Australia Racing Victoria got $16.6 million in emergency COVID funding. Then online horse racing gambling revenue skyrocketed
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Racing Victoria pocketed $16.6 million in COVID-19 "emergency funding" from the Victorian Government despite enjoying a huge spike in online gambling revenue following the onset of the pandemic.
The horse racing industry group's latest financial statements reveal its wagering income from betting companies increased by 23.9 per cent in the months after the pandemic hit, almost entirely offsetting a decline in revenue from retail gambling venues that were forced to close.
"Following an initial decline in wagering revenue during the initial stages of the COVID-19 restrictions in March and early April 2020, wagering turnover returned to growth as consumers increased their engagement with racing via digital channels in the absence of alternate gaming and leisure activities," the financial statement said.
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The boom in online gambling on horse racing — which came as other professional sports were forced to suspend competition early in the pandemic — helped Racing Victoria avoid a big loss for the financial year and instead post a 21 per cent increase in its profit, to $10.7 million.
The $16.6 million boost from the Victorian Government was made as part of the $150 million "Experience Economy Survival Package," which was launched in May to help the tourism, arts and sports industries weather the pandemic.
A total of $44 million was earmarked for the racing industry.
Harness Racing Victoria received $24 million and Greyhound Racing Victoria received $3.4 million, but both organisations are yet to publish their financial statements for last financial year so it is unclear what impact the payments — and the online gambling boom — had on their revenue.
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Funding was 'most welcomed' by racing industry
Racing Victoria declined an interview request and did not respond to questions about what evidence it provided the Victorian Government about its need for financial assistance before receiving the payment.
In statement, it said the funding came after the racing industry approached the Government in April asking for financial support.
"The COVID emergency funding from Government comes off the back of a joint submission in April from the Victorian Racing Industry, including peak harness racing and greyhound racing bodies," a Racing Victoria spokesperson said in the statement.
"Whilst the funding was most welcomed by all within the industry, it will only help to offset a small percentage of the losses the industry ultimately faces as a result of the pandemic."
Racing Victoria's financial records show the payment was received in early June — after it had started to see the increase in wagering revenue.
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Racing Minister Martin Pakula declined to do an interview, but in a statement said the funding was designed to support tens of thousands of Victorians employed in the racing industry.
"Despite the continuation of racing, the economic impact of the pandemic on the industry has been very significant," he said.
"The effects of a spring carnival conducted without crowds will be dramatic."
Mr Pakula also declined to respond to questions about the application process for the payment, or whether Racing Victoria was required to demonstrate financial hardship.
Calls for more transparency over funding
Monash University gambling researcher Charles Livingstone called on the Government to make public any financial projections used to calculate the payments to the industry.
"Anybody who is getting significant sums of money from the Government — whether they're the racing industry or anyone else — obviously needs to make a case for it," Dr Livingstone said.
In its statement, Racing Victoria said the spike in digital gambling revenue had a limited impact on its overall financial position because of the slightly bigger decline in revenue from retail betting at TAB.
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"For clarity, total wagering revenue on Victorian thoroughbred racing declined by 2.4 per cent or $8.6 million in full-year 2020," it said
"This was represented by a 3 per cent decline in the pre-COVID (July-February) period and a 1 per cent decline in the COVID (March-June) period."
On the day the package was announced in May, Racing Victoria's CEO Giles Thompson said in a media release that emergency funding would enable Racing Victoria to continue paying prizemoney — at reduced levels — until September 30.
"This funding will ensure that we can maintain prizemoney — which is the lifeblood for our participants and underpins investment in our industry — at the current reduced levels without needing to make further prizemoney cuts," he said at the time.
However, its annual report shows that while Racing Victoria cut prizemoney by 20 per cent in metropolitan races and 10 per cent in rural races in April, the revenue bump allowed it to increase prizemoney to pre-COVID levels almost two months earlier than originally scheduled.
"Following an overall improvement in the industry financial position through the COVID pandemic, and with the outlook for racing to continue on a restricted basis looking positive, all prizemoney minimum reductions were reinstated back to previous levels effective from August 1," its financial statement said.
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Mr Livingstone said this raised questions about the need for the emergency payment.
"The fact that they were able to increase prizemoney at a time when they were previously intending to have it reduced suggests to me that they either have more money than they anticipated or needed and this money has simply allowed them to operate as normal," he said.
"Most of the rest of us are adapting to this new situation but for Racing Victoria it is business as usual."
Racing Victoria is a non-profit organisation that represents the state's racing clubs and is funded by a combination of broadcast rights, a share of gambling revenue from betting agencies, gambling taxes and income from its 50 per cent ownership of Victoria's retail TAB outlets.
The financial statements said Racing Victoria split $12 million of the emergency COVID payment between its members, Victoria Racing Club, Moonee Valley Racing Club, Melbourne Racing Club and Country Racing Victoria.
"The funding has meant that clubs, including 66 in regional areas, have been able to keep their doors open and Victorian racing's non-negotiable animal welfare standards have not been compromised," Mr Pakula said.
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