The End Of On-Course Betting And Its Implications For Racing

What is the future of on-course bookmaking? What will become of betting as a result? Today on the blog Stephen discusses the issues facing the on-course betting business and its descent to such a dismal state.

BookiesOncourse

After a recent visit to Plumpton for their biggest meeting of the year, I was stunned by the further deterioration in the volume of betting that now takes place. Although the same number of bookmakers seem to turn up, generally in a bedraggled and poorer looking state, the amount of bets struck seemed to be virtually non-existent.

Are on-course bookmakers doomed?

Wharton Slaney, a major rails layer who was represented on the rails at nearly all tracks in the South in the past decade, has seen his turnover fall 75% in the past two years and now bets only at the festivals and major weekend meetings. While the bigger firms such as Corals have cut down altogether on when they stand at the track.

The betting ring now resembles a car-boot sale, with anxious scruffy sellers checking over their shoulders to make sure they are not topping the price available on the exchange.

Why has on-course betting collapsed?

1- Recession

There is little doubt that job uncertainty/credit crunch/inflation have had a major impact on the betting that takes place on-course. Even on Betfair, the turnover on racing has fallen dramatically, especially in the mornings where business is virtually non-existent. Basically the "spare mug cash" has long since disappeared, and the astute players left tend to play their cards very tight and late.

The £100/200 pound in his pocket punter finds he can no longer afford a day at the races on a regular basis, perhaps placing a smaller bet before racing and just coming along for an overpriced drink/meal instead. It has to be said that crowds at UK racecourses have held up fairly well, although this is undoubtedly masked by the concerts after racing during the summer that have proved very popular and have nothing basically to do with racing or betting.

2- Cashless Society

15 or 20 years ago, the "working man" still received his wages in cash on a Friday, perhaps with a bit extra on the side if he had done overtime. This gave him freedom to punt away as he pleased, unbeknown to his other half. This and the fact that betting off-course was subject to a punitive 10p in the £tax rate, meant that on-course wagering was vibrant and awash with cash.

Now in an electronic age, wages are sent directly to bank accounts, usually monthly after the taxman has had his say, and all bills/direct debits probably arrive at the same time. The "punting tank" is often much smaller and it is far easier to wager online from the comfort of home. This has seen an explosion in betting on televised sport such as football, and the growth of casinos/games that can be funded directly. The demise of cash has had a catastrophic effect on on-course betting.

3- Betfair's arrival and domination of the ring

Exchanges have given birth to a new breed of bookmaker. In fact he is not a bookmaker at all, merely a trader or arber as he puts back every bet struck on-course into the machine trying to lay 2-1 on course and have 9-4 back. He tries to chisel out a living, but falling turnover makes this modus operandi non-viable, especially at the mainly deserted midweek meetings where punters have all but disappeared.

Also the act of blatantly following every Betfair price has alienated many backers, who quite rightly feel they are being used or fleeced by the layer. Prices crash without a bet being struck on course, there is no feel for the market anymore that the shrewd on-course punter used to feel, following the moves or what the faces had backed. It is an automated, faceless, deserted place that is rapidly dying a death away from the weekend or festival meetings.

4- The decline of the SP system

The loss of a "betting market" has massive ramifications for the entire industry. At Lingfield this winter, bookmakers have been paid by the track to attend so that an SP can be returned to the shops. The Starting Price mechanism is used to settle huge numbers of bets struck off-course, and a loss of integrity can only turn more and more people away from betting on racing.

At Kempton there are rarely more than a handful of bookmakers that turn up to face an empty grandstand, and the percentages returned have frequently been a disgrace. What casual punter in his right mind is going to play into 130% books (often with only 5 or 6 runners). It is short sighted "theft" by the major firms in the industry, alienating further still a diminishing racing public.

5- Each-way terms and Liquidity

Off-course each way terms are standard and well established. On-course there is a free for all, with many layers not offering the correct terms. Some go 1/6th the odds a place when the terms are unfavourable, and an unsuspecting public is basically getting ripped off by a few unscrupulous bookmakers (they are in a small minority but nonetheless have massively damaged the perception with which on-course bookmakers are viewed).

As Southern boards/rails layer Mel Atreed said on twitter: "all we have is the public, and if we lose them, we have nothing".

How does this impact on racing?

The direct affect on racing is a dramatic fall in the levy yield that bookmakers pay on their profits from taking horse racing bets. This outdated system is in urgent need of reform, as Paul Bittar at the BHA has acknowledged, but in the meantime prize money has been cut and this in turn has disastrous knock-on affects on integrity of the sport and the financial viability of a career in racing for trainers, jockeys, owners and bookmakers.

More and more low grade, dire all-weather racing played out in front of deserted stands seems the Americanised future for the sport.

The future of betting?

The future is here now and it is going one way. Bar weekend meetings where the courses resemble a giant pub filled with stag and hen parties, or the festivals where people still want to enjoy the fantastic experience of seeing racing live and betting into a vibrant market i.e Cheltenham or Glorious Goodwood, the betting will continue to take place behind computer screens, away from the action.

The on-course bookmaker's job will become a "hobby" for 15 or 20 days a year, where the layer has a pitch for the Saturday fixture or a major meeting. The expense of operating full time and the lack of any worthwhile turnover on-course make this inevitable within the next decade.