The Tote, formerly known as the Horserace Totalisator Board, was one of the most recognised betting organisations in the world in its heyday. The company was set up all the way back in 1928 by the UK Government in an effort to control illegal black market gambling, with none other than Sir Winston Churchill being instrumental in its formation.
The Tote started out as a way for the government to earn money from legal betting and also to keep monies generated from such activities within the sport. Betting on horseracing changed for the better in 1928 when the Racecourse Betting Act was passed in parliament, allowing pari-mutuel betting to take place at racecourses around the country.
The company has changed purpose, structure, and ownership many times over the years, growing bigger and bigger as time went on. Under the brand name Totesport, which was instantly recognisable among punters and seen as something of a British institution, the Tote had over 500 high street betting shops at its peak around the turn of the century.
For a long time the Tote was perhaps best known by racing fans for the many outlets they operated at virtually all of Britain’s racecourses, the company was synonymous with horse racing and they long stayed true to their origins. Like all traditional UK bookmakers though, they moved with the times and developed their online presence in the early 2000s. After being sold to Betfred in 2011, Tote underwent another big change with their shops all being re branded and their high street presence gone, before in 2019, the iconic bookie was then sold again, this time to UK Tote Group, formerly Alizeti Capital.
What Makes the Tote So Unique?
Tote betting, also sometimes called pool betting or pari-mutuel wagering is very different to your normal way of placing bets on sports. Betting on the Tote involves all punters putting their stake into a pool of money which is then split between the winners. Odds and prices are determined, ultimately, by how much money is wagered in total and how much is bet on the winning selection. Probability dictates that returns are broadly in line with “normal” odds but this is not always the case and they can sometimes be significantly bigger.
As you will be taking money from a pool and are unlikely to be the only winner, the money dished out will be divided by the number of people who have backed the winner. The pool is the total stakes placed on the event on all runners, less the bookmakers deductions, – i.e their profit margin. Winnings are worked out by dividing the total amount bet on the the race by the total bet on the winner, giving us a return per £1bet, so everyone is paid out fairly and in relation to the amount they staked.
|Race Total||Winner Total||Returns per £1|
10000 divided by 1500 is 6.66, so if someone bet £10 on the winner in this race they would get back £66.60, whereas someone who only bet £1 would get back £6.60.
The bookmaker cannot lose, in theory at least, because they will never be forced to pay out more than they take in. Using pooled betting to wager on a clear favourite is unlikely to yield high payouts because many other people will be doing the same – although you will usually get similar to returns to a regular fixed odds bet – but if you can spot a winner that not many other bettors have found, you could sweep in and take the pot. Therein lies the appeal of tote bets.
History of Tote Bets
Tote would build on its betting range until it eventually included a huge selection of bets covering a range of “normal” markets as well as their own acca-like specials. However, back in 1929 they started slowly with just Win and Place pools available, essentially alternatives to a simple win bet and an each way pick. You can see a complete history of their bet types, including those that no longer exist, below:
|1929||Win and Place||The most basic options, akin to a win single, and a “to place” bet.|
|1930||Daily Double||Specified double bet (stopped in 1985).|
|1931||Ante Post Bets||Ante post Tote bets were first taken on the Cambridgeshire and Manchester November Handicap with stakes going into the races’ normal Win pools.|
|1933||Straight Forecast||For races with only three or four runners. This didn’t last long, stopping in 1939.|
|1934||Single Pools||Win and place bets were put in the same pool but this experiment failed and ended very quickly.|
|1939||Daily Treble||One specific treble was offered each day, and as with the Daily Double this stopped in 1985.|
|1947||Straight Forecast||Pool reintroduced for races with three to five runners (discontinued in 1977).|
|1955||Dual Forecast||Stopped in 2000.|
|1965||Quadpool||Stopped after one year.|
|1966||Jackpot||The hugely popular Jackpot bet was introduced for the Royal Ascot meeting in this year. Offering huge wins, this pool has reached seven-figures more than once.|
|1970||Tricast||This pool lasted until 1973.|
|1977||Placepot||The popular Placepot pool was launched at Newbury in November.|
|1979||Top Three Jockey Pool||This was introduced at Ascot.|
|1983||Super Double and Super Treble||These bets were introduced at Scottish courses only and were pulled later the same year.|
|1991||Trio||Another short-lived pool, ceased to operate in 1998.|
|1994||Quadpot||This acca-style pool was launched in June at Pontefract and Nottingham.|
|1994||Multibet||Launched in May at Goodwood.|
|1998||Trifecta||This difficult to land option was first offered at Goodwood in August.|
|1999||Scoop6||One of Tote’s most popular bets, offering huge wins, was launched in July.|
|2000||Exacta||Also offered as a reverse bet, this was first available in January.|
|2008||Swinger||Back two horses to both make the top three to land this innovative wager.|
|2008||Super7||Offers three funds, one for getting five winners, one for six, and one for all seven. Launched at the St Leger meeting (no longer available).|
1928: Back to the Beginning
All the way back in 1928, the Racecourse Betting Control Board was created by the Racecourse Betting Act as a statutory corporation. Winston Churchill set it up as a government-appointed board, with the intention of providing a safe and legal way for betting to take place, as well as making sure gambling revenues could be reinvested into horse racing.
