AROUND LUNCHTIME ON April Fool’s Day, 2019, a white transit van pulled up on the roadside of Moulsham Hall Lane in Chelmsford. Inside were three men, Michael McCool, Simon Peters and Jason Bishop, who had made the journey from Melton Mowbray to this spot just beyond the boundary of Chelmsford City Racecourse, ahead of a day of horse racing.
With some time still to go before the first race, the trio unloaded a hard, black, plastic case from the van and dashed over to a nearby field. Here, they unpacked a DJI Matrice 200 drone and launched it, with Peters at the controls sending it flying near to the racecourse. First, they tested the drone, sending it 16 metres into the air for 30 seconds, then up again several more times, reaching heights of 113m. Bishop kept an eye on the quadcopter from the field below as a safety spotter, in case Peters lost sight of it.
Meanwhile, in the rear of the van, McCool watched a TV monitor beam live pictures from the drone’s on-board camera. He checked that its aerial vantage point offered them a view of every twist and turn of the course, before bringing the drone back down to the ground. At 1:32pm, the drone took flight again, hovering at 56m. From this height, the men watched a horse called Shorter Skirt, with odds of 7/2, beat highly-tipped favourite Fen Breeze in the opening race.
While following the drone footage from the back of the Ford Transit, the men began to place bets online while the races were underway. Using a programme called Betfair Betting Assistant, McCool divided his attention between the drone’s video stream and the screen of a MacBook Air, onto the bezel of which were written exhortations such as “Go were [sic] the jockeys are!”
But, while the trio of drone-enabled bettors were focused on the action, staff at Chelmsford City Racecourse had their eyes focused on the skies.
Brian Wakefield, the racecourse’s facilities manager, had been told that something strange was happening: a punter at the racecourse who had been laying bets kept seeing the odds change in the middle of the race, and suspected that someone, somewhere must have an edge. That “would suggest someone was betting off live footage,” Wakefield wrote later in a police statement. “I had a hunch this would be from a drone or something similar.”
Wakefield and a colleague set off from the racecourse, driving around the outside of the track until they came across the white van. They parked their car and confronted the drone operatives; McCool and his band of men kept flying, and the police were called.
Around 2:30pm, the first police officers arrived on scene. Five officers ended up visiting the site, including Essex Police’s drone manager. Wakefield told the officers he believed the drones were being used to give the people in the van an unfair advantage over ordinary bettors, and – according to one police officer’s statement at the time – “were filming live horse races and streaming them around the world.” (McCool, a fast-talking, stocky former soldier, denies this was the case.)
The drone was confiscated by the police, and charges laid against McCool and Peters for flying it over a congested area. On March 5, 2020, however, the charges were dropped. “The CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] had formed the view that there was not enough evidence […] to provide a realistic prospect of conviction,” a judge wrote, and had the CPS pay McCool and Peters £58,004 in legal fees. The judge also said the police had committed an “apparent misinterpretation of the law” by saying the trio were flying their drone dangerously.
McCool felt vindicated. But the horse racing establishment wasn't going to give up that easily.
HORSE RACING IS BIG business, with around £9 billion of wagers made every year, luring both professional gamblers and casual punters staking small bets every week.
While many people place bets ahead of a sporting fixture, online betting means that bettors can also wager on the outcome of races and games while an event is ongoing. “In-running” or “in-play” betting can include picking the winner of a horse race after the horses have set off, or gambling on the next football team to win a corner or a free kick mid-game, with dynamically changing odds. Most people take part in in-running betting by watching TV feeds of sporting events in betting shops or through bookmakers’ websites – but, depending on where the footage is coming from, latency can be between 0.5 and three seconds behind the real-time action.
Sending the signal from cameras to the on-site broadcast equipment builds in between half a second and a full second of delay; beaming that signal up to satellites and then down to screens in homes and betting shops worldwide adds roughly the same amount. That means people betting at home or in shops are acting on ever-so-slightly outdated information – and anyone who can reduce this latency may be able to eke out an advantage.
In professional horse racing, it takes a fraction of a second for a race to change course entirely, so if a bettor can spot that a horse in second place is making a late charge before anyone else, they can place a bet on it winning when the odds are more favourable.
The Gambling Commission, which oversees betting in the UK, last looked at in-play betting in September 2016, and found it could be used to gain an advantage, but that it wasn’t an institutional problem for the industry. “In-play betting does not appear to generate specific additional risks to the licensing objectives as long as betting customers are sufficiently aware of their position and the respective positions of other players and the betting operators,” the Commission explains on its website. “We do not consider it necessary to intervene to prevent some players using technology to gain an advantage in terms of speed of information, provided it is clear to all players that this can be done.”
