Cheltenham: The race to the future of gambling
The Cheltenham Festival has long been the defining race of the National Hunt Season. It is a prestigious link to the human desire for excitement, fresh air and proximity to thousands more with the same passion.
From the birth of the official festival at Prestbury Racecourse in 1902 to the first Gold Cup run in 1924, the festival is the stage for the widest array of characters, among whom are jockey’s, trainers, owners, and especially the horses. There is never a shortage of eccentricity and drama in this four day sporting spectacle.
In 2014 it is still a symbol of the need to compete. It represents a vast British gambling history, attracting over 235,000 people in 2013, and braced once more with spectator facilities on Gold Cup day of over 60,000. As an example of the competitive British spirit, it is no wonder that the assembling crowd form a serious part of the gambling community at large. It is also a fascinating event, bringing together both the physical aspect of betting with the growing online medium. While spectators are there to watch the races unfold, they are also able to follow commentary, tips and results on their mobile devices.
Yet this positive event doesn’t exactly merge easily with the image of the gambler, or gambling. In her 1976 article, The Future of Gambling , Professor Felicia F. Campbell at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas pointed out that, “In our highly technical society where machine-tooled perfection is an ideal, the gambler has acquired a bad press. He is frequently viewed as an erratic, unstable, and irresponsible sort, driven by unknown forces to take foolish and unnecessary chances.”
What she goes on to say is that risk taking, living on the edge, or any manner of chances we bring to bear on our lives, is actually quite natural for us. In other words, risk is in our blood. So if people want to speculate on the future of on and offline gambling, it is probably relevant to include an approximation of the future of human risk. If risks are natural, won’t we always want to take them?
The bricks-and-mortar casinos of the future may simply become meeting places for gambling socials. Some speculate that all gambling will move online. As it is, the building and operation of a casino runs into millions of dollars in the States, which will always prompt the question, why not transfer the whole of betting online? The problem here is that the social aspect is completely removed.
The Cheltenham Festival comes around again at a time when the saturation of casinos and gambling is being brought into the light. The great thing about the setup at Prestbury Racecourse is that the organisers have constantly strived to diversify the offering. The Jockey Club chief executive, Simon Bazalgette has refocused part of the commercial viability of the race on hospitality. Specifically, an Albert Roux restaurant, called Fairlawne has been added, this being a first for the racecourse. Commercial partners now involved include Boodles, Baylis and Harding, and LK Bennett. These factors are yet another safeguard against sinking into history.
Cheltenham Festival is an example of a sustainable business model for the future of gambling. It isn’t just about throwing more money in the pot to attract punters, but creating an experience that is social, exciting and tangible. It combines the smell of the turf, the physical aspect of racing. It feeds our lust for the unpredictable. It is also a safe, sporting environment.
The festival has a well established history, but it’s nowhere near as old as gambling itself. According to the website, casino-history.com, the exact origins of gambling are unknown, but are believed to have started in 2300 BC. It has then been noted that rudimentary forms of gambling were being used to solve disputes over land ownership between Scandinavian Kings, Olaf of Norway, and Olaf of Sweden. From as far back as this, gambling can then be traced in British culture with the invention of the dice game Hazard, similar to the modern dice game, craps. In part then, history is testament and witness to socially acceptable, approved gambling.
The history of casinos dates back to 1765, with the first legalized casino being opened in Baden, Switzerland . One hundred years later, we are transported to Macau, the gambling Mecca of East Asia where gambling has been legal since the 1850s. Nevada followed, again with a hundred year gap, erecting the first casino, El Rancho in 1941.
There’s a giant 200 year gap between the development, funding and construction of walk-in casinos, and what we now know as online gambling. Internet casinos have been entering full swing since the mid 90s, yet the technology has been around since the early 90s. Now in 2014 the technology and its continuing development are still fairly new, and so we find ourselves in the process of witnessing landmark decisions for the future. Not everyone is celebrating the flourishing status of online casinos. Sheldon Adelson , one of the most successful gambling entrepreneurs in history, has sworn he will put as much money as possible into trying to bring down online gambling. This comes from a fear that online gambling websites will start to dominate, with a complete wipe out of the walk-in casinos.
There is clearly a need for a balanced prediction in light of these fears, and I think the answer is closer to Prestbury Racecourse than might be imagined. There, in the serene backdrop of those undulating Cotswold Hills may be the answer. It is a vision of many different people coming together in a natural setting with pens, pencils, mobile applications, and pints of Guinness, champagne flutes, speculators and mathematicians, people with simple gut feeling, and artisans. Online technology and natural surroundings meet. This, if anything, is the future of gambling, a happy combination of the future with a serious dollop of the sporting past. Why shouldn’t casinos go the same way? Whether it’s in front of a laptop, or in fresh air, or a combination of the two, it’s risk, and it’s in our blood.
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