Few things in betting are as synonymous with a particular sport as the Tote is with racing. What started life as a way for the British government to benefit from the world of betting that they had hitherto kept at arm’s length developed into a behemoth of an organisation, which bookmakers fought for the right to own when the government finally decided to put it up for sale after the turn of the millennium.
It’s an organisation that has a fascinating history, including in recent times when the horse racing industry attempted to turn its back on it because they didn’t think that Fred Done, the owner of Betfred who eventually bought it from the government, had the industry’s best interests at heart. The crucial thing about it as far as I’m concerned for these pages is that it offers punters a different way to bet from standard fixed-odds bookmakers, so I’ll have a look at how it works and why you might want to consider heading to the Tote the next time you go the races.
A Brief History of the Tote
The best place to start is by taking a quick look at the Tote’s history, which has been genuinely fascinating. It was actually the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who helped to come up with the idea when the British government realised that it was missing out on a lot of revenue taken from gambling. Before the Tote came into existence, the only legal bookmakers were the ones who had pitches at the various racecourses around the country, but that didn’t mean that that was the only way that punters were placing bets.
Instead, people would regularly go to unlicensed bookmakers in shady backstreet locations, placing bets with them despite the inherent risks that came with dealing with such characters. The government’s response was to sign the Racecourse Betting Act of 1928 into law, with the Racehorse Betting Control Board being established as a result. It was a a statutory corporation that had numerous responsibilities, one of the chief ones of which was to ensure that money made from betting was given back to the horse racing industry.
Newmarket and Carlisle racecourses were the first to offer pool bets on British racecourses, which happened when the new system went live in July of 1929. In 1930 a company named Tote Investors Limited was established, but it was separate from the Tote set up by the government until it was bought out by it in 1962. Things didn’t change much after that, with the obvious exception of the fact that it began to operate on more and more racecourses as they years passed. That remained the case until the Betting Levy Act came into being in 1961 and bookmakers could move onto Britain’s high streets for the first time.
The act also saw a shift for the Tote, which saw its name change from the Racehorse Betting Control Board to the Horserace Totalisator Board. It was at this point that it also began to be referred to by its nickname of ‘the Nanny’ by some, thanks to cockney rhyming slang making Tote into Nanny Goat. On a more serious note, 1961 was the point at which the Horserace Betting Levy Board came into existence, which was a statutory public body that was responsible for the collection of a levy from the Tote that was paid back into the horse racing industry.
During this time, the Tote was restricted from operating betting shops on the high street in the same way that fixed odds bookmakers were allowed to; a fact that didn’t change when the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act was introduced in 1963. Indeed, it didn’t change until the laws were relaxed in 1972 in order to give the Tote a chance to catch up with more traditional bookmakers, which had made huge strides in terms of earning the public’s trust (and money) since 1961.
The Tote in the Modern Era
Things really began to develop for the Tote in 1992 when Tote Direct was launched. That allowed punters to place bets with their normal bookmaker that would count towards the pool and helped pool betting to make a move into the mainstream. It saw the money that the horse racing industry made from betting courtesy of the Horserace Betting Levy Board sky rocket because more and more people were able to bet into the Tote pool rather than just those that were attending horse racing meetings.
The link-up between the Tote and Channel 4 racing in 1999 also sent the Tote’s popularity to another level thanks to the invention od the Scoop6, which asked punters to predict the outcome of the six races being shown live on the channel. The sport’s first millionaire was created via the bet and by November of 2008 in excess of £4 million was entered into the betting pool. The pool was eventually split between eight people who took home more than £430,000 apiece.
All the while there had been calls to turn the Tote private and sell it off, something which eventually happened in 2011. Much to the consternation of the horse racing industry, the Tote was bought by Fred Done and Betfred for a price believed to be in the realm of £265 million. The industry wasn’t happy because they thought Done was simply after the five hundred and seventeen bookmaking shops that belonged to the Tote at that point and that he wasn’t bothered about horse racing in general.
There’s certainly an argument that their fears were well-founded and so when the restriction that meant the Tote was the only company that was allowed to offer parimutuel betting came to an end in July of 2018 the industry moved quickly to try to shift the playing field in their favour. There was an attempt for racecourses to come together and set up their own company called Britbet, but this didn’t work out as planned and by October of 2018 a deal had been struck with the Tote for the latter to continue to operate on the fifty-five tracks around the UK that had been part of the Britbet project, operated by the Britbet team, with the Tote continuing to work online.
