy in May, Mr Carducci said in a research note published earlier this month.

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