Bookmaker David Dwyer has been in the racing game for four decades, but coronavirus has forced a move that’s paying off. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Will racing shut down with a positive coronavirus test? Not necessarily, according to officials
Back in the day when tens of thousands would regularly descend on racetracks around Australia, the bookies’ ring — where bets were placed on upcoming races — wasn’t for the faint of heart.
David Dwyer, a stalwart of the New South Wales rails bookmaking scene, speaks of the time fondly.
“I remember going to Grafton in the eighties and helping out, there were people running around with fistfuls of cash just trying to back horses,” he said.
“The prices were changing every second and it was just a great time; a sea of money.”
Back then, online wagering was yet to take hold and without established casinos in Australia’s major cities, the track was the main place for most Australians to get their gaming fix.
Crowds of people place bets in the bookie ring at Randwick Racecourse. (Racing New South Wales)
“You have got to remember there was no pre-post betting in those days, so all the betting happened in 30 minutes — from the time they put the market up until they jumped,” Dwyer said.
“Everybody was waiting for the bookmaker to put the prices up and then [they would] charge into the one they wanted to back.”
It was a heaving, bustling scene a long way from the current state of the modern betting ring, which has dwindled in recent years, especially outside of metropolitan areas.
“These days there might [only] be two to three bookmakers at Gosford or Hawkesbury.”
Dwyer says society’s rapid moves to become cashless in recent years as well as a shift to online betting are two big trends working against his trade even before the coronavirus pandemic.
“For any bookmakers that were relying on the face-to-face business, there is none.”
‘I have probably doubled my customer base’
Coronavirus forced bookmaker David Dwyer to change his business model and it’s worked. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
In the midst of this pandemic, which saw his entire cashflow wiped out, Dwyer launched a new digital wagering platform which has proven to be a winner, but experts worry it could create more losers among the gambling public.
“I have probably doubled my customer base in the past two months,” Dwyer said.
“The online has been going for about three months now and we have got four or five [bookies] on there now and probably another five wanting to come on,” he said.
Dwyer is sharing the back-end technology with a number of leading rails bookies, which allows for risk to be shared and the customer to get attractive odds.
“My average margin would be 6 or 7 per cent, whereas the corporates would be 15 or 16 per cent.”
The online shift is on
An increasing number of people have opened online betting accounts during the coronavirus shutdown. (ABC News)
Dwyer’s results are reflective of a seismic shift in the wagering landscape which is seeing increasing numbers of people, at home during the shutdown, starting to open online accounts.
Last week, economics firm AlphaBeta published a report which found online wagering had increased by 67 per cent in the wake of the pandemic.
Professor Samantha Thomas, a gambling expert at Deakin University, believes many of those making the move to digital are coming across from traditional forms of gambling.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
“They are moving across from gambling on poker machines, or in physical outlets,” she said.
Thousands of retail betting options have closed in the past month, including those within pubs and clubs, traditional street-facing TAB outlets and casinos.
Dwyer is hopeful of capitalising on the current climate, which is likely to see online as the only betting option for punters in the foreseeable future.
“Most of the people I am talking to online are getting around 20 to 100 new clients a week while the TABs are closed.”
Race clubs have supported their rails bookies taking the digital plunge while trying to incentivise them to resume their on-track presence when the crowds eventually return.
A spokesperson for the Australian Turf Club in Sydney said it’s actually in the process of working out more ways to integrate technology.
“The club is working closely with involved parties to develop a system that gives any punter attending an ATC venue the ability to access the best available on-course price through a mobile device without having to find the specific bookmaker stand.”
Experts call for regulatory review
The Australian wagering industry has experienced substantial growth in the past decade.
Many have become familiar with the presence of large online corporate bookmakers such as Sportsbet and Ladbrokes, based on eye-catching marketing and advertising promotions.
The other large player is the publicly listed Tabcorp, which has maintained its large retail wagering presence throughout Australia while developing its own online arm.
Professor Thomas, who has done extensive research on the social impacts of problem gambling, believes those moving online could be particularly vulnerable to more sophisticated marketing techniques.
“The online venue never closes, it is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and people can be pushed marketing at all times of the day and night.”
“The ability of these [wagering] companies to use AI to target people more effectively; that is becoming a big concern.”
“I think one of the things that we are also worried about in terms of online marketing is that it’s hidden and it’s not monitored as well as we would like.”
She says the rapid adoption rate means more legislation is needed.
“For those people, we want to make sure that we have measures in place to make sure they are protected moving forward.”
“One thing could be something like a 48-hour cool-off period, so that you can’t jump immediately online and start betting on an account.”
Dwyer has no concerns that he is exposing his new customers to harm and says a self-limiting option on his new digital wagering service is a good measure to stop anybody from going overboard.
“We have a pre-commitment facility,” he said.
“When you sign up you set a maximum deposit you want to make and you can set it daily, weekly or monthly.
“I can’t override that, which I think is a great thing.”