Although the Act was passed by parliament in 1928, it came into effect later in July 1929. The Tote then started at its first two major racecourses in Britain, Newmarket and Carlisle. Prior to that, the first meeting operated under the license was at West Street Harriers, shortly followed by the first meeting operated by the board’s staff at Old Surrey & Burstow.
It truly was the start of something special for horse racing betting in the United Kingdom.
1930-1933: Tote Investors Ltd
Two years after the Racecourse Control Board was created, Tote Investors Ltd was set up as an independent company to handle off-course and credit bets and make sure these were funnelled into the Tote’s pools. The company was said to be “a group of gentlemen interested in the welfare of racing” and was not actually a part of the Tote itself.
In 1933, the first grants were made from Tote’s profits to the Hunters’ Improvement Society. This group promoted point-to-point meetings and pony racing, and supporting them was another big step in the right direction for the Tote and a fine example of their commitment to the sport.
1961: Off Course Betting Legalised
Tote ticked along nicely in the 30s and 40s, albeit being rudely interrupted by World War II which put the brakes on horse racing somewhat, but they made a huge name for themselves in the mid-50s. In 1956, Tote had its first sponsored race, which was the Tote Investors Cup, run at Kempton Racecourse, and things were about to get even better for the company.
Then, in 1961 Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government made one of the biggest changes in betting law history by legalising off course betting shops. Whereas before betting pickets were allowed on racecourses, now you could do it on the high street too. Tote Investors Ltd weren’t particularly quick to take up this new freedom, but they dipped into the market with a couple of shops, although initially these only accepted tote pool horse racing bets.
More legal changes the same year meant that the Tote was no longer racing’s only source of betting revenue. Other bookmakers also now paid a racing levy and the Tote’s powers of redistributing these funds were transferred to the Levy Board, though this was rapidly renamed the Horserace Totalisator Board.
To top of a great start to the sixties, the Tote, still a government-owned business, bought Tote Investors Ltd, giving them a wider reach and more control over funds.
1973: Re Branding
Tote’s pools were previously only available for horse racing bets, but a change to the law meant that bets could now be taken on a wider range of sports and events, broadening the company’s horizons significantly. As well as their normal pools, they were allowed to act as a more traditional bookmaker, offering odds on football, dogs, and much else besides.
It was at this point that it made sense to expand their betting shop empire, and from this point the Tote would go on to employ more than 4,000 staff. In the company’s prime, they were operating in excess of 500 stores, with their unique pool betting format available in almost 5000 betting shops all across Britain.
Although Tote pool bets could be placed with them through other shops, for a long time they were the only company in the UK that was officially allowed to accept pool bets. With many punters, they were even more popular than the usual fixed-odds betting companies.
Given Tote was now able to handle bets on all sports, they felt a re brand was in order to better promote their new range of services, and Tote Bookmakers was launched in 1973.
80s & 90s: radio, TV, & Partnerhsips
Strange as it may seem to modern (or should we say younger) punters who are able to watch events on their phone and make bets in-play, for a long time punters used to simply make a bet and then waited for the result. No TV, no radio, nothing!
Radio came along first so eager bettors could listen in on the action as it occurred, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that punters got to actually watch races in shops. Live television provided broadcasts of various sporting events as they happened, and it was a huge innovation in betting shops and massively popular among customers who perhaps didn’t have access to a television at home. Even those that did enjoyed the social aspect of watching with others. More and more people began going to betting shops to watch the big races and have a bet, although the shops themselves remained rather basic in appearance for many years.
The 1990s brought more innovation, as Tote Direct was launched in a joint venture with Coral. This move allowed pool bets from high street shops to be added to the main Tote pools. After this, Tote managed to rake in even more money, with the horse racing industry also benefiting financially due to the statutory levy that was still being collected by the Horse Racing Betting Levy Board. The following year, in 1993, Tote and other betting shops were also permitted to open in the evenings, allowing yet more income to be generated.
The 1990s were a huge decade for Tote, especially the later years. Firstly, Ladbrokes, one of the UK’s hottest bookmakers, linked-up with Tote in 1997.
Two years after that, Tote and Channel 4 teamed up which was a huge move for both parties. This made tote betting visible to a far wider audience and kept them relevant. As part of the agreement, a new type of bet known as the Scoop6 was introduced, where the punters had to predict the winners of six different races that would all be shown live on Channel 4 Racing. This remains one of the betting highlights of the week for many.