How the Tote Works
Now that I’ve told you a little bit of information about the Tote’s history, let’s have a look at how the organisation works. In short, Tote betting is pool betting, whereby punters essentially put their money into a pot and take a share of it if their bet is a winner. This means that the odds on offer will differ depending on how many people are betting on a given horse and the payout will depend on how many winners there are. The money within the pool obviously has to be split fairly between everyone who paid into it, with those that paid more receiving a larger payout.
The total money located within the pool is diminished before payout by both taxes and the vigorish, which is a percentage taken away by the Tote for distribution to the horse racing industry and to cover running costs etc. Let’s say for simplicities sake that the total amount left in the pool after that has happened is £10,000. Twenty people have placed winning bets and each £1 bet amounts to one share. In this example, two hundred and fifty shares have been sold in total, meaning that you need to divide the £10,000 by two hundred and fifty:
- £10,000 in the pool
- 250 shares sold
- £10,000 / 250 = £40
- Each share is worth £40
This means that a £10 bet would be worth £10 x £40 or £400. Someone who has bet, say, £150 would get £150 x £40 or £6,000, whilst someone who has only bet £1 would receive £40 back in winnings. The bets placed on losing horses are what make up the rest of the pool, so their money is just lost.
Now the Tote differs from fixed odds bookmakers in a number of ways, not least of which is that the number of bets placed on each horse dictates the odds rather than the odds simply being set by someone based on how they think the race will go. Fixed odds bookies play with the odds to ensure they’ve always got an edge that sees them end up on top, whilst the Tote’s returns comes in the form of the vigorish mentioned earlier.
The Tote’s Different Bets
The Tote is essentially just like a traditional bookmaker in the sense that it offers punters a mix of standard bets and specialty offerings. Now that we know how the world of pools betting works, we can take a look at this various bet types and explain how they work.
You’ll find as you make your way through this list of bets that plenty of them have quite easy to understand titles, with this being a prime example. This is a simple bet on the outright winner of a race, boasting a minimum stake of £2. You can place the bet by giving the Tote representative the number of the horse that’s running, their name or simply bet on the favourite.
This is a combination of two types of bet: the Win bet and the Place bet. As such it is basically treated as two different types of bets, so you’ll pay double for your wager. Say you want to bet £1 on Unknown Horse to win but you’re not too sure exactly where it will come in the standings at the end of the race.
An Each-Way bet is the thing to opt for in these circumstances as a £1 bet would cost you £2 and involve £1 being placed on the Win and £1 on the Place. That means that as long as your horse finishes within the payout places for the race then you’ll see a return on your investment.
This bet isn’t offered for every single race type, but as long as there are five horses or more running then you’ll normally find that it will be. It is usually paid out in the following circumstances:
- 5 to 7 runners: Pays first and second
- 8 to 15 runners: Pays first, second and third
- 16 or more runners: Pays first, second, third and fourth
The minimum stake accepted here is £2 and this type of bet differs from an Each-Way bet because you’ll be paid the same amount regardless of where the horse finishes within the places.
Do you feel confident enough to predict the first two horses that will finish in a race and do you think you’ll be able to identify the order in which they’ll cross the finishing line? If so then an Exacta bet is what you want to be looking towards, given that it will pay out quite well if you pull it off. You’ll need to place a minimum of £2 on the bet and if you want to increase your stake you’ll have to do so in increments of 10 pence.
There are variations of Exacta bets, in case you’re not supremely confident about the order your favoured horses will finish in. You can place a Combination Exacta, which is basically two Exacta bets that allow the horses to finish in either order but will cost you double your stake. There’s also a Banker Exacta, in which you’ll select the horse you think will finish first and then as many horses as you like to finish second, though you have to pay each time you add a horse.
This is the equivalent of the Exacta but requires you to select three horses and the order in which they’ll finish the race. The minimum stake is £2 and, as with the Exacta, you can opt to bet on a Combination Trifecta or a Banker Trifecta if you wish to give yourself more flexibility when it comes to the order in which the horses will finish the race or the exact horses that will come home. Once again, it will cost you more money for the various types of bet.
