Regular TV sports watchers can’t have failed to notice the blanket ad break coverage for online betting phone apps, all with a clearly defined target of beer-drinking young men with football obsessions.
Many pubs near betting shops have successfully positioned themselves as racing pubs for donkey’s years, providing copies of the racing press, playing host to betting slips and keeping the TV firmly on the racing channel during the day.
But the rise of mobile betting makes racing more of a business-building option for pubs with a sporty clientele who aren’t near a bookies.
However, pubs that are in the vicinity of a betting shop appear still to have the edge. Gambling Commission statistics for remote betting (online and mobile) show revenue topped £35.6bn in the last period for which figures are available, the year to March 2014, a rise of 30% on the previous year.
Of that, football took the lion’s share with £10.2bn and racing accounted for just under £2bn.
But racing is still big business. In the year to March 2015, off-course, non-remote betting (ie, shops) turnover in the UK totalled just shy of £8.8bn, of which more than half (£4.7bn) was accounted for by horse racing — more than three times the revenue from gambling on football.
Racecourse Association figures show that attendances at Britain’s racecourses rose 5.3% in 2015, to pass the six million mark and reach their highest point since 2011.
The opportunity is clear, but like other aspects of the pub business, it’s the ones who think outside the box and do things a little bit differently who will keep their noses in front.
Chris Tulloch is director of Weston Castle, a multiple operator with 37 pubs in north-west England, and says its general trading style is suited to racing enthusiasts.
“They’re all 100% wet-led community pubs, with sport playing a big part in them — and with racing being important in the majority,” he says.
Key 2016 calendar racing dates
Cheltenham Festival - March 15-18
Crabbie’s Grand National meeting - April 7-9
Scottish Grand National meeting - April 15-16
Derby Festival - June 3-4
Royal Ascot - June 14-18
Glorious Goodwood - July 26-30
Welsh Grand National - December 27
They include Star Pubs & Bars reigning Live Sports Venue of the Year, Liverpool’s Queens Arms, next to Aintree race course — home of the Grand National.
For the Grand National meeting, it had bars and food concessions in the car park to attract passers-by and took 10 times its normal weekly revenue — but Tulloch insists that racing is a big year-round draw.
“One of the most important things is to publicise the fact that there is a big racing day coming up because people don’t always know about horse racing events in advance.
“We put events on blackboards quite early and people do take days off just to come and watch the big racing days in the pub.”
When they’re in, Tulloch and his team aim to make sure that race days feel special. Ladies’ days — typically the day before the headline race at the major festivals such as Cheltenham and Royal Ascot — are key.
“We hold ladies’ days in pubs with prizes for the best outfit or the best hat, and appropriate drinks offers.”
There is no shortage of drinks brands that have attached themselves to racing and these can be good to promote around meetings.
- Crabbie’s is the headline sponsor of the Grand National meeting, at which Molson Coors is the official beer supplier, with Carling and Doom Bar.
- The Guinness Village is a fixture at Cheltenham Festival, at which Glenfarclas single malt has partner status.
- Bollinger has official Champagne status at Royal Ascot where Stella Artois is the official beer and cider.
- Aspall cider and Greenall’s gin are both partners of the Epsom Derby.
Tulloch says sweepstakes and consolation prize draws of customers’ losing betting slips are also popular and can keep the interest going until the last race on the card.
Other famous racing pubs such as the Pheasant, in Hungerford, Berkshire, and the Sydney Arms, in Chelsea, west London, host preview evenings for big race meetings, with trainers and pundits offering tips.
The Sydney Arms’ sell-out Cheltenham preview last year featured John McCririck and Channel 4’s Emma Spencer.
Cheltenham is a particular highlight for Weston Castle.
“It coincides with St Patrick’s Day and is followed by the last weekend of the 6 Nations rugby, so it’s a very big week for us.”
Cheltenham, the Grand National, the Derby and Royal Ascot all have the advantage if being shown on terrestrial TV via Channel 4 but, for serious racing pubs, the daily satellite services Sky’s At The Races and Racing UK are “super-important”, says Tulloch.
“If you want to show all the meetings on every day of the year, it’s essential,” he adds.
Keeping within the law
The law and advice from the Gambling Commission on betting in and around pubs is clear. Customers can place bets with their own high-street or online bookmaker providing they do so using their own account and from their own phone or by taking their betting slip to a bookmaker.
Pubs cannot take bets on behalf of customers and place them using their own account or collect up customers’ slips to take to a shop en masse.
However, they can place blank betting slips in the pub.
The penalties for facilitating illegal betting are 51 weeks (six months in Scotland) in prison and/or a fine of up to £5,000