Bookmaking is not a charitable enterprise, as many a punter has learned the hard way over the years, but the two bookies who stood at York during last week’s Ebor meeting came as close to selfless toil as anyone is ever likely to in their line of work. Joe Huddlestone and Keith Johnson were pathfinders for the whole profession, charged with proving that betting can operate under strict anti-Covid conditions, knowing there was little chance of chiseling a decent profit out of it.
“Of course I enjoyed it,” Huddlestone said, “but it was a bit painstaking.” He made a poor start by laying £100 each-way at 20-1 on the week’s first winner, Acclaim The Nation, but was encouraged by the levels of trade. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the busiest race of the week for both bookies, Huddlestone showing a remarkable ability to lay winners while taking just a handful of bets on each race.
“If I’d known what was coming, I’d have been a bit more careful,” he reflected on Sunday. “One of the owners of Pyledriver had £100 on that. An owner I know had a grand on Ghaiyyath.
“On Thursday, the people that owned Happy Romance had £50 each-way the first winner, then £250 each-way on Happy Romance. They were really nice people. Mind you, they should be when they’ve won a few quid …”
Huddlestone estimates he made a net loss of around £1,500 on a turnover of £7,000 over the four days. Johnson reported a profit of £1,300 but added: “But by the time I’ve paid two wages and we had to have two vehicles for the social distancing, I reckon the whole exercise has cost me £600 or £700.
“But we’ve got to make the first steps. Hopefully something better will happen in September and hopefully something better again in October. Unless you make the first steps, we’re not gonna get anywhere. I’m sure many other bookmakers would have swapped with us, even if they knew it was gonna turn out the same.”
Johnson sent his son and an employee rather than stand himself and is certain that was the right decision, as they took an average of just four bets per race from their only potential customers, racehorse owners, who mostly elected to stay in York’s well-appointed restaurant. “I think I’m quite good at the game when it’s busy,” Johnson said, “but when it’s quiet and I get bored, I’m an absolute liability.”
If punters won’t give him a position on a race, Johnson goes on the exchanges and makes one for himself. “Once I see red, I just give the ball a kick and that’s it. So I’m better out of the way….
“It’s obvious that, without crowds, it’s just not viable for bookmakers. Possibly York may not have been a typical experiment because I think they look after the owners extremely well. Perhaps at some other tracks, like the Sedgefield we might go to this week, they might have a different kind of owner who wants to come out and have a bet.”
Both Johnson and Huddlestone were clear that the demand for betting via credit or debit cards at the track is close to zero. “If there was ever a time when the card machine was gonna get a hammering, it was this week and it hasn’t,” Johnson said. “Between the two of us, over 97% of bets were cash. So I think it’s quite obvious that when we do get back to some sense of normality, racecourses have got to realise that the choice is clear and people want to bet in cash.”
Monday’s best bets
Oisin Murphy goes to Ayr for the first time this year, which is sure to spark plenty of interest in his two mounts, Amniarix and Tiritomba. I’m more taken with 6-1 about Wadi Al Salaam (2.10), who suggested this was his trip with a good second at Doncaster last month, when 40-1 in an eight-horse race. The third has won since.
Lake Baikal (1.45) is a short-priced nap at Southwell, a 4lb rise for his Perth win last month seeming quite a restrained response from the handicapper. Neil Mulholland’s youngster is 6-4.
Those who prefer bigger prices could look at The Darley Lama (5.35), topweight in the closer. A half-brother to Some Kinda Lama, who won two for the same yard, he should be sharper for two runs so far, has cheekpieces fitted and is returned to novice handicap company having been dropped a few pounds. At 20-1, he could get involved.