Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought the sport of horse racing to its knees, on-course bookmakers were struggling.
The betting circle used to be the social hub of any race meeting. After a punter had picked out which horse they wanted to back, they’d scan the odds boards, looking to see which bookie was offering the best price. Once they’d queued up and placed their bets, attendees would happily share their selections with fellow racegoers, before cheering on their horse from the side of the track.
The emergence of mobile betting meant fewer and fewer punters were venturing to the betting ring to place their bets. Some wouldn’t even bother going outside at all, choosing to watch the race on the television next to the bar, while checking the in-play odds on their betting apps.
On-course bookmakers were already calling for financial help before Covid-19 swept through the country. Since April, only a handful of meetings have been able to allow fans through their doors, and social distancing rules meant only a few bookies pitches were set up during those meetings.
The biggest event in National Hunt racing, the 2021 Cheltenham Festival is less than four weeks away. However, RacingInsider.com reported last month that it’s highly likely “the greatest show on turf” will be staged behind closed doors for the first time.
This could strike a fatal blow for many betting firms. The Cheltenham Festival is such a huge event, that a good week would provide a life-line for many on-course bookmakers. No punters, though, means no course of income, and many bookies will likely go out of business.
“It’s an utter disaster but understandable,” said William Woodhams, CEO of Fitzdares bookmakers earlier in the season. “Many independent and on-course bookmakers will go bust.”
“Never has there been such disruption. This is a major turning point in the sport and we will be counting the cost for many years. “Racing is hugely resilient and will be fine long term but they will need public sympathy and support in buckets.”
The current National lockdown is due to end in Britain later this month. Confirmed cases of Covid-19 have dropped, but the amount of people being hospitalised by this virus remains dangerously high.
With children set to return to schools at the start of March, there’s a slim chance that a small number of spectators might be allowed to enter Prestbury Park for the Cheltenham Festival. Sadly, even 1000 punters each day wouldn’t be enough to save many independent bookmakers, and on-course betting pitches may soon by a thing of the past.