Just before Christmas 2018 there was chaos for British holidaymakers when drones being used close to Gatwick Airport resulted in flights in and out of the airport being suspended. In excess of 1,400 people were affected, with close to 1,000 flights being cancelled across 36 hours of disruption. In the end the RAF had to be called in with anti-drone equipment in order to end the nightmare to those looking to fly into and out of Gatwick, costing the airport around £5 million.
Now it looks as though Cheltenham Racecourse are going to have to do something to stop the devices from being used during the Cheltenham Festival to give gamblers an edge during races.
The activity started during the winter months and it is feared that it will continue during the Festival, which is one of the busiest periods for betting in the horse racing calendar. It has emerged that Jockey Club Racecourses have recruited a firm with the specific intention of stopping drones from flying over the course during the March event.
How Could Drones Help Bettors?
One of the things that some gamblers don’t realise is that television footage is approximately 2 seconds behind what is actually live. That means that those betting ‘live’ whilst watching on television have a slight disadvantage when compared to the people that pay money to be in the hospitality boxes at racecourses that have a dedicated internet line where they can bet online from.
By flying a drone over the racecourse the users of the device can gain more information of what’s happening on the course, giving them an edge that those betting online do not have. Users of Betfair’s live racing betting service, with which punters gamble against each other as a race is ongoing, will have a slight edge if they’re getting pictures quicker than those that are watching a race on TV. It’s something that the racecourse’s acknowledge and even profit from, with those hospitality boxes selling for thousands of pounds a year.
The Length of the Delay Depends on the Broadcaster
The interesting thing is that the broadcaster used by the individual racecourse will also make a difference in terms of the latency of pictures. Sky Sports Racing, which is the re-brand of At The Races, sees its signal sent from the course to Sky Centre via satellite, meaning that the delay is possibly even longer than 2 seconds.
Some tracks use Sky’s service, whilst others use Racing TV. The latter connects directly to a fibre network, making their ability to broadcast images much faster than Sky’s. The reason that a racecourse might opt to go for one broadcaster over another can be to do with the fact that the audience is bigger with one service rather than another. Sky Sports Racing can be found as part of the most basic Sky package, meaning that there’s a larger potential audience than that supplied by Racing TV, which charges customers £25 a month for a subscription.
The latency of images will also depend on the broadcaster that punters use to watch the racing. The likes of Virgin TV, for example, has a delay of up to 10 seconds compared to what is happening live. In the world of in-running betting that can make a huge difference. It means that those with an edge can make a decent amount of money every day of the week if they know what they’re doing. It has long been the case, of course, with punters standing by the final fence with a mobile phone in order to tell a colleague what to bet on in the days before racecourses selling boxes to dedicated in-running bettors.
Racecourses that use Sky Sports Racing will soon include Chester, which has its major meeting in May, and Ascot. The latter is due to switch to Sky in time for the start of the flat racing season and boasts many of the most popular meetings of the year. The Director of Domestic and International Media Rights for Sky, James Singer, summed up the reason for the delay, saying, “There is a necessary transmission path involving signals passing from a racecourse to satellites and back to receivers as well as a transponder process that optimises capacity allocation, known as statistical multiplexing”.
The Racecourse Owners Call It ‘Theft’
Arena Racing Company owns 16 of the racecourses around the United Kingdom and a spokesperson for them said, “Broadcast rights of our live action are a key part of our business. We consider this unauthorised filming and broadcasting as theft”. One of the courses owned by ARC is Southwell, where the BBC had reporters in 2018 when they watched a drone fly to watch the racing and then land as soon as it was over.
The thing that is causing the racecourses a sense of frustration is the fact that there’s much that they can do if the drone’s fliers are operating on pubic land. A statement from the Racecourse Association acknowledged as much, saying, “Whilst frustrating, if the operator is not breaking the law there is limited further action that can be taken at this time”. A Racing TV spokesperson, meanwhile, said that the company considers the broadcast of footage taken from drones as ‘piracy’.
Cheltenham Aim To Limit Drone Interference
Whilst Cheltenham Racecourse’s owners and operators have refused to officially comment on the plans that they have put in place to limit drones flying over the course during the Festival, it is clear that they hope to do something about it. In a brief statement a spokesperson for the course said, “We don’t disclose the details of our security plans as part of ensuring we deliver safe and enjoyable events”.
There is already an exclusion zone in the area that will be extended to up to 3 miles in times for Festival, inline with the exclusion zones around airports. Because jockeys, owners and trainers often fly onto the course in helicopters Cheltenham has a CAA license and is therefore classed as an airport when it comes to the exclusion zone.
It appears as though the Jockey Club has enlisted the services of a company called Crowded Space to help them stop drones being used near their venues. They won’t be physically removing the drones from the airspace over the racecourses, however the company is able to detect if the drone’s pilot has broken a regulation such as flying too close to an exclusion zone. In that instance the police can be called and presented with the evidence.
It’s not just because of the betting aspect that Cheltenham Racecourse have decided to act. The meeting, as with the Grand National at Aintree in April, already sees an increase in the usual aerial traffic because of the comings and goings of those hoping to watch the racing. Adding in drones to that traffic results in a clear safety risk and security concern, which is another part of Cheltenham’s thinking in trying to limit drones in the area.