i grew up going Racing. Many happy memories. The crowd that flocked around my Father, waiting for the likes of Colin Webster, John Pegley, Stephen Little, John Banks and David Power to emerge from the coffee bars ten minutes before the race like gun slingers. Stand on a box without an LED board in sight and lay bets to make your eyes water. To win ten and twenty grand at Pontefract and Windsor as if it were but ten pence. Show no reaction, win or lose. In those days there was a deep respect between punter and Bookmaker. Few punters won money in those days. There were no recognised betting systems. No bets were turned away.
And every penny laid in the Ring, stayed in the Ring. The market was vibrant, strong and healthy. A horse at 6/4 was available to lumps. At the smallest meeting you’d see four, even five lines of ‘Tattersalls’ Bookies. ‘Rails’ firms, so designated because they stood on the rail that divides members and Tattersalls enclosures traditionally laid the largest wagers, despite not being permitted to display their odds. John Banks changed that.
For customers, the Ring was a place of wonder and fun. Bets laid and a cardboard numbered ticket issued, representing the contract. Each bet notated by a ‘clerk’ with large betting ledgers. Such clerks were clever analytical types, although in those days the Bookie was solely responsible for the odds displayed. He had to understand margins, percentages and coupled odds. ‘Figures’ was the byword and i was taught if you laid a bet at the right rate, you would prosper.
Tic-Tac men were common and I was taught how to ‘speak’ their language. There were no laptops, no WIFI. The Tic-Tac men were incredibly skilled with iconic names like ‘Micky Fingers’ and ‘Rocky Roberto.’ They could move sizeable wagers about the ring with a flick of their wrist.
The Racing product was strong. Meetings were far fewer than today. The All Weather didn’t exist. By extension the National Hunt programme prospered from a diet of ‘lesser’ performers wasted from the flat. Not as today when it pays to race round Southwell in heats no one genuinely cares about.
When Betfair arrived things changed. Exchanges have never been a positive for the betting ring. Of course there are those who argue they represented choice and value. However, it also marked the point in time when the traditional friendly rivalry between fearless layers came to an end. I remember berating firms, like Martyn of Leicester who campaigned remorselessly for their introduction. To his cost these days. He wasn’t alone. Martyn found the first ‘no lose’ system, where he could lay firms like Ladbrokes a £7000 to £4000 (That is £4000 wagered at 7/4) and ‘hedge the wager for a profit with aggressive exchange layers. Often taking 2/1 or 9/4 back. It was simple. Too simple. The cancer started to eat into the Ring. Ladbrokes, Hills and Coral became apathetic about hedging into a Ring, who resolutely refused to cut their prices, now they had the protection and profits afforded by Betfair, as they had in the past. Why send down 20 grand to control the price of a horse at Sandown if the only effect were to line the pockets of the ‘ring arbers? I warned them at that time, of the dangers, but to new bookies utilising this system of trading, it was far simpler method of trading than working a traditional ‘book.’ Anything that simple isn’t sexy.
Of course the advent of exchanges on track wouldn’t have occurred had the then Chairman of the powerful Levy Board, Rob Hughes, ignorantly cast his vote in favour of permitting bookies to hedge into exchanges on track. At that time, nobody knew or understood the benefits or dangers of betting exchanges and the potential damage that could have been caused with their introduction. Hughes, a novice in betting terms, famously cast his vote, in a split board, to permit their introduction. A deeply foolish man left his ‘mark’ on Racing.
Even today, with its LED boards, the death of Tic-Tacs and far less money in the ring for bookies to work with, it still retains much of its fascination to people going Racing. For many a bet with a bookmaker is the only way to wager on track. Odds are clearly displayed, and a printed ticket informs the novice how much they can win. Payouts are fast, and the truth is very few bets are ever turned down, even in smaller rings. Yes the place terms in 16-21 runner handicaps can be less than available outside the track, but the BHA has managed to run the programme down to such an extent these days such races are relatively rare.
Another truth is the Starting Price returns, which so rarely reflect the true rates available on course, to decent money. Far too much ‘weight’ is aforded to major betting companies like Ladbrokes, whose principal effect in attending so many unprofitable meetings, is to distort the SP returns by often offering the lowest prices in the betting ring.
What’s killed the modern-day ring is the disappearance of monies wagered by customers on track into betting exchanges off the racecourse. At a pen stroke the health and integrity of the ring has been compromised. Bookmakers nowadays bet hard up to betting exchange odds and trade it with exchanges to create margin. It’s typical for the ring to match precisely the odds available on the exchange. The only notable difference is represented by outsiders, which few people wager upon. There you will typically see a difference between what a bookie offers against the exchange equivalent. The Bookie however has to be mindful of the place market for such selections. The exchange ‘layer’ doesn’t concern himself with such niceties.
