In the coronavirus-enforced absence of the Randox Health Grand National 2020, UK broadcaster ITV agreed to show the virtual counterpart in its stead, simulating how the real race would have transpired with the same list of 40 contenders.
The Virtual Grand National is an annual event usually taking place in addition to the showpiece race, although it duly 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 (BGC), said: “I am proud 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.”
The NHS is set to receive further donations in the future. The Jockey Club promised to give NHS workers 10,000 tickets for the 2021 Randox Health Grand National Festival, while the BGC hopes the success of the virtual race will encourage 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 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 host of BGC members were behind the initiative. The list included Bet365, William Hill, Flutter Entertainment, Sky Bet, GVC Holdings, BetFred, Betway, BetVictor, JenningsBet, Inspired Entertainment and more.
Such was the reception to the initiative, even the ever-critical Guardian newspaper acknowledged the betting industry’s good deed.
The newspaper wrote: “It is only fair to report 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.”
Interest was further 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 famously triumphed in “real life.”
Winning trainer Williams was delighted racing could bring a smile to the nation, even in its simulated form.
Previous Virtual Grand Nationals have been run with a strong degree of accuracy.In recent years, the virtual event has either predicted the same winner as the real race or been just one place out.
But the real winner of the race is undoubtedly 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.