Talking Horses: Racecourse bookies fear financial ruin if stands stay empty

Greg Wood and Chris Cook
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA</span>
Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/PA

A group which represents on-course bookmakers said on Wednesday that its members have become “the forgotten cog in the wheel that is the industry of horse racing”. The group also accused the British Horseracing Authority of being “more concerned with preserving behind closed doors status” than getting crowds back onto racecourses.

In an open letter to the BHA, the Racecourse Association and relevant government departments and ministers, Lynn Garritty, the chair of the Independent On-Course Bookmakers Group, also said that many racecourse bookies face imminent ruin if limited crowds are not allowed back onto tracks “at the earliest opportunity”. Garritty pointed to the “obvious success of two pilot events at Doncaster and Warwick, where it was proved beyond doubt restricted audiences can safely attend race meetings”.

Related: Talking Horses: Nicholls title hopes raised by Henderson Kempton doubts

Garritty points out that most on-course bookies have not been able to work for seven months and most are “small family firms with no other income”. However, the majority are unable to claim financial assistance from the government, and their “premises” – their racecourse pitches, often bought at considerable expense – “are not buildings with a rateable value” and so do not qualify for grants.

“As an industry, we would much rather return to work rather than rely on handouts,” Garritty said. “But if this situation is set to continue for many more months, we need to be included in any plans for financial support.” The letter also claims there are inconsistencies in the government’s rules for suppressing Covid-19 transmission.

“There is no consistency in the regulations as to what is deemed safe and what is not,” Garritty added. “On the 11 and 12 October, a thousand people were permitted at the London Palladium to watch a show. It defies logic that this number attended an indoor venue yet cannot attend the vast outdoor spaces offered at racecourses, where social distancing is easily achievable.

“It is common sense that a racecourse is far safer than an enclosed auditorium. This disparity is the frustration and yet there is no explanation why this hasn’t been taken up on our behalf with [Secretary of State] Oliver Dowden and the DCMS.”

No sector in racing or its associated industries has been untouched by Covid-19, but the on-course bookies have been as exposed as any to its financial impact while receiving little or no support, and so their frustration is understandable. Many have also invested heavily in pitches which were estimated to have a total value of around £100m before the pandemic, and could see the value of their main assets disappear if the current situation persists.

The BHA cannot respond to a letter it has yet to receive, but it could fairly point out that it was at the forefront of pilot schemes for the return of crowds in the summer, which were suspended by the government several weeks ago. Also, it does not face an “either/or” choice on maintaining racing behind closed doors or working towards a return of spectators. It can do its best to do both at once.

But the latest announcement from the Levy Board on funding for prize money, which also arrived on Wednesday, was a further reminder of the existential threat to many racecourses and all those that depend on them for a living, if the grandstands remain empty for months to come.

On the face of it, the news was positive: the Levy Board will guarantee to maintain elevated levels of funding for the first four months of 2021. The £24.4m earmarked for prize money from January to April is 46% higher than usual for the period.

However, with betting shops across the north of England being forced to close as many areas enter Tier 3 lockdowns, there is also a warning of a “downward impact” on Levy yield as well as media rights payments to racecourses, and a reminder that the Board’s current level of funding cannot continue indefinitely.

“As has been the case since June, this level of funding is unsustainable beyond the short-term,” Paul Darling, the Levy Board’s chairman, said on Wednesday. “We continue to urge the industry’s constituents to work together on future plans, recognising that our contribution will have to return to more normal levels in due course.” Greg Wood

Thursday’s best bets, by Chris Cook

If we’re weighing up Nicky Henderson-trained favourites, it must nearly be the core jumps season. Whitlock opened at odds-on for his hurdles debut in the first at Ludlow, two years after the brother to Zonderland was progressive on the Flat for John Gosden.

But his pedigree, by Dutch Art out of a Pivotal mare, is really not designed for hurdling and it’s hard to know why anyone would find even-money attractive about him. Ajero (1.25), a half-brother to Charbel, is more like it at 3-1, three weeks after going close on his hurdles debut.

At the other end of the card, Stupid Cupid (5.25) has shortened up but 8-1 is still fair. From the unexpectedly red-hot Sheila Lewis yard (four from four in the past fortnight), she gets the best ground she’s had since the last time she won, 12 months ago, from the mark she’s on now. A tongue tie and cheekpieces are added after a fairly hopeless reappearance, not unlike the fairly hopeless reappearance she made last season.

Carlisle 12.35 Grandads Cottage 1.08 Jetaway Joey 1.40 Protektorat 2.15 Ribble Valley 2.50 Getaway Mag 3.25 Damiens Dilemma 4.00 Destin D'Ajonc (nap) 4.34 Capac

Lingfield 1.15 Castledhem 1.47 Nevendon 2.22 Huntsmans Jog 2.57 Mercian Knight 3.32 Imphal 4.07 Make Me A Believer 4.45 Mystic Dreamer 5.15 Operatic Export

Ludlow 1.25 Ajero 2.00 Trumps Benefit 2.35 Wynn House 3.10 Golden Taipan 3.45 Shareef Star 4.20 Billy's Angel 4.53 Jack Thunder 5.25 Stupid Cupid (nb)

Wolverhampton 4.05 Top Breeze 4.40 Jungle Capers 5.10 Frow 5.40 Night Warrior 6.15 Military Mission 6.45 Shady McGee 7.15 Sovereign Moon 7.45 Rose Grey 8.15 Estate House

Chelmsford 4.59 Golden Claim 5.30 Illustrator 6.00 Messalina 6.30 Kinsman 7.00 Conscious 7.30 Cashel 8.00 Drew Breeze 8.30 Golden Rules

In a weak-looking handicap hurdle, Shareef Star (3.45) could outrun odds of 6-1. The ground was softer than ideal and he was given plenty to do on his handicap debut but he showed promise in second that day and is on a low rating in view of his ability on the Flat.

At Carlisle, Destin D’Ajonc (4.00) is interesting for the two Jonjos, getting a decent surface for the first time since being switched to fences. His rating has dropped by a stone in a year but he’s shown enough to be of interest at 10-1 in these circumstances.