It’s something of a surprise, given just how many people cram through the turnstiles at Prestbury Park, to learn that attendances were significantly down at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival.
That was partly planned, with organisers capping the crowd size at each day of the meeting to 68,500, but it was only on one day of the Festival – Friday’s Gold Cup extravaganza – that the limit was reached by a sell-out.
Otherwise, attendances were down in 2023 compared to the year before, with Tuesday’s crowd shelling more than 8,000 punters, Wednesday losing a whopping 14,000 and Thursday losing 11,000 compared to the same day in 2022.
Some mitigating factors have been cited. There are ongoing train strikes affecting much of the UK, plus industrial action from teachers in some areas that will have left some revellers having to stay at home and provide childcare instead.
But there has been one positive outcome. On-course bookmakers at Prestbury Park have been thrilled with their takings, with Gregory Hughes on Tuesday reporting a 20% uptick in bets compared to the first day of previous Festivals.
“Stakes were up but ticket numbers were the same – I’d say it was up about 20 per cent, along with our turnover. Business was fabulous, it really was. I’d say it was as much money as we’ve ever taken for some time and it was mostly all cash,” he confirmed.
So what was the reason for the surge in on-course betting interest?
A Question of Affordability
It’s interesting that bet sizes were up with the on-course bookmakers. Has this been a side-effect of the affordability checks that are already starting to creep in with many of the leading online betting sites?
Hughes certainly thinks that’s a viable reason. “It’s possibly because of the affordability [checks], the stakes seem to be much better. We had plenty of £100, £200 and £1,000 bets so it was good.”
Another on-course firm, MJH Racing, reported a similar pattern. Their representative Dan Pinfold said: “We had a couple of punters saying they won’t bet online anymore because of the affordability checks, so they’ve come to the track with cash to bet. People are struggling getting large bets on it seems. Everyone who wants a bet is now being targeted as to where they’re getting their money from.”
The good news is a percentage of the bookmakers’ takings – perhaps hit after warm favourite Galopin Des Champs romped home in the Gold Cup – will be reinvested back into racing via the betting levy, so it’s a win-win for the sport.
It seems as though punters armed with cash who want to bet on the head of the market are not attending meetings in person – rather than hoping to get their bets on in a shop or online.
So are we seeing a change in betting behaviour as a result of affordability checks and proof of funds demands?
Barely a day goes by without a punter taking to social media to reveal that they’ve had their betting account limited.
Others bemoan the Know Your Customer (KYC) checks, which require the bookies – under the watchful eye of the Gambling Commission – to request sensitive data from customers that shows they can afford to gamble what they are and where their funds are coming from.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is overly keen on sharing bank statements, payslips and the like with their bookmaker….
Could affordability checks have the unlikely but happy side-effect of pushing punters back through the turnstiles at meetings across the UK?
Of course, while there’s positives for horse racing, other sports won’t benefit from bookmakers willing to lay four-figure cash sums. There’s no such option really for football punters, for example, whose best bet is to try and get a big bet on with the bookmaking kiosks within stadium concourses – even then, limits are likely.
That brings about the possibility of black market betting, with punters turning to unlicensed firms to get their bets on. Whether this will become a common practice for the average ‘casual’ remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that high rollers will need to source an alternative option if they don’t want to play ball with the bookies’ intrusive checks.
There’s a possibility that a new niche of the betting industry could emerge. The blockchain, perhaps best known right now as the foundation upon which cryptocurrency transactions are carried out, allows for complete anonymity and freedom – could we see a new breed of bookmakers coming along that blow the old guard out of the water?