Absence of trackside bookies would be a loss for racing

Sympathy for bookies wouldn’t be in abundance but they’re integral part of racing scene

Could the betting ring be in danger at racecourses around the country? Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Could the betting ring be in danger at racecourses around the country? Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

It’s come to something when people feel sorry for bookmakers. Bookies are supposed to be in the same boat as parking wardens, tax officials and newspaper hacks when it comes to sympathy. In popular imagination they’re still the calculating chancers in sheepskins who never lose despite it being okay to try and fleece them any which way. Except now their prospects seem very grim indeed.

We’re not talking about giant gambling conglomerates here, those faceless billion euro brands whose ubiquity testifies to their profitability. Instead these are traditional on-course bookmakers, men and women who stand on a box at a racetrack shouting the odds, that are rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Just how under threat they are was underlined last week when the Irish National Professional Bookmakers Association (INPBA) said they couldn’t guarantee a service at race meetings. That’s due to a dispute with the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) and Horse Racing Ireland over race programming and charges.

A lot of statistics got flung around but the most stark is how turnover with on-course bookmakers has nose-dived by 75 per cent in the last decade.

At the same time the fixture list has expanded. There are 370 meetings scheduled in Ireland for 2020. At a lot of them, particularly during midweek, attendances will be negligible. That makes for a simple equation; no boots on the ground means less business for bookies.

Shrunken shadow

The famed betting ring, once Irish racing’s financial powerhouse, is a shrunken shadow of its former self. At lesser fixtures it can appear desolate enough to make tumbleweed look appropriate. Were it not for returning Starting Prices, the bookmakers standing out in all weathers would flirt dangerously close to irrelevance.

It’s in that context that the INPBA wants a little ‘give’ from AIR, particularly in relation to pitch-fees that mean bookmakers pay five times the admission fee to stand at a meeting. If the entry is €20 then a bookmaker pays €100 just to get in. It’s an old tot from a previous era and it sticks enough in the craw to have got bookmakers sabre-rattling last week.

It worked too. On Tuesday, both sides meet in Newbridge to try and hammer out an agreement. For once there is widespread goodwill towards the bookies. That isn’t a good sign. No one knows better than them how there’s no percentage in sympathy. Instead it feels like a portent of how they may ultimately be doomed to fight a losing battle.

That’s because in the modern gambling world the real big-money is off-course, both in betting turnover and in supplying the television pictures to generate it. When anyone, anywhere, with a smartphone can look at Thurles on Thursday, and bet on it, the real market is a long way from Tipperary.

Major festival dates such as Punchestown and Galway still attract huge crowds. But even then the financial reality is that tracks in Ireland have grown fat enough on lucrative media rights deals to make worrying about attendances an optional exercise. It can’t be anything else when even a bog-standard race is worth at least €7,000 to the racecourse hosting it.

Such figures have essentially turned racetracks into big windy studios, lucratively beaming pictures of as many races as possible to betting shops and online punters around the world. And if the SIS company paying all this money wants 35 minute breaks between races then no one’s going to argue at those prices.

Grey-vote stalwarts

The flipside is that the sport’s spectator appeal feels like it’s on the slide. Younger racegoers are conspicuously absent at many ordinary fixtures. The ring is dependant instead on a declining number of grey-vote stalwarts which often leaves bookmakers playing the betting exchanges like everyone else.

It means the balance of power at Tuesday’s talks looks lopsided. Entry charges are hardly a priority for a racecourse association riding high on the media rights hog. That bookmakers are prepared to threaten strike over them suggests a sector struggling to avoid curio status in Irish racing’s big-picture commercial outlook.

There are those who will shrug that off as another casualty of a transformed digital economy that has turned so many other old industries on their head.

When just a few thousand quid is being handled by on-course bookies in races that generate millions online the old trade seems destined for a familiar sort of irrelevance, like highly skilled telegraph operators in a new telephone era.

There’s also a danger in romanticising what is essentially a business no more deserving of hand-outs than any other, one that’s fundamentally separate from horse racing’s sporting considerations. If punters could bet on bullocks running around a field then bookies can make a market on it.

Nevertheless there’s a danger here of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. That’s because the betting ring is both separate of racing and still as integral to its flavour here as horses and jockeys.

Prejudices

Even non-racing people have a picture in their head of what the sport in Ireland is like. Bookies are at the forefront of it. Whatever prejudices exist about shady characters handling dodgy cash in hand can be countered by more noble claims such as from businessman JP McManus that he never dealt with more honourable people than when he too was in the ring.

Either way, and at the very least, there’s a colour and humanity to a healthy racecourse betting ring that can’t be matched by the click of a digital button.

The INPBA is fighting a losing battle against overwhelming commercial considerations in terms of race-programming and scheduling. There’s just too much money involved. But in relation to pitch-fees, for the racecourses to play hard-ball tomorrow could be a case of cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Rather than viewing the scrap of at least some of these charges as a concession, it might be in everyone’s best interests to regard such a move as an investment.

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