punter taking money at on course bookmakerIn horse racing, it is often lamented that things aren’t what they used to be.

It’s a sport that is steeped in tradition and has historically been pretty slow to adapt to changing times and trends, so it’s no surprise that long time punters often feel this way.

One of the groups most heavily impacted by this change though, are the on course bookies.

The British Racecourse Bookmakers’ Association stated that there are now fewer than 350 on course bookies registered in the UK, whereas that number stood at over 500 before 2017.

Several factors have caused this decline, but most obvious is the drop in attendance figures at racecourses, especially midweek. Horse racing saw a drop of over 1.1 million annual visits between 2015 and 2023 – that’s around 20% fewer punters at the racetracks each year.

However, while the average meeting is seeing a decline in on course bookmakers, the big races and festivals are experiencing the opposite effect.

On course bookies at the Grand National have increased in number over the years, and although they are no longer at all time highs, they still look healthy compared to 20 years ago.

I’m going to have a look at the data on this subject, and explore what I think is going on.

How Many On Course Bookies Attend the Grand National?

On Course Bookies at Aintree
Credit: Richard Humphrey Geograph

On course bookies rely on footfall for their trade, so obviously, if a meeting is expected to be well attended, more bookies will feel it worthwhile to travel to the meeting and set up a pitch.

Too many slow days at a particular course though, and bookies from further afield will decide it’s not worth their time and stay home.

This is basic supply and demand.

It stands to reason then, that the number of on course bookies attending the Grand National ebbs and flows with the crowds.

I’ll go into more detail on this element shortly, but first, have a look at the number of bookies attending the Grand National Festival every year since 1989:

Year Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Total
1989 100 100 205 405
1990 102 98 207 407
1991 102 102 207 411
1992 103 100 200 403
1993 99 97 191 387
1994 97 96 189 382
1995 126 105 187 418
1996 104 104 178 386
1997 101 119 174 394
1998 107 103 167 377
1999 99 121 123 343
2000 102 130 130 362
2001 102 128 175 405
2002 104 128 177 409
2003 104 126 178 408
2004 104 134 179 417
2005 107 136 170 413
2006 107 138 185 430
2007 107 141 186 434
2008 121 141 186 448
2009 135 141 186 462
2010 131 141 185 457
2011 139 141 185 465
2012 141 141 188 470
2013 148 156 202 506
2014 144 157 204 505
2015 140 151 196 487
2016 147 158 204 509
2017 135 150 202 487
2018 144 159 205 508
2019 133 154 148 435
2020 Abandoned Abandoned Abandoned Abandoned
2021 No Crowd No Crowd No Crowd No Crowd
2022 135 150 191 476
2023 131 155 198 484

There is an undeniable upward trend here, albeit with a few dips along the way, but pre-covid, the festival hit an all time high of 508 on course bookies across the 3 days.

That represents a 48.10% rise on the worst year in recent history, which was 1999 when just 343 bookies made the effort.

To be clear, the numbers in the ‘Total’ column are not all individual bookmakers. A single bookmaker could set out their pitch on every day of the festival and would therefore count as 3 bookies in the ‘Total’ column.

Nevertheless, if we looked at these numbers alone, we might conclude that the on course bookie is thriving, but we know from the wider picture that this is not true. In fact, given that fewer than 350 on course bookmakers are registered in the UK, it looks like the majority of them turn up to big meetings like this hoping for a pay day. Perhaps with the aim of cancelling out all the slow midweek days at bog standard meetings.

It’s also worth pointing out that the increase in total bookie numbers is largely to do with greater numbers on days 1 and 2 of the festival, rather than day 3. The number of on course bookies trading on Grand National day in 2023 were actually 4.34% lower than they were back in 1991. ¬†I will cover this in greater detail below.

Bookies Following the Crowds

On Course Bookies at Grand National vs Attendance Graph

As I mentioned earlier, the bigger the crowds, the more bookmakers you can expect to show up at race meetings.

There are plenty of contributing factors such as illness, retirement, holidays, distance, available funds etc. that might cause the numbers to fluctuate a little, but bigger shifts are usually to do with the crowds.

The graph above shows the total number of on course bookies at the Grand National festival from 2000 – 2023, although 2020 and 2021 have been omitted since the first was cancelled and the second was held behind closed doors, so no bookmakers were there.

I have overlaid a more lightly shaded graph line of the total festival attendance, so that you can see how this impacts bookmaker behaviour.

You can see how the bookie numbers slightly trail the attendance at some points, as they gain confidence in the festival and trust that large numbers of punters will show up. There are also points where the bookies get over-confident, the attendance is perhaps not quite as good as expected, and their number drops the following year.

So on course bookmakers are always playing catch up.

I have a more detailed article on the attendance of the Grand National over time here.

Day by Day Breakdown

On Course Bookies at Grand National Day by Day

If we drill down a little deeper and examine the changes in bookie numbers day by day, we can learn more.

Looking at the graph above showing bookie attendance on each day from 2000 until 2023 (excluding 2020 and 2021). It’s interesting to note that while the number of on course bookies on Grand National day mostly sits between 175 and 207 (aside from a few odd years), the number of bookies attending on days 1 and 2 have changed a lot.

This is in line with the increase in popularity of those days with punters, but it means that the overall increase in on course bookies at the festival isn’t due to more of them turning up for the big race itself, but for the 2 days previous.

In fact, in 2019 there were actually fewer bookies at the course on Grand national day than on Ladies Day, and it came close in 1999 and 2000, too.

I can’t explain this sudden drop in 2019 with certainty, but it could be because bookies were worried about Tiger Roll winning a 3rd Grand National. Everyone was betting on him, and of course, Tiger Roll did win the race that year, and it proved to be the bookies worst defeat ever at the festival, so smaller bookmakers who didn’t fancy a spanking might have stayed away.

In 1999, the drop in numbers on day 3 could be because 4 of the 7 races on day 1, and 5 of the 7 races on Ladies Day were won by favourites. This would have cost smaller bookies like the on course independents a lot of money, potentially forcing them to pack their bags early and go home.

Where a dip in bookie numbers does not rationally follow attendance figures, the reason is usually something specific to that year’s racing.