The Gambling Commission also looked at the use of access to real-time data and footage, and what it called “courtsiding” – transmitting live information from spectators at sporting events about key moments in races or matches – and decided it wasn’t cheating. They did, however, clarify that “The practice may […] breach the entry terms and conditions of a tournament.”
Chelmsford wasn’t the first time McCool and his associates had attempted to use a drone to aid their in-running betting efforts. McCool hires people to get drone coverage at dozens of sporting events every week. By streaming footage from drone cameras with less than half a second of latency, they aim to gain a split-second advantage on bettors relying on traditional media. McCool’s associates are paid a share of 50 per cent of the winnings from any week; 30 per cent goes to him, Peters and a third business partner; and 20 per cent goes to fund the upkeep of the equipment and drones. McCool says he tends to invest around £30,000 a week on betting. The amount you make “varies day to day,” says Peters. “It’s probably around £200 a day, on average. It pays the bills, and I get to pick my own hours.”
In the two weeks before the DJI Matrice 200 was confiscated at Chelmsford, flight logs show it had been flown at 13 other racecourses – from Nottingham to Wetherby, Newbury to Uttoxeter, Ludlow and Lingfield, as well as a sojourn over to County Kildare in Northern Ireland. One day when we speak, McCool is flying drones near four racecourses, getting footage of 25 different races. “We had six different teams at one point, going out to the different tracks, then sending [the footage] back to us at the office,” Peters says.
But not everyone is happy with the presence of drones at horse racing events. Betting is a £34.4 billion industry in the UK. Around three in every four pounds is wagered online. Football is a big market for online betting, accounting for 38 per cent of turnover, but horse racing comes a close second, accounting for a third of revenue. “Non-remote” – or offline – betting is an £8 billion industry, with 96 per cent of bets laid “off-course” at counters in high street bookmakers’ shops. But it’s not just bookmakers that profit from every bet laid. The house, which almost always wins, includes racecourse owners.
While the Chelmsford charges against McCool and Peters were dropped, racecourses are still trying to prevent drone operators from flying near their events. In February 2021, one of the country’s biggest racecourse owners, Arena Racing Group, served a warning prior to legal action – essentially, a threat to eventually take someone to court – to the cavalier drone flyers who continue to take off at scores of horse races across the country every week. (McCool’s solicitor challenged the letter, and McCool claims they haven’t heard since from the racecourse owner.)
“We’ve found a niche and they don’t like that,” says McCool.
MCCOOL, A 49-YEAR-OLD-MAN with a sparky presence, has spent the last decade trying to gain an inch on the racing establishment. He was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, where his father was a successful greyhound trainer. He served in the first Gulf War with the Irish Guards regiment, but his time in the forces came to an end when he was 26 and developed a pituitary adenoma, a benign tumour that presses against the optical bridge. After a number of years bouncing between Britain and Northern Ireland, he ended up as a greyhound trainer in Melton Mowbray.
McCool was a relatively successful trainer in the mid-2000s; contemporary news reports show some of his dogs, including one named Slick Kid, winning races at Walthamstow, Coventry and Nottingham. The Racing Post wrote in 2005, after the Walthamstow win: “While Slick Kid is by no means a prolific winner – this was his fifth success of a 26-race career – he does have the uncanny knack of coming good at the right time, with three of those successes coming in finals, wins that have earned connections a healthy £9,250 in prize-money.”
When Slick Kid won the Nottingham Guineas in March 2005, he was priced at odds of 12/1. The dog’s victory at the Coventry Derby in August that year was another surprise, given he was an 8/1 outsider. In December, he won the Racing Post Stayers race despite starting betting at 25/1. None of the results endeared McCool to the racing establishment. “This is where the animosity starts,” he says. “They hated my guts because I pulled so many tactical advantages.”
While he strenuously denies cheating, McCool says “I liked my dogs to win whenever we wanted them to win, and not whenever they were supposed to win. I was a shrewd person. That’s basically how I’d put it.”
He was gaining unwanted attention, and looked for a way out of greyhound racing. He began playing poker, buying in for £200 plus £20 of bets at a no-limit hold’em game at the Grosvenor Casino in Luton in January 2006. He came second, pocketing £6,133. Tournaments in Walsall, Bolton, Essex, Dublin and Newcastle over the next year or more earned him increasingly large paydays as he began winning: £18,000 at the 2006 Christmas Cracker in Luton was followed by a €40,000 prize pot in Dublin for winning the Irish Poker Championships. Over the course of a five-year career on the European poker circuit, McCool won just shy of half a million dollars through official tournaments. “That’s nothing,” he says. “That’s only official competitions. I was playing most nights at different venues in London.” He also began getting friendly with those he sat across the table from.
