Bob Broadbridge, IT director of the Tote, doesn’t like to talk about himself. As IT director for the UK’s fourth-largest bookmaker, he is reticent about his own role in turning around the IT operations of the successful, if somewhat old-fashioned, government-backed racecourse bookmaker.
Already a thriving business, the Tote was set up in 1924 by the government to offer on-course pool betting on horse racing, with all the profits going back into the sport. In 2005/06 the Tote had a turnover of £2.2 billion.
But two years ago the Tote was behind in the competition, and the market share was very poor, according to Broadbridge. “We needed to catch up with retail, phone and Internet betting.”
This meant looking at all the Tote’s systems, which operated on a distributed architecture across the UK. Multiple systems were performing the same task, and as a result the whole function was difficult to maintain. Broadbridge decided to address the problems by centralising the functionality, and redeveloping the system using a service oriented architecture (SOA) of ‘Best of Breed’ products. “The context of the overhaul means that SOA is generally at the heart of what we are trying to do,” says Broadbridge. “There were 27 systems that needed updating, and work started in July 2006.”
He looked at new systems for all the Tote businesses, deciding on buying solutions wherever possible. Orbis online gaming software was implemented for its telephone and Internet systems in December 2006, and a data warehouse for its retail business – the Tote has 540 betting shops – was done last year. This year the Tote will carry out an EPOS upgrade throughout its shops.
In the pool-betting arena it had to work with its partners, and increase its customer expectations, and Broadbridge decided on a systems renewal programme built around Progress Software’s Sonic ESB. “We had had no new bets in seven years,” he says. “The ‘Will Pay’ calculations were simply taking too long – from two to four to six minutes. The smart punter would place bets close to when the race was going off, but couldn’t see whose betting prices were best. Between the bookies and the Tote we were two to two and a half minutes out of date.”
The ‘Will Pay’ project for pool betting was an immediate need. It was hard for punters as it was, so the project had direct business benefits. “We were also looking for future proofing, and reliability and integrity,” says Broadbridge. “We had so many systems, and all the channels and countries used different systems as well.”
He explains that he wanted to highlight a project which was relatively low risk, but that would give the Tote a great foundation for the years ahead.
There are not many pool betting systems around, so again Broadbridge decided on building using the best components he could, and adopting a firm approach to rebuilding existing systems.
Founded in 1928 by an Act of Parliament, the first racecourse meetings with tote betting were the flat race meetings at Newmarket and Carlisle in 1929. It was set up with the aim of distributing profits for ‘purposes conducive to the improvements of breeds of horses or the sport of horseracing’.
In 1961 the Betting Levy Act meant that bookmakers as well as providing an income to the sport, could also open betting shops, although the Tote was restricted opening shops offering bets on horseracing at tote odds.
In 1972 the restrictions were lifted and now the Tote has over 450 retail shops offering a range of gambling on different sports. Its Internet betting was launched in 2002.
The project was ready to go in December, and was tested extensively by a team of 10 people to simulate everything, including Internet connections. “As far as possible we were testing everything,” Broadbridge comments.
It went live in January, with not a massive amount to worry about, according to Broadbridge. “Using this type of approach makes it more of a systems integration job than a programming job, which means that it is not a beast to make.”
Providing the groundwork of ‘Will Pay’ is a very good foundation for the Tote going forward. Broadbridge selected Progress Sonic because the tools are built on messaging, rather than as an application server bolt on. “We wanted easy integration of legacy systems with the new SOA based services.
The SOA approach means that if there is a change made, a new bet or an offer, the algorithm is in the central server, which is much more efficient, especially for development,” he says.
“We had a very challenging system renewal before, which was not good for the business. Now we have a good mixture with a communally-driven approach and overall the programme has had a high success rate.”
IT and the gambling industry
Gambling is now a mainstream entertainment industry. More than 60 per cent of the UK population gamble an estimated £40 million in one way or another each year, according to the Betting Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University.
A major part of this increase has been due to the mixed delivery channels that technology has made a real possibility.
The catch for IT directors at older gambling companies like the Tote is to make sure that legacy systems do not hold them back as business increases.
The Tote’s racecourse, online and retail channels had developed their own systems, making maintenance and communications difficult.
An SOA approach has allowed it to connect these systems more effectively across the organisation and its mixed channels. This year, its financial results already show the business benefits. Group turnover increased by 12 per cent to £2.5bn, and profits increased by 12.5 per cent to £158 million. Tote Pool turnover increased by 17 per cent to £323 million and the Internet division increased gross profits by 45 per cent.
The reaction to the systems upgrades has been very good internally. “Most people have recognised the need to move forward,” says Broadbridge. “The mechanical agility we now have has been recognised externally by the bookies, and is bang up-to-date. Business has also increased.”
In fact the SOA approach has reduced the time taken to produce ‘Will Pays’ from two minutes to 12 seconds. But in systems terms Broadbridge reckons the Tote will get 90 per cent reuse of the work for its next project, and around 50 per cent for the subsequent one, as well as decreasing its overall development and deployment times.
Broadbridge, who worked in retail at both WHSmith and Courts, says the use of technology in the gambling industry is not as advanced as other industries, and is probably about two years behind in the data warehousing, analysis and repository arena. But in an industry where other bookmakers are the real competition, using SOA allows it to make the maximum use of legacy systems.