Up until 2002, I was blissfully unaware of virtual racing. Though that all changed one day at Exeter racecourse. It was the week before Christmas and it was a pretty cold day, so to get out of the "scrotum shrinkingly" cold wind for a few minutes, I went into the racecourse betting shop.
Everything seemed normal until I glanced up at the screens. At first I thought that some comedian had switched over from SIS to the cartoon network, as the days other two meetings at Catterick and Ludlow had been frozen off so there was no racing to show. To my amazement though, people were actually betting on it. How can you possibly consider betting on a cartoon that is generated by the bookmakers?
So what exactly is virtual racing?
Well, initially virtual racing was something that you could only see in betting shops to replace real horse racing on days when it was lost to frost or waterlogging, but now it is available in the home as well if you've got a satellite dish. On Sky channel 425 you can access William Hill TV by pressing the red button, there you can have 24 hour virtual racing with a race every four minutes. That's 360 races a day. You even get to see them in the parade ring before each race, which is a bit pointless as each race features exactly the same twelve horses running in the same colours, just with different names. You also get a dull, monotone, computer generated commentary in the parade ring as well as during the race, with comments such as "all twelve runners are looking superb", and "the runners are in the parade ring and the tension is rising" - yeah right. The good thing about real racing for losing punters is at least there's always a last race, and after that the torture is over for another day, but with William Hill TV's virtual racing it never ends, there is no last race.
Also on the Sky Vegas Live channel 272, you can see four hours of it every night with a race every 3 minutes, from the inappropriately named "Fortune Meadows" racecourse - "Lose a Fortune" meadows would be nearer the mark. On the plus side, you're spared the irritating commentary and the parade ring preliminaries, and there is eventually a last race.
Right, we've established that virtual racing is extremely silly, but why is it evil?
Have you ever seen
the film "Videodrome"?. If you have then you'll know what I'm talking
Like William Hill TV, the channel wasn't advertised anywhere and was found by accident by it's unfortunate victims (they may or may not advertise it in their shops, I haven't seen the inside of a betting shop for several years as I do all my punting on the racecourse or over the phone, so I wouldn't know).
The William Hill TV channel is really in the wrong section of Sky Digital's channel line up. It's in with the sports channels, but it should really be in with the cartoon channels. As they are all numbered in the 600's, William Hill TV could get the appropriately evil 666 slot.
The problem with virtual racing is that you're not losing virtual money when you play it, though as you're not physically handing over any cash it probably seems like virtual money. There is an option to "play for fun", but as anyone who punts on horses will tell you, it's just not the same without any financial involvement. Picking a winner and seeing it win having not backed it is hugely annoying and many times worse than backing a loser. The attraction is pitting your wits against the bookies, backing up your opinion with hard cash and hopefully seeing it proved right.
As professional punters say, never chase your losses, there is no such thing as the last race. However, with William Hill TV, as I stated earlier, there is no last race, and given that betting on horses (even virtual ones) is extremely addictive, you could easily punt your way to bankruptcy.
If I went to an alcoholics anonymous meeting with a vat of whisky, and informed those present that they could drink as much as they liked and pay me later. I would be quite rightly considered an evil dirtbag for taking advantage of people's addictions. Round the clock virtual racing is just as bad.
It has long been the opinion of Ivor Donkey that there is far too much racing now. There is Sunday racing all year round these days, and with a new track opening next year, and Newbury and Kempton due to stage all-weather meetings, there will soon be more than ever. Not to mention through the night American racing on Attheraces.
Despite that, with the aforementioned channels, and also Get Minted TV's virtual racing, not to mention the comparatively low tech virtual racing service on the Racing Post website (shame on them), we are now at the stage where there is actually more virtual than real racing.
Of course virtual racing is no match for the real thing - at the moment. However, as it gets more sophisticated and realistic, will it have an effect on racecourse attendance? Will it do for racing what Nintendo did for video arcades. At the moment there's no contest as virtual racing is pretty crap, stupid looking horses and jockeys, annoying commentary and sound effects during the race that resemble somebody banging two halves of coconut shell together. On the other hand, Sky Vegas Live's virtual greyhound racing service, imaginatively titled "the dogs", is very realistic indeed, and could almost be mistaken for the real thing (except real greyhound meetings don't go on for twelve hours a day). It can only be a matter of time before virtual racing achieves a similar degree of realism. What then? People will look out of their windows at the pouring rain and think "sod it, I won't bother going to Kempton, I'll watch and punt on the virtual racing instead", and will slowly and unknowingly become slaves to the evil William Hill TV channel.
This is all conjecture of course, and the effects of over exposure to virtual racing may not become immediately apparent. It's a bit like mobile phones, using them excessively may or may not be hazardous to your long term health. They may be completely harmless, on the other hand all of those irritating people that walk around all day rabbiting down phones that seem to be permanently attached to their earholes may be slowly and unknowingly microwaving their frontal lobes. A few years from now they might be gibbering simpletons, and spend their days sitting on park benches barking at pigeons - or they may not. Likewise virtual racing may not be evil and prolonged exposure to it may not cause hallucinations and unpleasant physical side effects, or then again.........