The Big Three bookmakers no longer have any pitches on UK racecourses, following the sale of Ladbrokes and Coral pitches in October 2020.

William Hill was the first bookmaker to sell its pitches in October 2018. It sold its pitches to Sid Hooper, an independent racecourse bookmaker, but would keep its on-course betting shops.

Last month, GVC Holdings, owner of Ladbrokes and Coral, agreed to sell its 85 racecourse pitches in the UK, and 21 in Ireland to – guess who? – Sid Hooper.

With William Hill leaving the ring in 2018, it is hard to blame this decision on COVID-19. The decision is clearly commercial. The racecourse operation is expensive to run. Bookmakers must send teams all over the country on what is a travelling circus. Overnight stays in hotels, food and beverage and the onerous cost of travel mount up on a dwindling customer base.

The racecourse pitches of the Big 3 bookmakers served two purposes. The first was to satisfy their credit account customers who strolled up to the rails and placed their bets. Nowadays, however, those same customers have internet accounts with money was sitting on deposit. Why leave the comfort of your hospitality box and its champagne, when you can use your mobile phone to place a bet at the very same odds being offered?

The second purpose was to place money in the betting ring from the off-course estates, so the prices reflected the money staked in the wider market. However, the prices are now formulated off-course on the betting exchanges. Betfair starts its book early, so by the day of the race a good market has already been created. When the market opens on the course, the racecourse bookmakers arbitrage their revenue with the betting exchanges.

The rule 4.2 that prevented money from leaving the betting ring was abolished. From the racecourse bookmakers’ point of view this was a mistake – they became superfluous in the formation of the market. Ironically, it was the on-course bookmakers themselves who advocated for 4.2 to be abolished!

by Warwick Bartlett

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