A reduced version of racing’s caravan will roll up to Newcastle for Monday’s resumption, but spectators are not allowed and that means on-course bookmakers must also remain at home.
Trainers, jockeys and stable staff can get back to work, while high street betting shops could open up in a fortnight. That leaves the bookies who normally work at the track still sidelined and fretting about the future.
“It’s awful,” says Paul Garritty, who would normally expect to be at Newcastle. “It’s my sole income, there’s me and my wife in partnership. The risk, of course, is closing. We’ve invested every penny we’ve got into the business.
“I’m a bit disappointed that we’re sort of forgotten,” he adds, recalling that racing continued for a couple of days in mid-March without crowds or bookies. “We were the first to be out of work and potentially we’ll be the last to go back.”
“We’re bottom of the food chain,” agrees Barry Pinnington, familiar to viewers of ITV Racing from verbal jousts in the ring with Matt Chapman. He worries that bookies’ failure to speak with one voice is harming their cause. “I don’t know how many associations we have, 11 or 12. It’s a bit pathetic, really. There’s no coalition.”
For racecourse bookmakers, this ought to be peak trading time, with glorious weather drawing crowds to Hamilton, Goodwood and dozens of venues in between. Paul Johnson, who is based in Doncaster but trades all around the country, estimates he does 80% of his business in the six months from mid-March.
“If we come back in early autumn, it’s going to be like an 18-month sabbatical,” Johnson says. He has been taking bets at Royal Ascot for 25 years and found it especially poignant to have to cancel his accommodation for this year’s event, which will take place behind closed doors in a fortnight. “May is normally relentless. You haven’t time to turn round. To just be sat thinking: ‘I best cut the grass …’”
All three find it frustrating that, at a time when lockdown restrictions are being eased in some areas, there has been so little discussion of when crowds might be allowed to return to racecourses. Robin Grossmith, a director of the Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers, says it has been lobbying MPs for tracks to be opened up at the same time as pubs and has been sourcing personal protective equipment for its members in anticipation.
But Johnson still foresees problems with the dynamic of a betting ring if physical distancing must be observed. “I’ve gone through this many times in my mind and I just can’t see how it can work. Say you’ve got two-metre queues for a bet. I’m 6-1, the guy next to me goes 7-1. What do you do, just jump in his queue? What about paying out? Do you have a queue at the front to take bets and one at the back to pay out? How long are these queues going to be?”
Bookies would happily pay extra for Perspex screens and other precautions, he said, if there would be enough business to justify it. But he fears crowd numbers may be heavily restricted at first. “We don’t know what the economic climate is going to be like when we go back. We could be in the teeth of a recession, maybe even a depression, and you’ve got to recognise that we are right at the end of the leisure pound, the last to see it and the first to be cut out.
“It’s not all doom and gloom. The problem is the uncertainty. Maybe when a vaccine’s available, or better treatment, or social distancing is a thing of the past, we can start returning to something like what we do. But it’s difficult to see a timescale.”