Every UK race meeting at which there is a Tote in operation will offer a Quadpot. It asks punters to choose the winners of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth race at the meeting, with a minimum stake in place of 10 pence. You can choose to name the favourite if you’re unsure about which horse will win, with pots usually growing to an impressive amount on the most popular racecourses.
This is one of the most polar bets when it comes to Tote betting, mainly because of how large the overall pot can grow to. At the Cheltenham Festival in 2019, for example, one punter won more than £182,000 with a £2 bet on the Placepot.
As the name suggests, this asks you to select six horses that will finish within the places in six different races at a meeting. The minimum bet is 5 pence, but the returns can be enormous and that’s what makes it so popular. That is down to the fact that it is, as anyone who has ever bet on a horse race will know, very difficult to find the identity of a horse that will place in one race let alone all six in a meeting. As with the Placepot, Quadpot and Scoop6, if one of your selections is a non-runner then it will be replaced on your ticket by the Starting Price of the favourite.
Another popular bet is the Tote Jackpot, which is similar to the Placepot except for the fact that you need to pick the six winners at a meeting that has been selected by the Tote. The minimum stake is £1 and if you wish to increase it then you’ll need to do so in 50 pence increments. Once again the payout for this tends to be large, if for no other reason than if it’s not won then it rolls over to the next meeting.
The Scoop6, which I mentioned before, tends to be in place on a Saturday and on special occasions like Boxing Day. It asks punters to select the six winners from six different races and has a minimum stake in place of £2. The six races can come from any six meetings across the day, which is why it differs from the Jackpot. There’s also a dividend paid out if the if horses you’ve selected place in each race.
As with the Jackpot, if it’s not won then the Scoop6 jackpot will roll over to the next week, leading to some punters taking home as much as half a million pounds for a small bet.
This bet is one that is exclusive to the Tote, being an exotic bet that is available on any race that has six or more runners within a meeting. Punters are asked to select two horses that they think will finish within the top three places of the races, regardless of the order.
Bettors can win by one of three methods:
- Choose the horses that finish first and second, regardless of order
- Choose the horses that finish second and third, regardless of order
- Choose the horses that finish first and third, regardless of order
The dividend will differ for each outcome, with the minimum bet for this one being 10 pence if you’re betting in a shop or online and 50 pence if you’re betting on-course. It tends to be a popular way of betting overseas, particularly in South Africa where it accounts for 40% of pool betting.
How Do Tote Winnings Tend to Differ from Fixed-Odds Bookmakers?
The key thing about the Tote is that the very nature of it means that it differs from a more traditional bookmaker in the way that it pays out. For starters, the payout from the Tote is slightly misleading in so much as the amount it reveals as the dividend after races are complete includes A £1 stake, whereas you get your stake back in addition to your winnings with a fixed-odds bookie.
To demonstrate what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at a series of races that took place at Musselburgh in 2019:
|Race Number||Starting Price & Amount Returned To Bettor for £1||Tote Dividend of Winner||Difference|
|1||10/1 – £11||£10.70||£0.30|
|2||14/1 – £15||£13||£2|
|3||12/1 – £13||£12.80||£0.20|
|4||8/1 – £9||£6.20||£2.80|
|5||5/2 – £3.50||£3||£0.50|
|6||5/2 – £3.50||£3.20||£0.30|
|7||5/1 – £6||£5.70||£0.30|
As you can see, the payout from fixed-odds bookmakers is slightly more than the Tote in all seven of the races during the day at Musselburgh. There’s an argument, therefore, that the Tote is a much more interesting way of betting if you’re looking to place a bet in one of the specialist methods such as Quadpot or Placepot.
Indeed, whilst the Jackpot was not won at Musselburgh that day, the Placepot paid out £123.70 per £1 stake from a total pool of £78,936.96. The Quadpot, meanwhile, paid £7.20 per £1 stake from £8,851.59. Not a bad return if you can correctly identify the horses that finish in the places or winning positions!
Obviously, this is just one example of a day’s racing and many other besides would show the Tote to be favourable in terms of payouts, but this is a good example of how you can get marginal gains by betting with a traditional, fixed-odds bookie. You’ll also know exactly how much you can expect to get back from a traditional bookmaker because they announce their odds, whereas the return from the Tote will depend entirely on the dividend amount.