More than 4.8 million UK viewers tuned in Saturday to watch the Virtual Grand National, a computer-generated version of the world’s most famous steeplechase. That’s roughly half the size of the audience that would have been expected to watch the real thing, which had been scheduled take place on Saturday, until it, too, was canceled last month.
Potters Corner denied Tiger Roll a record third consecutive Grand National victory – at least in this alternate version – in a thrilling race that showcased the potential for virtual sports to fill the current betting void.
The race was, at one point, trending second worldwide on Twitter.
Bookmakers have agreed to donate all their profits from the event — which totaled £2.6 million ($3.2 million) — to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to help fight the spread of the pandemic.
The Virtual Grand National has been running since 2017, but was thrust into the limelight this year by the widespread cancellation of sports. It uses algorithms to weigh factors like age, weight, form, weather, and ground to predict probable finishing positions, and then animates the race using ultra-high-definition CGI technology.
The simulation has, in the past, proved to be relatively accurate in forecasting one of the most unpredictable horse races in the world. In 2018, it correctly called Tiger Roll’s first Grand National win, while also predicting three of the first five finishers.
Many at home were rooting for — and betting on — favorite Tiger Roll. But had the Irish-bred thoroughbred won the Virtual Grand National, the NHS would likely have received next to nothing.
Bookmakers said they had warned organizers before the race that profits were likely to be negligible if the favorite won. Luckily, eventual winner Potters Corner was a more bookie-friendly 18/1.
All bookies offered the same restricted betting service, with the maximum bet on the race capped at £10.
Rise of Virtual Sports
“The average stake per bet worked out at just over £2 ($2.46), 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 to NHS Charities Together,” a spokesperson for Coral told The Racing Post. “We are all seeing on a daily basis the amazing work the NHS are doing right now, so it’s entirely fitting that they are the real winners of this year’s virtual Grand National.”
Bookmakers have been offering bets for several years on virtual sports, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and these types of markets are likely to see an upsurge in popularity — at least while regular sports remain canceled.
“Virtual Racing has predominantly been used as an added feature, providing a continual stream of betting content during quiet periods or leading up to some of the biggest sporting events,” Steve Rogers, COO of Virtual Sports Inspired, the company behind the Virtual Grand National, told Yahoo Finance. “However, this year’s race has proven Virtual Sports are realistic enough to take center stage.”