Bookmakers will return to British racecourses on Tuesday for the first time since March in a two-week trial intended to establish whether they can trade safely under Covid-19 restrictions. Limited numbers of bookmakers will be allowed at tracks, taking business only from racehorse owners.
“We’re going to trial it to see if it works,” said Paul Swain of the Racecourse Association. “After two weeks, we can either extend it, change it or stop it.” Although cards are the preferred method of transaction, bookmakers will be allowed to accept cash bets, in contrast to the Goodwood trial that was abandoned at a late stage a fortnight ago.
“It’s a bit of a buzz out of the blue,” said the veteran bookie Joe Huddlestone, who, along with Keith Johnson, will be allowed to take bets during York’s Ebor meeting that starts on Wednesday. “I’m not thinking my finances are going to change overnight.
“I haven’t missed an Ebor meeting in over 40 years and, funnily enough, I was saying to my wife that we’ve got kind of used to not going racing but it would really hit home if they’d had Ebor week without us. And lo and behold, now we’re going. I’m looking forward to seeing the racing as much as anything. I’m just hoping we can provide a bit of a service andit’s a little step towards all of us getting back.”
Johnson added: “So many other bookmakers have been waiting for so long for this first step on the road and I feel very pleased for each and every one of them. It’s the first step back to normality, though I fear we may be a couple of years away.”
Racecourse bookmakers have fretted about being the sport’s forgotten sector since racing professionals returned to action in June. They fear the world is moving on without them, as punters open online betting accounts and become accustomed to starting prices derived from high street firms rather than on-course trade.
The insistence on card-only betting for the Goodwood trial was especially irksome, one estimate suggesting it was eight times slower than cash betting. There were also fears of Tote outlets outnumbering the bookies at Goodwood but there will be the same number of Tote windows as bookmakers in the forthcoming trial, one of each at most meetings and two at York.
“This is fantastic news and I couldn’t be more pleased for our members,” said Christopher Hudson of the British Racecourse Bookmakers Association. “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel, which is so important because some of them have been getting very depressed.”
As many as six bookmakers may be able to trade at Musselburgh a week on Wednesday, if the track gets the green light to test the return of spectators that day. The Guardian understands the venue, east of Edinburgh, has asked the Scottish government to allow a crowd of 600, around 6% of its capacity, to attend. If approved, it would become the first trial of a crowd at a racecourse, a fortnight before the Doncaster St Leger meeting, which has already been named as a likely pilot event. Organisers are said to be putting the finishing touches to their operational plan.
Meanwhile, Hollie Doyle finished a close third on Dame Malliot in the Preis Von Europa in Cologne. It was a first ride in a Group One contest for the 23-year-old jockey, whose star has been in the ascendancy for the past 18 months.