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The Welcome Return of the Grand National
by Jon Bryan

As we see the return of the Grand National, in-person betting, and people gathering together to watch the great race on TV, Jon Bryan warns that the outcome of the Gambling Review might put these things at risk.

The Grand National is one of a kind: a brilliant annual sporting event that millions of us watch in the UK - half a billion of us worldwide (1). If we're at home, we'll often be on the edge of our seats, or standing up cheering our pick over and over the jumps and on to the finish line. And this Saturday, for the first time in three years, we can gather with friends and family to watch the race on TV - something that most of us were not allowed to do for the last two years due to Covid restrictions. At Aintree, fans and racegoers will be back watching the event live and in-person - the first time since 2019.

Bookmakers can expect to see thousands of people through their doors on Saturday. Some looking around with an obvious 'How do I put a bet on?' look on their face, as the UK public take the opportunity to have a flutter - perhaps the only one that they might have this year. It is estimated that 13 million of us will place a bet on the 2022 Grand National (1).

'There's no race like it', says Vicky Knight from JenningsBet. 'The Grand National is always the busiest day of the year and the atmosphere in our shops is amazing. We'll have 50 per cent more staff on shift on Grand National day and all of our shops will open early at 8am so that customers have plenty of time to get their bets on.' (2)

It's no wonder that the bookies are excited for some return to normality. Like many establishments, betting shops have taken a hit over the last few years. The decline is quite apparent when you look at the number of shops: down to less than 7000 in the UK, a drop of over 2000 in less than four years (3). They will certainly welcome the custom, especially after the forced closures as a result of the various lockdowns. Even when betting shops were allowed to open as Covid restrictions were relaxed, there were periods when you could only spend 15 minutes in a bookies, while spending as long as you liked in other shops and leisure outlets. They may not be everyone's favourite shop on the high street, but bookmakers are here to stay. They serve a clear purpose as part of the UK leisure industry, will take around 1000 bets per shop on Saturday's big race, and employ 46,000 staff throughout the UK.

It's not just the bookmakers who have missed things like the Grand National, the public have too. 2020 wasn't quite the same when we had to make do with a Virtual Grand National (4), and last year the lack of a crowd had an impact, albeit that the race was able to take place as part of the rules around elite sport during Lockdown 3. How much people had missed horse racing and betting was obvious when you look at last month's Cheltenham Festival. There were record crowds at the meeting (5), while a million people at home watched the festival culminate in its most prestigious event - the Gold Cup. ITV'S coverage of the 2022 Cheltenham festival saw them gain a record audience share (6). While some complain that gambling is becoming 'normalised', for many of us that is exactly what it is - a normal activity that millions of people engage in every year. 43% of adults have gambled in the last four weeks (7)

The return of the Grand National this month, and the Cheltenham Festival last month, is good news for those of us who like a bet and enjoy the thrill that comes from doing so. But this year's horse racing calendar takes place in a context where gambling is under the microscope. For the last 18 months, the government has been undertaking a review of the 2005 Gambling Act (8). It launched the consultation and call for evidence in December 2020, and closed it in March 2021. We've been waiting a while for some sort of outcome, which we are told by the Minister (Chris Philp) is "very imminent" (9), whatever that means.

There is broad agreement that the gambling legislation could do with a review, but that's about as far as any agreement goes on the matter. The narrative surrounding the review, and proposals that are being leaked or floated by various people, paint a bleak picture of what we might expect.

There are fears that horse racing could be hit hard by some of the proposals being discussed, and MPs have been asking questions in Parliament about it (10), while the horse racing industry and punters have been engaged in their own lobbying (11). Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has written about his concerns about the impact of the gambling review on horse racing (12).

But it's not just horse racing that could be hit by government proposals. Online gambling seems to be a prime target for increased regulation, possibly not helped by the fact that the Online Harms Bill comes from the same government department. Hailed as wonderful on so many levels throughout the pandemic, the internet is seen as problematic by some when it comes to gambling.

Discussions about the internet and gambling occasionally mirror conservative concerns regarding any new technology. For example, Calvin Robinson, the TV/Radio presenter and commentator, recently said that 'Gambling should be banned from the internet' (13). Similarly, both Labour and Conservative MPs have recently described online gambling as 'the tobacco of our age' (14) and have called for huge restrictions.

Such debate is often a world away from the reality of gambling. With a weekend approaching where so many of us will have our eyes on some wonderful four-legged creatures in Liverpool, hoping that the name of the winning horse will be in our hands at teatime on Saturday as they go across the finishing line. For me, it's likely that I will choose more than one horse to keep me interested over all the jumps and right to the end. If you're after a tip, Escaria Ten is a reasonable shout, but the odds on it seem to be shortening, so perhaps back Snow Leopardess as well. If she wins, you won't just be smiling about the winnings, you'll be part of a little bit of Grand National history.

Jon Bryan is treasurer of The Great Debate and regularly writes about gambling. He is a poker player and tweets at @JonBryanPoker.

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© Jon Bryan, 2022