By Violeta Prockyte
The Virtual Grand National helped fill the void of sports fans, horseracing enthusiasts and casual viewers on Saturday evening, as 18-1 shot Potters Corner, trained by Christian Williams and ridden by Jack Tudor, claimed victory.
In the coronavirus-enforced absence of the Randox Health Grand National 2020, ITV agreed to broadcast the Virtual Grand National at the same time, simulating how the real race would have transpired with the same list of 40 contenders.
The Virtual Grand National is usually an annual event taking place in addition to the showpiece race, although it stepped in as a replacement this time around – with a twist.
Indeed, a select number of operators agreed to take wagers on the race and donate any profits made towards the NHS in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
So how did the virtual stand-in fare?
The virtual race raised £2.6m ($3.2m) for NHS Charities Together. Michael Dugher, CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council, said: “I am proud that so many BGC members, up and down the country, are supporting in so many different ways the national effort to combat COVID-19, including here by contributing all of their race profits to NHS Charities Together.”
NHS is set to receive some more donations in the future. The Jockey Club promised to give the NHS workers 10,000 tickets for the 2021 Randox Health Grand National Festival, while BGC hopes that the success of the virtual race will encourage the backers to donate some of their winnings to charities as well.
Coral's David Stevens also expressed his enthusiasm, saying: "The average stake per bet worked out at just over £2, which showed this virtual National really hit the spot in terms of providing a fun, one-off betting opportunity for so many people, and most importantly, all those small bets added up to a fantastic donation."
ITV reported a peak of 4.8 million viewers in the UK for the Saturday evening event, the equivalent of 30% of the national television audience.
This was half the number of viewers for the 2019 Grand National (9.6 million) but a considerable year-on-year increase on 2019’s Virtual Grand National viewership (737,000).
A £10 ($12.27) limit per horse was enforced by operators (with £10 each way stakes also allowed at 1/5 odds to five places).
From a B2B perspective, a list of Betting & Gaming Council members were behind the initiative. The list included Bet365, William Hill, Flutter Entertainment, Sky Bet, GVC Holdings, BetFred, Betway, BetVictor, JenningsBet and Inspired Entertainment.
Such was the reception to the initiative, even the ever-critical Guardian acknowledged the betting industry’s good deed.
The newspaper wrote: “So it is only fair to report that at a moment of national crisis when we are all in need of diversion, not just on Saturday but probably for many weeks to come, the bookmakers seem to have thought quite carefully about how to approach the Virtual Grand National and the interest it will generate.”
Interest was also generated throughout a variety of virtual sweepstakes, many of which required players to donate £10 to the official NHS charity. Some of those offering virtual sweepstakes included Degree 53, the Telegraph and Press Box PR.
Potters Corner triumphed with a late flurry, as pre-race 5-1 favourite Tiger Roll fell short of a hat-trick of consecutive Grand National wins. Tiger Roll was commended on an excellent run, finishing fourth, but it remains to be seen whether the horse would have triumphed in “real life.”
Winning trainer Williams was delighted racing could bring a smile to the nation, even in its simulated form, while previous Grand Nationals have been run with a strong degree of accuracy.
In recent years, the virtual event has predicted the same winner as the real race or been just one place out.
But the real winner of the race is the NHS, with bookmakers having avoided making a loss on the race due to Tiger Roll’s failure to finish first. Though it is still fighting an uphill battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS is now £2.6m better off in terms of funding.