Talking Horses: bookies warn cashless trial is 'disaster waiting to happen'

Bookmakers are to make a last-ditch appeal to the government to relax restrictions around their return to the racecourse at Goodwood this week. Just four bookmakers are to be allowed to bet at the Sussex track on Saturday, when around 5,000 racegoers will be allowed entry, and have been told they must take bets only via cards, not cash, which one bookmaker described as “a disaster waiting to happen”.

“The last thing we want are problems with the trial,” said Robin Grossmith of the Federation Of Racecourse Bookmakers, whose members are desperate for a large-scale return of crowds and betting at the races after four months with no trade. “The DCMS probably doesn’t appreciate the difficulties we may have. This is something we are going to be talking to them about on Monday, as a matter of urgency.

“The problem is that Parliament’s in recess,” Grossmith added. “Who we can get hold of to make a decision, I really don’t know until we try. Our political advisors will do it for us and we’ll see where we get but the clock’s ticking down pretty quickly.

“We think if cash can be taken, it will be a success. We’re just concerned that there could be all sorts of technical problems that are beyond our control.”

While some racecourse bookmakers have offered card betting facilities, it has not been a popular option. Connectivity has been a problem, as has the time taken to process a bet, estimated as being eight times slower than cash. “I’ve timed it and it’s about 30 seconds per bet coming in,” said the bookmaker Simon James.

“If you were to work flat out for half an hour, the gap between races, you could take 60 bets. That isn’t allowing for any payouts. If the first favourite wins and you have a queue of 30 people trying to get paid, you could spend the whole of the next race’s betting time paying people out. This cannot be allowed to happen. It is a disaster waiting to happen.”

James pointed out another problem, that each transaction ties up so much of the bookmaker’s funds until being cleared days later. “When I work with cash, my float would only go down by the amount I’ve lost on a race. Taking card payments only, my float’s going to go down by my turnover. The amount of money we would have to have in preparation for any race-meeting is going to be beyond the realms of most bookmakers to manage. Only an elite few would be able to do it, especially for four or five days on the trot.”

Grossmith added: “Every betting shop in the High Street takes cash, every supermarket takes cash, I don’t know of a business that doesn’t. We’re working out in the open air that the Sage experts say is the safest place to be, yet cash is to be banned and we don’t understand the rationale.”

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While the Racecourse Association declined to comment, it pointed to the government’s guidance on the return of elite sport, which insists on retail concessions operating without cash. It is believed that racing officials have queried with the DCMS whether bookmakers should fall into this category and were told that they must.

The Guardian understands that none of the four bookmakers allowed at Goodwood will be in the spots normally associated with betting, along the rails between the two main enclosures or in the Tattersalls ring. In order to avoid queues that would undermine social distancing, they will be sited in quieter spots, two of them behind the grandstand. Tote betting will also be available.