UK racing bettors will head into relatively uncharted territory this weekend with the running of the Virtual Grand National after the real-world version was pandemicked out of action.
In mid-March, UK’s racing authorities bowed to the inevitable and cancelled the Grand National 2020, which was scheduled to be held at Aintree racecourse this Saturday (4). Aintree owner Jockey Club scrapped the entire three-day meeting to comply with the government’s efforts to minimize further spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
With most other sports and racing events having already fallen victim to pandemic mitigation, bookmakers were left with another marquee hole on their betting calendar. Virtual technology has now ridden to the rescue, and while bookmakers won’t directly benefit, they might convince virtual bettors to stick around and see what other fake sports might catch their interest.
For the past three years, broadcaster ITV has aired a simulated version of the Grand National ahead of the actual race courtesy of virtual race/sports stars Inspired Entertainment. Using historical race data and the runners’ form and preferences, computer algorithms plot out how the race is likely to run and CGI takes care of the rest.
UK gambling operators have been repeatedly warned by regulators not to take advantage of the current crisis, so Betting & Gaming Council members have pledged to limit all wagers on the virtual race to £10 per horse per customer per event, or £10 each way per horse. The UK Tote will also provide a pool on the race.
Furthermore, bookmakers and the Tote have pledged that all profits from the virtual race will be donated to National Health Service charities to aid the COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
The 40 virtual runners were announced Wednesday and include Tiger Roll, who was aiming to become the first horse in history to three-peat at Aintree. The Virtual Grand National, which will be produced by Carm Productions, will air at 5pm Saturday.
Both the bookmaking and racing industries could well do with a spot of good news. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) recently stood down 80% of its staff – who will still collect most of their pay under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – as part of a plan to save £1m per month while racing stands inactive.
Bookmakers have also had to shutter shops and furlough staff, while the cancellation of most sports and race events have left online bookmaking teams scrambling to fill the void. eSports wagering has helped fill some of that void, but virtuals could take on new significance depending on how this weekend’s race pans out.