For the first time in its 161-year history, the Cheltenham Festival has been taking place behind closed doors, with no fans allowed to attend this year due to COVID-19’s presence.
A year on from last year’s race week, which was promptly followed by the first of three national lockdowns in the UK, public health has reigned supreme in the minds of the Festival planners to make sure the show can still go ahead. Despite the empty stands and hospitality villages, each race has delivered no less excitement or drama than normal.
Star runners and race favourites Monkfish, Honeysuckle and Shishkin have given joy to the punters who backed them in their bets and accumulators from the comforts of their sofas, whereas surprise victors like Jeff Kidder at 80/1 and Heaven Help Us at 33/1 have given betting companies huge sighs of relief in avoiding big payouts.
With betting shops up and down the country closed for this year’s Festival due to lockdown, there has been a huge shift from people who use traditional betting methods at this time of year towards using apps on their phones in order to make their selections for each race.
Even with this rise of online betting and the traffic that the major firms will invite onto their sites through tempting sign up offers and price boost specials, the industry as a whole will bring in less revenue compared with previous years as a result of the implications of lockdown measures.
Coral is one of the biggest and most popular betting firms in the UK, who will be one of the many operators who are still hoping for a successful return in profits from the unique nature of this year’s Festival.
“It’s a shame that betting shops are still closed, as these four days are always busy for our retail colleagues,” said Coral’s Head of PR David Stevens. “But we’ve obviously seen more punters move online in the last year, and that will help maintain turnover levels across what is the most eagerly-anticipated week of the racing year.
“The turnover figures confirm that it’s not just for owners, trainers and jockeys that a Cheltenham Festival winner is so sought after, but punters share that view, ensuring that whatever the challenges facing the wider world right now, this week remains the most important in the calendar for the betting industry.”
William Hill is another well renowned bookmaker, who will see a possible turnover downfall of about 10-15% over the course of the four-day festival, with their retailers in Cheltenham’s town centre closed for any sort of trade.
Despite this, the company’s International PR Manager Rupert Adams believes that, more importantly, racing fans will be missing out on the same social thrill and excitement that being all together normally brings.
“The reality is that a lot of people, particularly those of the older age group, use these betting shops as their leisure activity,” Adams points out. “They go down everyday to see their mates, bet a fiver or a tenner and have a chat about the bets they’ve made, but obviously they won’t be able to do that this year.
“It is really sad for those people because there’s great community spirit that comes from socialising in these shops.”