The British Prime Minister has announced his planned ‘roadmap’ to get the country moving again in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The four step plan might well come with all sorts of caveats and targets that need to be met, but the most important aspect is that it will theoretically allow England to return to some sense of normality. What we’re concerned about here is how that works when it comes to horse racing.
Bookmakers will be allowed to open their doors from the 12th of April if everything goes according to Boris Johnson’s plan before then, whilst racecourses may be able to start welcoming back spectators from the 17th of May. Whilst the changes will come too late to have any real impact on the Cheltenham Festival, it’s possible that the Grand National may be delayed by a couple of days to help out high street bookmakers.
What The Plans Are For Horse Racing
The Prime Minister’s plan for leaving lockdown and hopefully never returning to it has a number of different stages. After each stage has been implemented for a period of time, it is then hoped that the R number will be low enough to allow the next stage to come to fruition. The first hurdle will be jumped on the 8th of March when all schools around the country are expected to welcome back pupils in every age group.
Depending on how the return of school children goes, the next step will then occur five weeks later. At the time of writing, experts are far from convinced that allowing all school-aged children to head back to educational establishments at the same time is the right thing to do, meaning that Johnson’s horse might well stumble at the first time of asking. If, however, things go without a hitch then bookmakers will reopen on April the 12th.
That comes alongside all other non-essential shops, meaning that you’ll be able to go and get your haircut at the same time as heading in to place a bet on your horse race of choice. Should those two phases become a reality without an overly worrying rise in hospital admissions then spectators will be allowed back into sporting arenas from the 17th of May, with the smaller of 4,000 or 50% of capacity being how many will be welcomed.
With the Epsom Derby scheduled for the 4th of June, it’s possible that that will have crowds for the first time in two years. Goodwood hosts a two-day meeting in May, whilst Haydock could welcome racegoers for the Temple Stakes meeting on the 22nd of the month. The final hurdle to relaxing lockdown is due to take place on the 21st of June, which comes two days after the conclusion of Royal Ascot.
Could The Grand National Be Delayed?
The government’s set of dates are such that each of them will exclude some event or another, sometimes by only a whisker. That is likely to be the case for the Grand National, which is currently scheduled to take place on the 10th of April. That means that bookmakers will miss the chance to open and take physical bets on it by just two days, leading to calls from trainers and bookmakers for the event to be delayed.
The Cheltenham Festival might well be one of the biggest meetings in jump racing, but the fact that it is due to take place between Tuesday the 16th and Friday the 19th of March means that there’s zero hope of high street bookmakers being open in time. The same is not true of the Grand National, which is one of the biggest single days for bookmakers in terms of bets taken throughout the calendar year.
It’s not common for bookmakers and trainers to be united in their desire for something, but the likes of Nigel Twiston-Davies and Evan Williams joined calls for the National to be delayed by a couple of days in order to allow bookies to open up and welcome in punters for the first time in months. Whilst vast swathes of punters have been happy to make the switch to betting online, the Grand National still does a huge amount of business in person.
Many people who only bet once a year will do so on the National and for many it is a tradition to place those bets in a shop. Although many may choose to bet online this year for others online betting is either inaccessible or just not the same as betting in person and writing out your own slip.
Sadly, the noises coming from the likes of Jockey Club Racecourses, the British Horseracing Authority and even Aintree Racecourse itself don’t seem particularly positive. Whilst the idea of moving the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’ back by a week might be good in theory, it’s virtually impossible to do so in reality. Even something as seemingly simple as TV rights becomes hugely complicated when you talk about moving the race. The 17th of April is also the scheduled date for the Scottish Grand National and that could pose a big barrier with it being unlikely both would run on the same day.
What It Will Mean For Bookmakers
Let’s be honest, bookmakers aren’t exactly everyone’s favourite members of society. For losing bettors, they’re the people that take their money, whilst for critics of the gambling industry, they’re the reason for problem gamblers. Yet they are also businesses that pay back into horse racing in the form of the horse racing levy. This levy is more important than ever in helping revive racing in the coming year, so the reopening of shops and betting on racing is important to the sport whether people like them or not.
What the possible relaxation of the rules means to the betting industry is that a pressure valve that has been building for some time might finally get a release. Whilst the biggest betting companies with huge reputations have generally done ok during the pandemic, the smaller ones and independently run companies have struggled. The reopening of their high street shops therefore promises a light at the end of the tunnel.
That feeling was summed up by Greg Knight, the owner of Jenningsbet, an independent chain of bookmakers. Though he accepts to loss of the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National will be painful for bookies, he also feels optimistic at the future thanks to the government’s plans. With a portfolio of more than 100 shops, Knight spoke of his understanding of the need to be patient ‘for a greater long-term reward’.
“We have traded one full week since the end of October and if you’d said to me last summer, ‘You’ll have to do an even longer lockdown next year’, I think I’d have had my head in my hands. December was better than nothing but I wouldn’t want to return to that. I’d rather wait an extra two weeks and open all guns blazing.”
Now we wait to see how the country reacts to children going back to school and hold our breath.