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'This is not a business - it's a liability ' Tom Kerr spends four days on course in Britain and finds the layers predicting a gloomy future as more and more punters migrate to the exchanges.

Byline: Tom Kerr

MICHAEL CAMPBELL sighs as he surveys the sparsely populated grandstand at Folkestone, his fellow bos okmakers easily outnumbering the half-dozen racegoers who impassively eye up the odds for the fourth race. "This is suitably pathetic for Folkestone," he says, scorn hanging heavy in the winter air.

You too might speak in such a manner if you had seen your business go the same way as Campbell's. Nine years ago he took a minimum of 1,000 bets at this meeting, today he clears just 160. Gesturing at nothing in particular, he sums up his thoughts on the on-course industry: "This is not a business - it's a liability."

This is the state of on-course bookmaking in 2012: far removed from the robust industry it was just a decade ago, it now sails on racing's turbulent waters as a listing hulk, battered and broken by the crushing waves of Betfair and the recession, its hull wounded by low-grade racing, its crew all but resigned to foundering.

Admittedly, and understandably, it is not in the average punter's disposition to do anything but exult when they hear of bookmakers' woes. But remove yourself from the field of battle and look upon on-course layers merely as another element of our sport - or even better just as people trying to earn a living - and you will marvel at how dramatic their decline has been.

At Lingfield, Pat, son of the betting ring doyen Barry Dennis, offers his stark take on the future of on-course betting: "There won't be any on-course bookies in 15 years." The Dennis's business has declined from holding an average of pounds 60,000 a day in 2000, when Pat Dennis gave up his job as a surveyor to join the family business, to just pounds 8,000 today. "I've got to find something else to do," he says, and he doesn't mean by choice.

Most people who think about the matter would agree that racing, for all that its festivals and equine stars continue to excel, has declined in recent years. These stories of on-course bookmakers, as uncovered during four midweek meetings last week, reveal the sphere of racing that has arguably suffered most of all.

Folkestone, Tuesday Welcome to Siberia Folkestone is half-hidden by mist and flurries of snow pellets. Out on the racecourse a gaggle of primary school children inspect a hurdle, which to them must seem a towering obstacle. Their brightly coloured winter jackets are the only splash of colour in a landscape, both human and earthly, that is unremittingly drab.

"Welcome to Siberia," the PA booms. The comparison is apt: there is more than a hint of a moribund Soviet market about the place, the sellers no more convinced by their product than the buyers. It feels like the end of the earth, but for Michael Campbell, who trades under the name Paddy Campbell Racing, it's more like the end of the line.

Campbell, a former City trader, became a part-time on-course bookie in 2000 and went full-time in 2004. Now he wants out of almost two-thirds of the 280 days he works a year, having seen his average profit per meeting dwindle from pounds 250 after expenses to just pounds 85. "I'd probably make that flipping burgers in McDonald's," says Campbell, and based on a ten-hour day the exaggeration is minor.

Just how much of the on-course bookies' business has gone differs depending on who you ask. Campbell reports his daily turnover at this meeting falling from between pounds 8,000 and pounds 10,000 in 2004 to pounds 3,000 to pounds 4,000. Bigger players, like Dennis, had further to fall - more than 85 per cent of their turnover has disappeared in just over a decade.

How did it come to this? If you ask the bookies the answer is unequivocal: Betfair happened.

"The exchanges are the main thing," says layer David Richardson. "The money has gone from the ring. The big punters stay away and the money in the ring goes on to the exchanges. The big firms will survive but the small man is finding it harder and harder."

Campbell explains: "First the pounds 1,000 punters went to Betfair, then the pounds 500 punters, then the pounds 100 punters, and now we're left with the pounds 2 punters."

The problem facing the layers is simple. The big punters have decamped from the ring to Betfair.

The liquidity in the ring has gone, also to Betfair. And finally the margins the on-course bookies bet to have been reduced, again because the bookies now hedge on Betfair and Betdaq, and follow the machine prices "slavishly" says Campbell.

This decline in turnover, and therefore profit, has also had its most visible impact in the falling number of layers standing at run-of-the-mill meetings such as this.

"It's split in half in five years," says Mel Attreed, the only bookie in the second row, the loneliest spot in all of England. "Halved in three years," a colleague interjects. No-one disputes it.

David Richardson, whose pitch is immediately in front of Attreed's, says: "The minimum bet used to be pounds 5. Now it's pounds 2. We used to get monkeys, tons, ponies.

