UK authorities fight to stop live drone broadcast of horse racing

The uproar in the UK over drones live streaming horse races to give customers an advantage in betting networks has reached a new high, with clearly disgruntled and disapproving politicians joining the debate. Despite their serious outrage, the desire to thwart the lucrative practice continues to be undermined by a baffling consideration: the activity is not illegal under existing laws.

At this point, pilots who fly their drones to stream real-time horse racing videos must feel like almost anyone who can has tried to thwart their profitable efforts. Local authorities, track and horse owners, police patrols and even neighbors in areas from which drones fly have repeatedly called for drone confiscation and operators chased or imprisoned. So far, however, this effort to provide paying betting customers with an edge that others seemingly miss out on has flourished in the absence of laws that specifically prohibit it.

These live streams are invaluable to so-called running bettors, who bet as races progress by acting on visual evidence of a horse suddenly rising or passing out. While official racetrack images are transmitted to betting companies with delays of seconds or more, UAV streams go directly to betting clients without lag, providing a short but valuable edge.

Efforts to fill legal loopholes allow this, but with mixed results.

This month, the drones affair of live horse racing was considered by the UK House of Lords. However, despite much harassment to denounce it, the activity does not seem to have been pushed closer to the legal ban.

For example, while Lord Lipsey called the practice an ‘unfair act and it must be stopped’, a review of existing legislation confirmed that pilots had the right to fly as they wished, provided they obeyed general UAV operating rules.

He also acknowledged that under existing broadcast agreements, drone pilots live broadcasting the events do not appear to violate the rights of companies engaged in horse racing television. “[S]The carrying performances are not considered as intellectual creations since the rules of the sport leave only a limited place to a true freedom of creation ”, confirmed Lord Callaghan on this subject.

In addition, Lord Callaghan was cited by Race station noting that an investigation by the UK Gambling Commission had “found little evidence that illegal drone shooting is linked to illegal gambling sites”. His lordship presumably meant a “reprehensible” UAV broadcast, as the pilots would have been arrested, tried and locked in jail long ago if they broke the laws (hence their parliamentary discussion).

So, despite the considerable outrage expressed, the outcome of the Lords’ debate returned to the same starting point as other consultations: activity, then convincing parliamentarians to pass it into law – which so far does not occur in the UK.

It is, however, a step taken by the Irish legislature this month when a bill was introduced to tackle the practice which has also been transplanted to Ireland. Many of the same actors in the UK have reportedly started bringing their drones into the country to broadcast the big horse races, putting track owners, cops and politicians in the same legal bond as Blighty. Laws and television rights are not violated, and UAV operators know very well what they can and cannot do.

“These guys are not at all afraid of the law here”, the Irish daily Independent quoted Eamonn McEvoy, director of the Naas track outside Dublin.

McEvoy should know. Last March he witnessed the result of a pair of men from a British drone film crew sent to right a rival team seen as muscular on their Irish horse filming grounds – and get more than what ‘they had negotiated.

“They had rented a BMW X5 at Dublin Airport, and this guy crashed into their car, walked into Naas and walked through the race office with these guys after him,” McEvoy recalled in the Race station. “It was just luck that he got out the other door before they got him.”

Police were called in to prevent further confrontations, but were unable to do anything about the underlying broadcasts of the drone races. The collapse was however dramatic enough that Horse Racing Ireland mounted a lobbying campaign to pressure lawmakers to do something to fix the problem – which culminated in this month’s bill.

So it may be that drone pilots filming horse races end up breaking the law not through their aerial activity, but rather through their overly competitive ground footage.


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