In the interests of clarity, this article refers to simulated betting products shown on SIS in bookmaker offices and online. It is not intended to evaluate the prospects of producing a successful virtual stable in online virtual racing games.
In this instance, virtual racing can refer to computer-generated horse racing tracks such as those produced by 49s – Sprintvalley, Steepledowns and Portman Park and shown on SIS or the generic courses which are exclusive to a particular bookmaker and usually run every few minutes on their websites. It could also apply to virtual greyhound racing and to a lesser extent other virtual sporting events, including cycling.
Why do we have virtual racing?
Virtual racing was originally developed to fill gaps between events. It is intended to add interest and increase betting opportunities on quieter days. The aim is to keep players in the offices and on websites for longer. In some ways, it serves the same purpose as the coffee vending machines but chances are it delivers a much better profit margin to your local bookmaker. It can also help to create atmosphere, which could otherwise be lacking during quiet trading periods.
How does it work?
Virtual racing is essentially a numbers game. It is actually closer to playing the lottery than it is to real horse or greyhound racing. Simply stated, it is a lucky numbers draw where instead of seeing the number printed on a ball emerge from a machine, you see the number cross a line (attached to a horse graphic).
Virtual horse racing is, however, a far more complex draw than a simple lottery. Hardly surprising then that the leading virtual horse and greyhound tracks are operated by 49s. In a lottery, each number has the same chance of being drawn and is represented in the pool only once. To simulate a horse race, each number (or horse) has a different chance of winning. This is represented by the odds. This is achieved by weighting each selection. If you can imagine a lottery machine containing a thousand balls, each with the name of a horse on, the favourite’s name may appear on 200 or more of those balls. The name of an outsider may appear on only 10 balls. Clearly one has a much better chance of being drawn or ‘winning’ the race.
In this way, the probability of winning can be accurately reflected in the odds. However, that is not to say that the odds displayed are an exact measure of probability. This is because the odds that are made available to players include a bookmaker margin.
What is a bookmaker margin?
A bookmaker margin is their profit. The chances of correctly forecasting the outcome of a roll of an ordinary six-sided die is one in six. That is represented by odds of 5/1 (five to one against). If you placed a £1 bet on each of the six numbers, it would cost you £6. The winning number would also then return £6 (£1 at 5/1 plus £1 winning stake return). However, ask a bookmaker for odds on correctly predicting the roll of a die and you will probably be quoted 9/2 or even 4/1. If you placed a £1 bet on each of the six possible outcomes it would still cost you £6. This time however, the return on the winning number would be only £5 (£1 at 4/1 plus £1 winning stake return.) This provides the layer with a £1 profit or margin.
A bookmaker cannot predict the outcome any more than you can. But by building in a margin (often referred to as an overround) they can ensure that while there may be winners and losers, they should always show a profit. Ideally on every event.
Is virtual horse racing fair?
We regularly get emails from disgruntled players who claim that virtual horse racing is fixed. They often rant about being cheated and that all bookmakers are thieves. So, are they right? Do bookmakers cheat on virtual racing?
One element that perhaps gives players concern and reason for suspicion is the bookmaker’s control over the events which they are inviting punters to play on. Both Sports Information Services (SIS) and 49s, the operators of Sprintvalley, Steepledowns, Portman Park, are backed by major bookmakers. These include Ladbrokes/Coral, William Hill and Betfred. Additionally, they are not keen to disclose the margins they are using. It is likely that margins on virtual horse racing lie somewhere between 5% and 20%. It is very unlikely that any bookmaker will disclose their margin on any given virtual race.
More worrying perhaps is the potential to manipulate the odds and margins. We know there is a margin built in but we don’t know how big it is on any particular event. There is no way of knowing if a horse represented by odds of 5/1 in one race has the same chance of winning as a 5/1 chance in another. If the day is not going well, could a bookmaker increase the margins in order to claw back previous losses? The potential for this increases for generic virtual racing where a single bookmaker has complete control.
On the positive side, we have the Gambling Commission. All bookmakers are required to be licensed by the regulator in order to operate in the UK. The Gambling Commission has significant powers and bookmakers do take compliance very seriously. Not doing so puts their license to operate and their business at risk. The Gambling Commission requires bookmakers to conduct business in a ‘fair and open way’.
Bookmakers often also make use of services from organisations such as Gaming Laboratories International (GamingLabs). GamingLabs inspect, test and certificate electronic gaming products. A GamingLabs certificate guarantees that a random number generator is truly random.
Bookmakers know the result
One specific criticism we often hear is that bookmakers must know or choose the result before the race is run. This seems to stem from the belief that they must have prior knowledge of the race in order to create it and produce the commentary. Here, there are some similarities with horse racing simulation games. They must also produce video to go along with their race results. Having discussed this with games operators, they have offered the explanation that the races are never really ‘live’, that they do not ‘play out’ in real time. Rather, the draw is made, the result is generated and a graphical representation of that result is created. Nothing special needs to happen to achieve this, all that matters is the point at which they cross the line. Anything prior is purely for entertainment purposes.
Can the bookmaker be beaten?
Complaints about virtual race betting largely come from a misunderstanding of what the product really is and how it works. Bookmakers deliberately portray virtual racing, not like the lucky numbers game that it is, but rather more like real racing. This is because if people realise that it is purely based on chance and there is a bookmaker margin built in then it begins to lose its appeal as a betting medium. A bookmaker must convince a player that they could or might win or they simply will not play.
Bookmakers are indeed very good at this. We are often visited on this site by those searching for “virtual horse racing tips”. Of course, in virtual racing, there is no form to be had, no draw advantage, no handicapping and no amount of study to be done in order to find an edge. In addition, even if it is not fixed or manipulated, the odds are literally stacked against you.
It is also probable that the return to player varies from race to race. Most virtual races have large field sizes. You may think that your chance of winning on a less common, smaller field race is better. That may well be true. However, although you may win more often, it is likely that the overround on these races is higher and the return to player is less.
People often point to trends and patterns as a means of finding winners and beating the book. Bookmakers encourage this behaviour. The 49s website has a page dedicated to ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ balls in their lottery draw. Their ‘Fount of all knowledge’ also allows you to see historical data on performances of virtual horses. This is as close as you will get to form. Unfortunately, The Fount only displays winning data and neglects to include any losing performances.
In real racing, the bigger the odds, the more you are likely to lose. The chances of an even money shot winning should be one in every two. The reality is even money horses only win 1 in every 2.2 times, providing a small margin to the layer. However, while a 100/1 winner should win one race in every hundred, the reality is that closer to 1 in every 300 is a winner, around a 70% loss. If the odds in virtual racing more closely follow probability, even with a hefty built in margin, then it could be that long odds betting in virtual racing may perform better than it does in real racing. There is no in-depth statistical data available that we are aware of that could either confirm or refute this. Of course we can’t even be sure that a 100/1 virtual horse really is a 100/1 chance.
We regularly hear theories on how to spot a virtual race winner at attractive odds, or systems that ‘work’. We also hear plenty about how the whole thing is a scam. The simple reality is that virtual racing is another form of lottery, a game of pure chance and one that has a healthy margin for the operator. While some short term success may be possible, long term prospects are not at all good. Essentially, no, you cannot win on virtual horse racing.
Still searching for virtual horse racing tips? The best we can offer is to stick to the 49s products and away from generic bookmaker virtual tracks. If you do play, do so for fun while accepting that the odds include a bookmaker profit margin. And of course, never bet more than you can afford to lose.