"Now they come up asking for 50p each-way," he adds. As if on cue a punter approaches Richardson's pitch, tentatively scrutinises the prices and asks for pounds 2 on number four. "There we go," says Attreed, chuckling ruefully, point proven.

Not all meetings are grim for on-course bookmakers. Michael Campbell separates his pitches into two categories: the ones at major racecourses like Cheltenham, York or Aintree, and at major meetings, such as Newmarket in July - what he calls his crown jewels, where the job remains "the best in the world" - and those anywhere else, pitches he has been flogging whenever the opportunity arises.

"I've sold pitches at Plumpton, Brighton, Fontwell, Fakenham, Towcester - I could see what was happening and I got out. Pitches are trading much cheaper. I bought a pitch at Lingfield in 2004 for pounds 30k and at the time it was worth every penny, now it wouldn't fetch pounds 6k," Campbell says.

"I paid pounds 25,000 for this pitch in 2003 and there would not be a single meeting where I would take less than 1,000 bets - I just took 21 on the first. The pitch isn't worth tuppence now." He later estimates the pitch as being worth pounds 15,000, but depreciating rapidly. If you fancy getting into the game, offer him that money today and watch how quickly he bites your hand off.

Campbell continues: "The other week I went to Lingfield, a Wednesday I think, and I went on the rails and Suzie [his wife] went on Tatts on her own. On the second race I took nine bets on the rail and Suzie took two on Tatts. In eight races I took 90 bets," he says. Will he be back at Lingfield on Friday? "Shoot me if I am," he says.

His disgust is palpable, but he is too intelligent to give into despair or despondency. Instead he sees an unsustainable business and searches for an exit route. "We're thinking of completely packing it in in winter, do November Cheltenham and come back for Cheltenham in March," he says.

In the end, Campbell has an unusually good day, making pounds 720 profit minus pounds 385 expenses, a brace of favourable late results proving the decisive factor. Thanks to a few meaty bets and pounds 2,200 from Ladbrokes he took pounds 7,500, but that came off a mere 160 bets.

"God knows what will sort this out," he says as he begins dismantling his pitch. "I need to get out of the bad days for my sanity and peace of mind. It's too heartbreaking."

Kempton, Wednesday Blame the weather David Richardson, a sucker for punishment, is back on duty at Kempton the following day. Stranded at the end of the rails, shivering in temperatures which dip below zero by close of play, he is doing an abysmal trade. In the opening five races he takes 49 bets and pounds 500. "It's very quiet tonight," he says. "I think it's the weather."

Richardson, to his credit, is utterly unflappable. If you ever do something truly terrible, such as running over a friend's dog, let them be as stoical as him. He would take the news with barely a murmur.

You need to be tough to be an on-course bookmaker, though, not least because a large part of the job involves standing about, doing nothing, often in frankly Arctic conditions. Barrie Bass is one of just two bookmakers standing in the ring tonight (a further seven are on the more profitable rails). Wearing a vast hooded waterproof, he looks like he is preparing to round Cape Horn on an open-decked sailing ship.

Bass does a decent trade at Kempton. Although he takes only six bets on the first, he clears pounds 550, assisted by what he calls his regulars. He is one of nature's survivors - others have been less fortunate.

"I've only had my licence five years but when I started on a Wednesday night there were 20 bookies here in the ring. Now there's only two left," he says. No wonder: Kempton's betting ring is quieter than a church mouse.

Wolverhampton, Thursday Taking punters for mugs Wolverhampton has the air of a down-at-heel wedding venue, and the wedding's been cancelled. They bet inside here, out of the cold, in a long and narrow hall with a bar at one end and a snack booth at the other, but it doesn't help business much. Between nine bookies they take 83 bets on the first race.

Step outside 15 minutes before a race and you would not even know racing was on today were it not for the big screen, incongruously broadcasting to an empty expanse - there is literally not a soul to be seen. Never do you get a better sense of just who these meetings are staged for the benefit of.

"If you look at this we've got four meetings this week. It's too much racing for the track. This is for the offices," says on-course bookie Dave Peckham. "You've got to realise Wolverhampton and Southwell don't care if there are any punters here, they get paid to race."

Fellow layer Peter Mace nods his agreement. "I think we're devaluing the product. There's another meeting on Saturday. They take the punters for mugs," he says. "It's going the way of greyhound racing."

Mace and Peckham, like on-course bookies everywhere, blame Betfair for their loss of custom. But the problem is compounded by the fact they also make less on what money they do take.

"Five years ago we bet to two per cent a runner but now that's collapsed to one per cent," says Mace. "That seriously affects profits and some meetings are not viable any more."