The second cancer in the Ring are the Racetracks themselves. Led by a small and influential group of individuals who never frequent their betting rings. They exist in a world between corporate box and paddock. It’s extremely rare these days to see racetrack management in the betting ring. Two notable exceptions to this rule were Edward Gillespie of Cheltenham and Charles Barnett of Ascot. Both of whom spent a great deal of time hobnobbing with Bookmakers. The rest simply don’t bother.
Why don’t more track managers spend more time with what are, in effect, their best customers? Because Bookmakers like to complain about their lot! Notably about extortionate expenses tracks charge to bet these days. Executives are fully aware they are overcharging the ring. Facing Bookmaker complaints evidently lacks appeal! A Bookmaker not only shoulders penal rates to bet at racetracks, which migrates his little business into a penny arcade affair- he does more out of love, than profit. Often forced to park upwards of 500 yards away from the Betting Rings as track bosses pay them very little mind over more influential patrons, and their Rolls Royce’s. It’s common to see Bookmakers pushing heavy equipment several hundred yards, without complaint, in all weathers, to their ‘pitch.’ And of course these days tracks seek to charge often ridiculous rates to park your car in a muddy field near to their premises.
Bookmakers are charged season by season a ‘marketing fee’ in their contract which is supposed to be utilised to market the Ring. In reality the monies are trousered. There’s no evidence, certainly none by any racetrack I attend who spend one dollar of those fees in marketing the Ring. Indeed with ‘Racetrack Bet’ fees at tracks like Chester are far more likely spent bigging up their own product, over the Ring.
The third nail in the coffin is in the new policy incepted by groups of tracks such as Arena and Jockey Club, to turn the product from one focussed on the sport, to a social event. The expression that Racetracks have become ‘giant pubs’ – whilst unpopular no doubt with track executives, fancying their product as better than it actually is, is undoubtedly accurate. And with drink as the legal sale, and drugs the illegal entrant to the mix, we get regular unpleasant sights and sounds and yes, constant fights on tracks.
Throw into this new environment a thoroughly impotent regulator, in the shape of the British Horseracing Authority, which has notably failed to punish any racetrack for the behaviour of its patrons, nor to control the tens of millions of plastic cups the tracks create. All of this wastage casually disposed of. An ecological nightmare the likes of Harman and Rust do absolutely nothing about. Shame on you. What if someone draws the attention of Sky News to your failures here?
The truth is that as the ‘giant pub’ ideal has taken firm hold. The product on display in sporting terms has notably declined. Viewing numbers for the sport are in significant free fall, we are heading towards satellite coverage, as are those attending. Racetrack simply ‘guesstimate’ attendees. I was amused to see Goodwood figures for Glorious Goodwood as comparing favourably with last years. Despite a monsoon on the Wednesday which clearly put thousands off attending, the numbers the track claimed actually attended almost mirrored each other from 2017 to 2018.
It’s regular to see concerts put on by tracks, and attendances reflect the stars on display. However it’s often ‘married’ to extremely low-grade racing. At a time when the sport could be showcasing to a new audience its best Racing, in fact it chooses to put on some of its worst fare. Concert nights are often some of the worst nights for bookies in turnover terms. The crowd is simply not interested in betting on the poor product wedded to the concert.
The Ring owes its success or failure to the quality of the racing. The better and more competitive the sport is, the busier the Ring becomes. Increasingly those who attend racing do so not out of a love of horses, but as a social pastime. It’s profitable for the tracks, less so for the sport, and the Ring that so depends on it to survive.
What track executives miserably fail to recognise is that it is, in fact, their betting ring that remains the principal draw to racegoers. Get yourselves over to France to evidence the lack of atmosphere there with no bookies in attendance. It’s an odd scene indeed. We are very lucky that so may Bookies turn out to work, so often, for such pitiful returns. I feel of course it is useless to argue with both Racetracks and BHA, to expect them to afford their betting rings far more respect than they do so now. I am fully aware that to a track the ring is an important cash cow. However as business partners- and the principle draw on your property every time we turn out, we deserve to be better treated than we are right now. We should be parked closer, we should be allowed to leave our equipment safely overnight for meetings of more than one day, and yes, we should be charged less to bet.
Long term prognosis for Racetrack ‘Supremos’ who ignore such advice is not healthy. At some stage you’re going to have to improve your act as councils, rather than the BHA, act to control your excesses, and the drunken mob you throw out into the community at the end of every meeting. At some stage you’re going to have to stop over charging your Bookmakers and basing daily fees on your most expensive ‘rack rates’ and other such methods you employ to improve your bottom line, at our expense. Customers want Bookmakers. The leading betting event – the Cheltenham Festival now showcases just two (incomplete) lines of Bookies in your Ring, when once there were five.
Focus on your Ring, make it affordable and reinvigorate it. Repay the debt you owe to us as partners in your success.