The Tote used to be owned by the UK Government and was known as the Horserace Totalisator Board. It has been owned by a private bookmaker since 2011, but today retains the right to be the only bookmaker in the country which is allowed to offer “parimutuel betting” on horse racing. This form of betting sees all stakes pooled and the payout, or Tote dividend, is then shared amongst winning bets with the “house” taking a standard percentage.
Most major bookies in the UK offer gamblers the chance to opt for Tote odds in place of their standard odds or “SP” (starting price). Any payouts made will then reflect exactly the terms of the Tote returns, which may be bigger or smaller than the SP. In practice, Tote dividends broadly mirror the SP market, but not in all cases, and it’s rare to find the returns exactly the same between the Tote and the SP.
With a standard win bet on a horse in a race, the bookie offers fixed odds which gamblers may elect to take at the time the wager is placed – or the starting price. But with the Tote system, the Tote dividend gets paid out from the overall betting pool. This, in turn, depends on how much money has been placed on the winning (or placing) horses in the race.
At the time of placing a Tote bet, the potential return quoted for a horse is the anticipated Tote dividend payout. These odds may be better, worse or the same as the bookmakers’ odds at the time of placing the bet. But the eventual payout can’t be calculated by gamblers accurately until all bets are placed and the race starts.
This difference can make deciding whether to opt for Tote betting or the SP something of a gamble in itself as punters need to try and judge whether the Tote payout will exceed or fall short of the SP in practice. The SP is calculated using a mean average of all odds given by bookies at the time the race gets underway and is overseen by the Jockey Club. Whilst the Tote dividend usually broadly mirrors the SP, there are occasions when the odds differ quite markedly.