It is not just the owners of pitches who have lost out as business has ebbed away from the track. Many of the staff once employed in the on-course industry have also had to find other work.

"Nearly all bookmakers would have two staff and now they tend to have one," says Mace. "We used to take four staff to some meetings and now some bookies even stand alone. The business isn't there to justify the work any more, so there have been lots of jobs lost."

We stand outside to talk, the only people in that concrete wilderness before the track. For this pair of bookies it is the unbearable stillness of inside that drives them into the cold. "I'm just standing doing nothing - that's why I'm outside, I can't stand it," Mace says, puffing his cheeks out. There is little good news inside. At the final reckoning, he took 90 bets. Peckham can only dream of such good fortune. He took 40 bets all day.

Lingfield, Friday Last chance to lose Apricity - the warmth of the sun in winter. Lingfield is luxuriating in the stuff, and although the mercury holds barely above zero, it is far from unpleasant out in the open. The bookmakers lounge about like sleepy cats, soaking up the weak winter rays. A tiny bird, a chaffinch perhaps, bounds joyously about the betting ring, no doubt as thrilled to see the sun as everyone else. It is quite idyllic. What it is not, however, is busy.

Leading on-course layer Barry Dennis insists he is retired, but he's not fooling anyone. Get him talking about the impact of Betfair and try to stop him. "Betting exchanges have changed the whole face of the game," he begins.

"In the last eight years the levy has gone nowhere. If Betfair were made to pay more we would get more business and the levy would go up and solve all the problems at once. I know punters wouldn't like it, but there's a middle ground to find."

Dennis's son Pat is absolute in his pessimism. On-course bookies will not exist in 15 years, he insists. Beside the small-time punter out for a day at the races, he says their only serious clientele are "nefarious people" who can't get online accounts and "dinosaurs" who refuse to embrace the digital revolution.

Pat Dennis, who describes betting exchanges as the "sole cause" of on-course layers' woes to date, believes the final death knell for on-course bookies will be mobile betting. Illustrating his point, he reaches for his iPhone and taps away for a few seconds, showing me how quickly he can bring up the market for the next race on the app of a well-known high street bookie.

"It's so slick," he says. "It'll be the end of us."

Yet if on-course bookmakers do disappear from our racetracks - or at least from unfashionable meetings - there will be a reckoning for racing. Ascot, about as perceptive a racecourse as exists in Britain, is already concerned.

"Ascot had a meeting with us and they wanted to know what to do - employ actors to pose as bookies? It's gone from 60 bookies to ten at Ascot off [minor] meetings. They recognise on-course bookmakers are key to the atmosphere," he says.

"Will we become like France? It's soulless there. Other than Arc day it's desolate. It's all run for the benefit of the PMU."

Few better exemplify the irreplaceable spirit of the betting ring than Barry Dennis. As the last race approaches his sales patter goes into overdrive. "The river or the razor, who knows who'll win? Last chance to lose," he shouts, prompting chuckles in the hundred or so spectators dotted about the grandstand steps.

His endeavour is well rewarded, as it seems as if one in two bets struck on the race go through him.

Accordingly, an 11-strong queue stands before him waiting to get paid out afterwards, evidently delighted at receiving hard cash from a clean strike in the lucky last.

Unsurprisingly, Pat, who was standing on the rails, does not share their joy. "Today I took 122 bets on seven races. We'd do 1,000 bets ten years ago," he says, shaking his head. "If we can't make it pay with that name and the number-one pitch," he adds, pointing to his father's prime spot, "then no-one can make it pay."

IT'S easy to romanticise the betting ring - the camaraderie, the cut and thrust of the piratical bookies, the betting coups, the battle of wits between punter and layer, but there is little of any of that on display on the tired circus of winter midweek jumps and all-weather meetings.

Instead there is an industry, outside the major meetings, that insomuch as it resembles any other, it is the coal mining industry. Vastly reduced from the days it was a great and powerful institution, now the hardy practitioners who stay behind to continue mining those few remaining profitable seams are left only to hope the roof will not cave in above their heads.

Should the on-course layers find their decline is unstoppable and their pitches unsustainable, at least outside the major meetings, then racing will surely find itself diminished by their disappearance. To experience what the post-bookie racecourse will feel like, just go to Wolverhampton and stand outside between races, all alone in the deathly quiet.


A near-deserted ring at Folkestone last Tuesday (above), in which Michael Campbell (left) awaits business from pounds 2 punters, and the scene at Lingfield on Friday, where business is not much busier
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 8, 2012
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