It was one of his fellow players who introduced him to in-running betting. The idea was simple enough: you’d visit a racecourse, open your mobile phone camera, and live stream the races, so people could bet on it – including yourself. McCool’s first in-running betting day was at Uttoxeter in 2006. His reaction? “‘Jesus, this is easy.’ That was it. Within three or four weeks, I was doing it full-time.”
By 2011, the scale of his betting enterprise was getting so large McCool decided he needed help. He was introduced to Peters, who at the time was working in the supermarket on weekends alongside his full-time role as an administration assistant for an insurance company in Leicester. Peters jumped at the chance.
Soon, both men were on the road to Nottingham Racecourse. Their operation started off rather low-tech. Before the DJI Matrice 200 and a phalanx of other drones, there was a knackered, beaten-up Nissan NV400.
They drove the van near to Nottingham Racecourse on April 10, 2013 and parked. Peters stood to the side of the vehicle holding a Panasonic camera with a 90x optical zoom plugged into a DVD player, relaying the footage while McCool began laying bets that took advantage of the low latency of being close to the course. “It’s all about what edge you can get,” says McCool. “You need an edge. You can’t class yourself as a professional gambler if you’ve not got an edge. If you haven’t got an edge, you’re just a gambler; somebody betting on bingo and Peruvian netball.”
Those edges were gained in strange ways in the early days. In May 2013, McCool and Peters had the idea to hire a dark green cherry picker to get a better vantage point of the track at Perth. Peters, who left his weekend job at the Co-op in Melton Mowbray a few weeks after he first joined McCool on a gambling trip and left his full-time job about six months later, was something of a guinea pig for some of the more outlandish attempts. He was sent up a tree near Southwell Racecourse and went wading through a river near Huntingdon, lying sodden and in the freezing cold while calling in results. He was deposited in a bush in Wolverhampton with the help of three extendable ladders, dressed in a ghillie suit.
There were hits and misses. “We’ve went skint a few times,” says McCool. “We’ve went skint and had to sell bloody computers just to work. Then we’ve went and made like two grand from £200 to £300 from the pawn shop.”
WHEN DRONES BECAME cheaply and readily available, McCool and his associates saw an unmissable opportunity. “A few other people were doing what we were doing,” says Peters. “It’s called ‘twitching’: watching from the side of the track. One of them bought a drone, and showed us what he was doing. That was towards the end of 2018. It was around that time we bought our first one.”
McCool and Peters travelled up to Sedgefield in mid-March 2019 to take a Permission for Commercial Operations, or PfCO course. The training taught them how to pilot drones safely, and advised them of the rules around flying over congested areas.
Twenty days later, they were stopped at Chelmsford. In that time, they had taken the drone to a different racecourse almost every day. As the police officer who confiscated the quadcopter at the side of the road packed away the drone and its equipment, the Northern Irishman joked to his colleague: “Just as well we’ve got three drones, then.”
Drone use has found a particular niche since horse racing meetings went behind closed doors in June 2020. The coronavirus pandemic took away other in-person in-running betting opportunities – people would often buy tickets to the races not because they were particularly interested in the action, but because it would afford them a split-second advantage over those who weren’t at the track – but proved a boon for those seeking to use drones.
One of the major problems for drone flyers is safety. Regulations prevent people from flying a drone over a crowded place. Pilots get around this by flying far away from the course, but the fact there aren’t thousands of people crammed into racecourse stands makes it easier.
A spokesperson for Arena Racing Company, which runs 16 horse racing courses and two greyhound tracks, and accounts for four in every ten races that take place in the UK, reports “significant growth in the number of drones being flown at race meetings.” That’s partly down to advances in drone technology, and partly down to practicalities during the coronavirus pandemic: many bettors who’d watch along from trackside to get an advantage over televised pictures haven’t been allowed near racecourses due to government guidelines. The spokesperson says that “there are a number of concerns associated with this, first and foremost the safety of participants, both human and equine,” and claims to have had incidents of unauthorised drones crashing on or near the company’s racecourses in recent months.
Speaking to those in the industry, they tend to agree that drone-based betting is a bad thing. Racecourse owners like ARC argue that the broadcast of the footage may be an infringement on broadcast rights, which are worth an estimated £100 million a year to racecourses.
“There is no way to know where, and by whom, such broadcasts are being used,” says the ARC spokesperson. “In an environment when gambling and gambling controls are under significant scrutiny, it cannot be right that these operators have such a simple way to exploit the loopholes and potentially expose the vulnerable to unlicensed routes to betting. Furthermore, it creates significant concern for all sports and live events over their ability to stage events and control their own business, into which they will have invested millions of pounds.”