2000: The Internet Era
The start of the new century, and indeed the new millennium, brought even more success to the Tote. Internet betting was fairly well established by now, although not all of the major UK players had fully embraced it. Tote were a little late to the party but nevertheless entered the market and launched the Tote betXpress internet service.
The website itself as well as the markets available have changed dramatically over the years, moving further away from the original pool bets into a more traditional bookmaking style. That said, despite now offering all of these bets, markets, and sports online, Tote remained most famous for their pool bets and were still the only place to go if you wanted to take part in this type of betting.
2005: Totesport & Casino
Many people these days know the Tote as Totesport, a moniker which was officially unveiled in 2005 alongside Totepool after a further re branding exercise. Following the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Act in 2004, the Tote went from a statutory corporation into a limited company called Totesport and Totepool. This removed any restrictions on the ability to sell it to a private bidder, something that had been mooted for some time.
Tote was now also able to launch non-sporting products, and in 2005 they jumped into the world of online casinos. In truth their product was never all that great, but even so it made them a more saleable asset.
2007: The 1st Racing Millionaire
The Scoop6 bet had become a staple for racing fans, and in 2007 it produced the first ever horse race betting millionaire. A now-legendary punter nicknamed “The Squirrel” won a very tidy £1.5m from landing all six winners, which understandably did the Scoop6 a lot of favours. A record single-day turnover in excess of £4m was bet into the Scoop6 pool in November 2008 and we have since seen a number of other lottery sized wins on this brilliant bet. However this wasn’t the only thing boosting the Tote’s appeal.
2009: Hull City Football Club
Back in 2009, the Totesport/Totepool/Tote – or even the ‘nanny’ in rhyming slang if you prefer; nanny goat = tote – agreed a two-year partnership with Hull City Football Club. The deal saw the betting company’s name appear on the club’s shirt for two years. At the time, Hull were plying their trade in the English Premier League, the richest league in world football and also the most watched globally. Hull also competed in the FA Cup and League Cup.
2009 was a big year for football clubs joining betting companies in multi-million pound deals, as Premier League clubs Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Sunderland, Bolton Wanderers, and Wigan Athletic also had sponsorship deals with betting companies. The Tote pumped millions into Hull City Football Club during the entirety of the deal which was one of the first major bookie-football sponsorship arrangements.
2011: Privatisation & Betfred
It may seem odd, but throughout all of this time the Tote had remained a nationalised, government-owned business. Privatisation of the company was first suggested way back in 1989 by the Conservative government following a study by Lloyds Bank. However, the racing industry strongly opposed these plans and they were later abandoned by the then Home Secretary Michael Howard.
However, Howard’s Labour successor Jack Straw launched a fresh study and privatisation was made a manifesto commitment in 2001. The aforementioned Horserace Betting Olympic Lottery Act 2004 was passed with the intention of converting the Tote from a statutory corporation to a limited company so the sale could be completed.
Many takeover bids failed over the following years, but eventually, Betfred took over in 2011. It was confirmed on June 3rd that Betfred had been chosen by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as the successful bidder, for a reported fee of £265m. The sale was completed just 10 days later.
2019: The UK Tote Group
Betfred’s running of the Tote ended after some criticism in 2018, and with it went their exclusivity rights. 49 racecourses in the UK ceased using the bookmaker’s shops, setting up their own instead as soon as they were able to do so.
In October 2019, UK Tote Group, the consortium of racecourse owners formerly known as Alizeti, completed its acquisition of the Tote. The group became the sole owner of the Tote, setting out strategies to modernise and revitalise the company in the process. They planned to develop the brand and improve the customer experience, which is still an ongoing project.
The deal includes the UK Tote Group paying the Horserace Betting Levy, as well as continuing a partnership with Britbet. The group will operate the Tote at 55 British racecourses over the next seven years. The Britbet deal agreed in October 2019 will be worth at least £50m by 2025.
Nowadays, Tote betting is accepted in more than 7,000 betting shops across Britain, with the majority of those being non-Tote owned shops. Since internet and mobile gambling became mainstream, various online bookmakers have also accepted Tote’s pool bets. The Tote also has formal pool betting links from similar organisations in countries such as Ireland, France, Germany, the USA, and South Africa.
Since its creation way back in the 1920s, the Tote has done a huge amount for the horse racing industry and it is loved by those within it. With Totewin, Toteplace and Totejackpot – along with many other unique bets – the Tote continues to make huge strides in the betting industry and what was once an uncertain future now looks much brighter.
Although the bets have changed throughout the years, Tote has stuck to their roots, with pool bet winners still getting paid out handsomely to this day, and the new UK Tote Group will no doubt keep the Tote going strong for many more years to come, at the same time as helping the racing industry to thrive.