Ladbrokes and Coral, two of the most familiar brands in betting, will vanish from the racecourse rings in Britain and Ireland following the news that GVC, the parent company of both firms, has agreed to sell its 106 pitches to a rival bookie and withdraw from on-course operations.
GVC’s pitches – 85 in the UK and 21 in Ireland – have been sold en bloc to John Hooper, who trades on course under the name Sid Hooper. Hooper also bought William Hill’s 82 pitches when the firm made the same move out of the ring two years ago. Seventeen members of GVC staff are now in consultation over their futures.
Tom Ritzema, GVC’s trading director, said in statement on Tuesday that the decision to pull out of the on-course market “was not taken lightly”, but continued: “The volume of business taken through the racecourse pitches is miniscule compared to the volumes generated in our off-course retail and digital businesses, and we no longer use the operation to hedge into the racecourse betting ring.
“As the racecourse operation is loss-making and no longer has a strategic purpose, we have regrettably reached the decision to sell our pitches and leave the ring. The current situation with Covid-19, and racing behind closed doors, expedited the decision but was not one of the factors behind it.”
Both Coral and Ladbrokes have been fixtures “on the rails” at racecourses for many decades and Ladbrokes’ nickname – “the Magic Sign” – was a regular feature of the late John McCririck’s reports from the ring on Channel 4 Racing, when the firm’s representatives were trying to hedge liabilities on a well-backed runner.
In recent years, however, the overall significance of the on-course market in British betting has declined significantly, and it has not been able to operate at all since racing resumed behind closed doors in June. The loss of two brands with such a long-standing presence in the ring can only add to the uncertainty over the ring’s long-term future.
Robin Grossmith, a ring bookmaker for nearly 40 years and a director of the Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers, said on Tuesday that the departure of Ladbrokes and Coral was a surprise.
“Perhaps they feel that their businesses are going in a different direction since joining GVC and this is old hat to them now,” Grossmith said. “But I’d have thought that a racecourse presence with their boards up, and the coverage that gets, it’s basically free advertising every time racing is on television and they pan along [the line of bookmakers]. But perhaps that just doesn’t fit in with their business model any more.
“As far as affecting the on-course, a lot of bookmakers would look at Ladbrokes and Coral’s first-show prices knowing that they come from the office, which would reflect any market moves. That would be the basis of a lot of bookmakers’ first shows. There’s other ways to get first shows so it’s not that important, but they were contributors to the market, they were big names and punters like to see high-street names on the racecourse.
“I’m saddened to see them go, but things move on and that’s their decision. These are worrying times for everybody, but we’ll battle through I’m sure and I hope that when it does come back, the punters who’ve been starved of racing will surge back on to the racecourse.”
While Ladbrokes and Coral are famous brands in betting, most on-course bookies are family-run operations and but a few have been unable to work for seven months. The handful who have been allowed into tracks to take bets from owners attending the races have struggled to get enough money into their books to make the effort worthwhile.
Without racecourse bookies to form a market, off-course bookmakers have used an “industry starting price” to settle bets placed at SP, and the latest high-profile departures from the ring will add to concerns that its role in generating SPs might not be revived when crowds finally return to Britain’s tracks.
“The racecourse market is the only truly independent market, and I’d be very hopeful that the SP will come back to the on-course,” Grossmith said. “A free market, which is exactly what it is, has got to be the best way forward.”