Barry Orr, Betfair’s head of racing PR, has a similar perspective. “From our point of view, anything that would damage the integrity of live pictures is not ideal,” he says.
The British Horseracing Authority declined to speak for this story, referring me to the Racecourse Association (RCA), which represents 59 racecourses across the UK. Paul Swain, brand and experience manager at the RCA, refused an interview, citing “legal proceedings ongoing”.
One of the racing industry’s arguments against drones is that the sport relies heavily on its live TV broadcast rights, and even more so since the pandemic shut off access to ticket revenue. But McCool says the only people watching the footage from his swarm of drones is himself, and those who work for him, sat in the back of their Transit vans or on his Melton Mowbray farm. (There was one time when McCool, through the Twitter account of his company Foxfly, offered punters access to live streamed footage at his Melton Mowbray headquarters in early 2021 in exchange for between £100 and £200, but he quickly cancelled when people suggested this would be illegal.)
“Professional gamblers aren’t seen as very nice people,” says McCool. “They don’t know that we’re doing a job; we’re just going out to try and make a bit of money. They don’t like us, and are just trying to get rid of us. That’s what I think it is: they just don’t like us.”
Yet not all professional gamblers are onboard with drone-based betting. “It's frustrating, is the first word I would say,” says Martin Hughes, a longtime gambler based in the northeast of England who is a member of the Horseracing Bettors’ Forum, a voluntary body of gamblers. “I more or less stopped betting, because I'm so far behind it is pointless, really.”
Orr worries that the imbalance in information across different bettors could lead to the demise of gambling on horse racing. “When there's no level playing field, that's it,” he says. “Nobody wants to see that. It turns a lot of people off from betting that ordinarily would have a bet.”
THERE IS NOW a battle going on between drone pilots and the horse racing establishment. McCool fully intends to keep on sending drones up near horse races; race organisers intend to keep trying to stop him.
As the first day of the Grand National meeting at Aintree Racecourse got underway on April 8, 2021, McCool received a message from a colleague about a NOTAM – a notice to airmen, or flight restriction – that had been imposed over the racecourse. The designation had been put in place for the race weekend for a temporary heliport to allow people to travel in and out of the area. McCool evidently had little truck for this explanation. “These are the tactics. They try everything, mate,” he says. “Everything, tactics-wise, to try and stop us.” He ignored the NOTAM, which was advisory rather than restrictive.
Alongside the airspace restrictions, McCool and his band of men have been repeatedly stopped by police while flying. Aside from the time in Chelmsford, they have never been charged. It’s had an impact on him and his team. “My wife doesn’t like me getting into trouble,” Peters says. “She’s asked me to do something else. Even though we’re not doing anything wrong, the police say we are doing something wrong and then we get arrested and charged for it. She doesn’t want that.”
Now, McCool is trying to keep one step ahead. He claims to be working with technologies that will help to capture better images in poor weather, and trialling a horse-tracking camera, similar to AI human-recognition camera systems, which would help monitor races more easily. “The only thing that can basically beat us is the lack of ability to get accounts to trade on,” he says. “That would be the thing that would restrict us in the future.” McCool says he hasn’t gambled using an account in his own name since 2008 to avoid being limited by the gambling firms.
Yet the one thing he may not be prepared for is the racing establishment’s new secret weapon: fighting fire with fire. Track owners have tried everything to stop people at tracks from getting a time advantage, from slowing down the on-course footage beamed onto the giant screens to dissuade attendees from pointing their phone at the screen and livestreaming it to others, to pursuing drone flyers through courts. But one thing they have yet to try is to speed up the pace at which they send pictures back to betting shops and TV stations.
Racecourse Media Group (RMG), which manages the broadcast rights of 34 British racecourses, has been working on a low-latency stream of footage from racecourses back to betting shops. It’s managed to bring down the latency of its livestreams to bookmakers to just under a second behind real time events. “We are looking to get that latency consistently down to 0.6 seconds in the very near future,” says Seb Vance, director of communications at RMG. The faster pictures will, he says, “negate the advantage that some, such as drone operators, try to seek in the in-running markets.”
McCool is not convinced. “Seb Vance can say all this blarney,” he says. “It’s not just about the latency, it’s also about the angle from which you film. If you’re looking at a head-on camera, you’ve got less advantage than you do being side-on.” He points out that some tracks have managed to get down to similar latency, and claims that this hasn’t affected his business.
Reducing the latency is something professional punters would welcome, reckons Hughes, the lapsed gambler. “The only way you're going to stop the drones is by creating your own drone, which everyone can pay for,” he says. “Then it stops every other drone in their tracks.”
© Condé Nast Britain 2021.