Not a day for the bookies as the Riccis get richer and favourite-backers cash in


Despite many winning favourites at Leopardstown, betting was down

After the traditional Christmas ceasefire – well-observed in most places – hostilities between bookmakers and punters resumed shortly after noon on St Stephen’s Day, with the start of the Leopardstown Festival.

December 26th usually marks a gentle return to conflict for the bookies, thanks to the attendance of many once-a-year customers who present obliging target practice. But when the first shots were fired yesterday, they came from an ominous direction for the turf accountants.

JP McManus used to be one of them. Now, fighting for the other side as prolific horse-owner and punter, he is the terror of his former comrades. And when his Noel Meade-trained horse, Ned Buntline, won the opening race of this year’s festival at odds-on, only the bookies failed to cheer.

They had worse to follow in the Juvenile Hurdle, when an even hotter favourite won. This time the man accepting the owner’s prize was the aptly named investment banker, Rich Ricci, whose pockets may be at least as deep as JP’s.

The race unfolded against the backdrop of a rainbow, the end of which appeared to be somewhere in neighbouring Foxrock. But, as often happens, the pot of gold ultimately belonged to Mr Ricci.

The race’s €27,625 prize was modest compared with his banking salary – he got £44 million last year from Barclays. Even so, when the racecourse announcer confirmed the result with the standard phrase – “winner all right” – it was hard to disagree.

No wonder Ricci kept his sunglasses on as he accepted the trophy, although conditions at Leopardstown were again cloudy by then, except where he was standing.

After two very well-backed winners, bookmakers must have hoped for some relief in the handicap hurdle which, with 23 runners, promised to be a Christmas fundraiser for the profession. No such luck. Instead of a 40-1 outsider, galloping past the post in a silence interrupted only by the closing of fattened satchels, this too went the way of the favourite.

Adding insult to financial injury, meanwhile, the Leopardstown PA broadcast a request from racegoers asking the bookmakers “to please take down their umbrellas”, which were blocking the view of all the well-backed winners. It was no longer raining at the time, so it must have been fear of a different kind of soaking that had persuaded the bookies to keep them up.

There was some relief for the profession when the day’s last race went to an unfancied 10-1 shot. But by then there had been yet another winning favourite, this time in the feature event. This was also another case of the Riccis getting richer: their French-bred Arvika Ligeonniere landing the €55,250 prize.

Favourite-backers and the Riccis apart, the day’s other winners included the irrepressible Walsh family. Brother Ruby was away at Kempton, drawing a rare blank in Britain’s big Boxing Day fixture. In his absence, sister Katie won the 2.20 on Jacksonslady.

As she waited to be interviewed on RTÉ afterwards, a proud Father Ted was on hand, not just to congratulate her, but also to lend a parental handkerchief, with which she wiped the Leopardstown mud off her face for the cameras.

She may also have wiped Ruby’s eye in the process. Interviewer Robert Hall inquired about Sea Bass, the horse she rode to third place in this year’s Aintree Grand National. Ted Walsh trains it. So, suggested Hall playfully, she might have to keep her brother out of the saddle next year? “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with him,” she joked.

At 14,091, the first-day crowd at Leopardstown was slightly down on the opener at last year’s festival. Among the non-runners was Bono, normally a St Stephen’s Day regular. Others notable by their absence included the political profession in general.

There may have been one or two Government representatives in the crowd. But their scarcity here compared with former years was only high-lighted by the minute’s silence observed for the late Minister of State for Agriculture, Shane McEntee. The gesture was well observed, even in the bars and restaurants, where customers rose to their feet as suggested.

Despite the plethora of winning favourites, betting figures were also down on 2011. Only slightly in the case of the Tote, which took €288,009 in bets, compared with €295,476 last year. By contrast, the on-course bookmakers’ turnover was a modest €775,091, almost €150,000 less than the same day last year.

Yesterday’s soft going is unlikely to have been much changed by a little overnight rain, which was expected to clear early this morning.

The sun is expected to make an appearance later today, when the festival continues with a card including the €190,000 Paddy Power Steeplechase.