The betting game

No local horse racing, but gambling on the horses gets off to a flying start.

Horse racing for the finish line at Goodwood racecourse in southern England, July 31. (photo credit: EDDIE KEOGH / REUTERS)
Horse racing for the finish line at Goodwood racecourse in southern England, July 31.
(photo credit: EDDIE KEOGH / REUTERS)
 They raced in Ancient Egypt; the Greeks and Romans established racecourses across their empires (including the Roman chariot racing track at Caesarea that is still visible today); and the modern sport of horse racing and its associated betting industry is huge all over the globe. But in Israel, well therein lies a tale… Horse racing, the “Sport of Kings” as it is often presented around the globe, has been around at least as long as kings themselves, but it took until 2013 for legal betting on horse racing to finally arrive in the State of Israel. And, by all accounts, it’s proving a big hit with bettors.
The ongoing, and much chronicled, rivalry between the state-run lottery board, (Mifal Hapayis), and the Israel Sports Betting Board (ISBB, known as Toto), recently produced a revolutionary addition to the sports on which locals are legally allowed to wager, as live betting on British and Irish horse racing was launched on a public with little or no awareness of the multi-faceted sport.
“There was a big question of how betting on racing would be received in Israel,” Ronen Grinfeld, Director of Racing at the ISBB, admits to The Jerusalem Report. “No horse racing tradition, no industry, no horses, nothing! The No. 1 challenge was to take a very complicated industry with lots of data and make it accessible for the Israeli bettor.”
The plain fact is that Israel is one of the few developed countries in the world without a racetrack, and almost certainly the only former British-occupied territory that didn’t maintain the sport after the Brits upped and left in 1948. Think about it – the US, Canada, India, Ireland, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Cyprus, Kenya, Barbados, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia... The list goes on and on.
Apart from occasional amateur racing at Ein Harod, near Beit She’an, which began during the British Mandate of Palestine back in the 1930s, and other occasional gatherings of kibbutzniks and local Arabs at other “tracks,” to the present day, there has been no established horse racing or a thoroughbred racehorse breeding industry to speak of. This despite the fact that one of the few shared passions of Jews, Arabs, Beduins, and Druze is a love of horses. For many, that also means a love of horse racing.
One of the main reasons for the ISBB’s appeal to the government for a license to bet on overseas horse racing (in the absence of any local product on which to base their project) was the fact that, despite having a monopoly on sports betting in Israel, the majority of sports bets were not going through their betting kiosks. Black market sports betting was, and to a great extent still is, generally acknowledged to be taking a potential fortune out of the coffers of the state-run company – money that otherwise would have been forwarded to building more football stadiums, swimming pools, tennis courts, and other worthy projects.
A DECEMBER 2012 study on the subject of illegal betting in Israel, carried out by Avichai Snir of Netanya Academic College and Ronen Bar-El of the Open University, estimated that “NIS 12.5 billion [$3.5 billion] is spent a year on sports gambling, of which about NIS 11 billion [$3.1 billion] is outside the law.” The study suggested that expanding the opportunities for gamblers to bet legally would reduce income to mafia and underworld associated organizations that have thrived over the last few decades because of the proliferation of illegal betting. They concluded that “legalizing half of Israel’s illicit gambling on sporting events would net the government NIS 1.2 billion [$340 million] in taxes.”
The approval of horse racing’s addition to the local sports-betting basket didn’t go through though without agonizingly long, drawn out years of deliberations, eventually followed by a heated 2012 parliamentary debate in which there were plenty of views for and against the expansion of sports betting.
“Most Israeli sports facilities are funded by betting; therefore the Council for Sports Gambling should be allowed to widen the number and scope of its products,” Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) said. “I naturally oppose betting,” said MK Ya’akov Edri (Kadima), “but it is a fact that the betting market brings in billions; if it is possible to route this money so that it does not go to the black market and crime it is just as well. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and act as if the betting industry did not exist.” Among the opposing voices was then MK Shachiv Shnaan (Ha’atzma’ut), who argued, “This is another way for people to waste their money, including the downtrodden who are tempted to gamble in spite of their economic problems.”
Shai Hermesh (Kadima) supported the move, but felt that by legalizing betting only on overseas horse racing, the government was missing a golden opportunity to promote a new labor-intensive industry at home and was making more money for overseas operators than for the local economy. Hermesh asserted that foreign horse racing “closes the option in Israel – the Galilee and Negev miss out on a huge economic stimulus. Betting goes out to England and Ireland, and prevents bringing a lot of money into Israel.”
Evidence of professionally regulated horse racing from around the globe, placing the health and needs of the horses involved as a top priority, has satisfied scores of international first-world investigations into the subject. Still, Hakol Chai, a radical animal rights organization, vehemently rallied against racing and betting on racing being implemented in Israel.
“We are for sports in Israel, but not at the expense of animals,” it argued. However, the organization’s emotive campaign and vocal efforts to block the ISBB’s license application failed to derail the plans.
