July – A Virtual Possibility?

Dave Mollett compares the success of the National

Could we see this year’s most famous horserace, the Durban July, decided for the first time by a computer?

This is the intriguing question following the success last weekend of the 2020 Virtual Grand National in the UK – a computer-generated version of the historic steeplechase, writes David Mollett in  Business Day.

Dave Mollett – 2014 Equus Champion journalist

The Virtual Grand National – shown on ITV – pulled in a peak audience of 4,8 million viewers. This can be compared to the 1,95 million who watched the 2019 Derby won by Anthony Van Dyk and the 940 000 who tuned in for Enable’s bid for a third Arc De Triomphe win in Paris in October.

Bookmakers and the Tote pledged to donate any profits to the National Health Service Charities Together Covid-19 appeal, the umbrella organisation that represents more than 140 NHS charities.

One of the questions surrounding a virtual Durban July is whether this would pose a problem for commentators? Consequently, Business Day approached one of the country’s leading racecallers, Nico Kritsiotis, for his view on the subject.

Nico Kritsiotis

Nico Kritsiotis

“From a commentator’s perspective, we are used to calling “off the screen” for venues like Flamingo Park, Fairview and Champ De Mars (Mauritius) and so all established SA callers would have no problem stepping up to the plate to do the deed. Judged by the success of the virtual National run last weekend, this would be one hell of a novelty for a South African betting opportunity,” said Kristiotis.

He added: “I would welcome a virtual July as I think most South Africans would due to it being the country’s most talked about race year after year. The race is the one occasion in the calendar year where horses from all corners of the country can race against each other in front of a capacity crowd. I also believe a July office sweepstake would go down a treat.”

Stewart Machin, the racecaller of the virtual National, commented after the event: “It is so realistic that – once you start commentating, never for a fleeting moment does it go through your mind that it isn’t real.”

Of course, much depends on the length of the lockdown due to the coronavirus, but the “Open” championship – scheduled for Sandwich in Kent in mid-July – has already been cancelled.

The Virtual Grand National was pre-recorded by Carm Productions which vowed to ensure the result would not leak to the betting market.

A spokesperson for the company said: “As the show is pre-recorded, we insist on strict levels of confidentiality from everyone involved in the production process.”

The mind boggles at how much could be made if someone knew the result with 18-1 shot, Potters Corner, beating home Walk In The Mill (16-1), Any Second Now (10-1) and the 5-1 favourite, Tiger Roll.

Ladbrokes spokesperson, Nicola McGeady, said: “It is only fitting that all bookmaker profits on the race should go to the NHS for the heroic work they are doing during these difficult times.”

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