The “Racer” division of the ISBB was established after reaching a deal with British- based GBI Racing, which delivers live daily broadcasts of horse racing from Britain and Ireland to Israeli customers together with the ability for Israelis to bet directly into the British and Irish betting pools.
Locals, therefore, receive exactly the same odds and payouts as customers, not just in Britain and Ireland, but in dozens of other countries.
Once the license was granted, the challenge had to be faced of educating a public that rarely had seen horse racing on their screens (let alone in the flesh), to the indepth statistical nature and many nuances of betting on a very complex sport.
“They didn’t know most of the horses and jockeys by name, so they tended to talk about ‘Go No. 4!’” Grinfeld explains. “At the moment, it is still more about betting than a love of the sport, but we are seeing a desire for more and more information on the horses, the jockeys, ground conditions, etc. The [turnover] figures are much, much higher than our own early predictions or those of GBI – the numbers are more than double what we expected. It’s going great.”
“By the end of this year, there will be 280 Racer offices as well as the Racer website and mobile applications. That number will grow to 400 by the end of 2015,” Grinfeld relates. “Betting on the sport is catching the imagination of Jews and Arabs, as well as Anglo-Saxon and French Israelis who have a traditional connection to the sport. This is the betting product of the future in Israel.”
Grinfeld notes that ISBB takes seriously its responsibility not to encourage under- age and problem gambling, and says it is part of the European Lotteries charter for responsible gambling. Nevertheless, the rising profile of the Racer horse-racing betting, according to addictions expert Orit Ofir Eldar, is a cause for concern.
“There is already enough legal gambling in Israel, we don’t need more,” Eldar tells The Report. “Gamblers can lose their houses through their habit, and when it’s legal it’s much easier than when it is not.
A person who would have thought twice about betting because it was illegal now doesn’t have that barrier. It’s quite new, so I haven’t seen too many people yet with horse-racing betting problems, but what I have found is that people who go into the betting shops now see horses and are starting to bet on that as well.”
I met Ofer, a regular horse-racing bettor at a Racer betting shop in Karkur, near Hadera. He gave me his take on the new gambling opportunity. “It’s more fun than football,” he laughs. “It’s action all the time.”
Unlike other sports where hours or days may pass between games, with the horses, there’s a race, on average, every eight to 10 minutes.
“Are you winning?” I enquire. “Not today, but I get a kick out of it anyway. I don’t know anything about the horses,” Ofer says.
“So how do you choose which horses to bet on?” I ask. “I pick one of the champion jockeys like Tony McCoy or Richard Hughes,” he explains. “Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.”
WHILE THE Racer product goes from strength to strength in Israel, the prospect of establishing a local horse-racing industry – as was raised in the Knesset debate by Hermesh – appears to be a long way down the line. Despite the efforts of the Israel Jockey Club (IJC), which between 1999 and 2008 staged a series of successful race meetings for both thoroughbred and Arabian horses that attracted good crowds and even enjoyed the patronage of leading politicians and international dignitaries, racing in Israel is in deep freeze.
“The dream of genuine Israeli horse-racing enthusiasts is that the success of the Racer’s betting on overseas horse racing not only will present this great sport to a much wider audience than had been the case previously,” former IJC chairman and racehorse breeder Gilad Ram tells The Report, “but that it also will encourage the ISBB to reinvest some of the betting profits in establishing a quality local racing industry that would be a new sporting and social attraction for Israelis, and provide plenty of jobs in what is a labor-intensive industry.”
The now disbanded IJC pulled the plug on organizing races locally when it became clear that providing quality races was almost impossible without a budget in place to carry out drug testing and enforce rules and regulations, as is the case in developed horse-racing nations. Rather than see abuses, they chose to close their small track at Pardes Hanna until such time as sufficient funds become available to start again with a blank sheet and do the job properly. They’re still waiting.
“We maintained racing in this country through the sheer hard work of our volunteers until the situation without funding became untenable,” Ram recalls. “We know that Israelis love going to the races – we’ve had 12,000 people at some races in the past and the atmosphere has been amazing.
“We even invited the Palestinian Racing Association to compete with us at Pardes Hanna back in 2008 and that was a tremendous success. The love of horse racing is a shared passion in this land. It crosses all religious and racial barriers, so who knows where such channels of communication might lead?” For now, though, for all intents and purposes, there is no racing in Israel – which also means no horse-breeding industry to speak of and a void in the lives of those locals who love the sport. Still, betting on horses looks like it’s here to stay, proving a big winner for the ISBB and, it appears, for Israeli sport in general.
Only time will tell, however, how that success will affect the average sports bettor and if it eventually will translate into the color and passion of Israeli horse racing where, instead of watching via satellite as they fight it out for the Ascot Gold Cup, local horses and jockeys will entertain the masses in the Tel Aviv City Trophy.
 Paul Alster, an Israel-based journalist, was formerly a horse-racing broadcast journalist in the UK.