Bright future for on-course bookmakers far from a safe bet
Busy Galway Festival the exception to the rule as digitalisation sees business move off-course
Massive crowds in Galway prove an annual boon to the bookmaking fraternity. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
When Oslot and Ruby Walsh passed the winning post in the 2008 Galway Plate, bookmaker Daragh Fitzpatrick quickly estimated it would cost him €70,000. It remains his greatest festival disaster. But there was a twist.
“It shows how strong business was back then – we still managed to get out ahead on the day,” recalls Fitzpatrick, who is one of Ireland’s leading on-course bookmakers. “And that would not happen now. You wouldn’t expose yourself like that anymore. You simply wouldn’t get out of it.”
If 2008 felt like a final festival fling of Celtic Tiger extravagance – complete with popular images of political tents and helicopters buzzing Ballybrit like midges – there are those who believe the betting ring around which so much of Galway revolves is in the throes of its own dying kick.
Horse Racing Ireland statistics for the first half of this year revealed total on-course betting of just €33.8 million. The whole of 2008 generated over €230 million.
It is a particularly bleak picture for those who stand on boxes and shout the odds. On-course bookmakers handled €29.5 million in the first six months of 2017. That’s a slide of almost six per cent on the previous year. In 2008 they had turnover in excess of €167 million.
Online is fine but if you win your account is closed,” he says. “If you go to Galway and you want a monkey [€500] at 10-1 they won’t bet you
Business-wise, the slide points only one way. HRI’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh conceded: “It’s very hard to see a way in which it will turn around.”
One bookie likens the profession he has spent a life in to a dinosaur waiting for the inevitable asteroid. Like so many other sectors, bookmaking is feeling the impact of a rationalisation rooted in digitalisation.
A betting environment where a punter can watch live global feeds and bet on every permutation imaginable from the comfort of home is not conducive to encouraging a trip to the races.
So day-to-day Ireland’s shrinking betting ring can seem like a morgue. Last Saturday barely a dozen bookmakers were at Gowran Park. There was no public scrum around them either. It was a meeting like so many others, primarily taking place to pump pictures into betting shops and beyond.
If it wasn’t for starting price returns, the dozen on duty mightn’t even have been missed. In the overall financial picture there’s almost a token element now to the famed ‘colour’ the ring brings to the Irish racing experience. Instead the outlook for many on-course bookmakers is bleak and getting worse all the time.
It’s in such an uncertain climate then that next week’s Galway festival brings some welcome reassurance. Festivals bring footfall which helps turnover which spreads business. And there’s no change in Ballybrit’s status as Irish racing’s biggest festival of all.
“Go to Galway and it’s like confetti, there’s so much of it there in front of you,” says Fitzpatrick who has been heading west for 25 years.
In 2016 almost €8 million was bet with Galway’s on-course bookmakers during the seven days. Nearly 33,000 attended last year’s ‘Ladies Day’ alone. These are figures that hark back to the ring’s glory days. Except for bookmakers, like other professions caught in the digital revolution’s headlights, the glory days now come cloaked in nostalgia.
“It’s like the corner sweet shop you used to go into 20 years ago to buy your paper. It’s been engulfed by the large supermarkets. And most bookmakers can’t compete with the chains. There’s a lot of anger and a lot people don’t want to accept it but that’s the way I see it,” Fitzpatrick adds.
It’s a theme echoed through many businesses. A smaller commercial cake means less opportunity with an inevitable rationalisation that sees smaller operators falling by the wayside. There’s more than enough to go around in one week at Galway. But increasingly there’s not enough to sustain a year.
The consequence is a concentration of business among a smaller group of layers able to generate enough turnover despite the remorseless statistical slide which could see the 2017 market almost halve in comparison to just six years ago.
Bookmaking’s modern reality of multiple pitches, and scrutinising a laptop for every play on the betting exchanges, is a long way removed from the old cartoon representation of tic-tac men frantically organising runners to lay off cash.
A click of a computer button serves the same function. And if it’s a lot less colourful, it doesn’t mean bookmakers aren’t working harder than ever to maintain the five per cent margins generally acknowledged to represent workable profit.
Ray Mulvaney was in Naas on Wednesday and a day later in Leopardstown. Then he went to Wexford on Friday before getting the boat to Chester for today’s fixture. While he’s in England a couple of men will cover his pitch at the Curragh before they head to Shelbourne Park dogs in the evening. Everyone then decamps to Galway.
“I work harder now than I ever did before to keep up the same turnover as 10 years ago,” he says. “But that’s just how life is. We’re up against apps and the Paddy Powers of this world so you have to do it. If you’re not hitting a certain turnover you’re in trouble and I would suggest most aren’t.”
Mulvaney has been going to Galway for 27 years. The technological landscape has changed utterly but he still goes to as many meetings as possible in order to provide an old-fashioned personal service. It’s what he reckons will allow some on-course bookmakers to survive.
“Online is fine but if you win your account is closed,” he says. “If you go to Galway and you want a monkey [€500] at 10-1 they won’t bet you. It’s all very well saying 25 quid back if you finish second, third or fourth. But if you can’t get on it’s no good to you. And, invariably, if you’re any kind of winning punter you can’t get on. Go to the track and you can have a decent bet, you get paid in cash and you get paid with civility.”
The trouble is such punters are dwarfed by digital betting cannon-fodder around the globe. Even closer to home, luring people to pay into a racetrack is a hard-sell when free television coverage is at home.
Mulvaney believes many tracks gorged on media rights money aren’t under enough pressure from HRI to promote attendances, especially at those meetings termed ‘industry days’ which are a long way from the popular festival circuit but make up the bulk of the programme.
“Bad industry days don’t work. They’re run for the media rights and SIS (Satellite Information Systems) money but that may not be there someday. Track managers need to be held accountable. They’re losing sight of the grassroots of the sport. They need to promote. Some meetings are nearly being held in secret,” he says.
Hyland however points out: “If a track’s getting nearly €60,000 a meeting from SIS you can’t tell them not to race because it’s not worthwhile for bookmakers to be there. The population in Ireland is the same as greater Manchester. It has 50 race meetings. We have 350. It’s very hard to get public support for them all. Yet you have to hold them.”
Hyland says gambling is a rarity in not being taxed and that a return to a low rate of betting levy could give the on-course market a vital boost. Arguing for tax is a tough pitch though, as hard as arguing sympathy for bookmakers . Many believe market forces will ultimately see the ring bottom into no more than a dozen streamlined operations generating enough to make it pay.
What represents bottom however no one seems to know. Cross-channel ‘gaff’ fixtures routinely have only a handful of on-course bookmakers almost exclusively there for SP purposes. It’s hard not to think a similar scenario will happen here too. Galway and the other festivals can help to statistically disguise day-to-day reality but the on-course sector faces a very uncertain future.
“The whole thing about going racing in Ireland is having a bet and the whole bit between bookmakers and the public. For that reason I think on-course bookmakers will survive, but not in the way we are now,” suggests Fitzpatrick.
He says he wouldn’t encourage his son or daughter to follow his own career path – “It’s not a job for the fainthearted” – and Hyland believes the sector is suffering from a lack of new blood.
There is a future. But it won’t be the same model in future.”
“You have to put down a €15,000 deposit with HRI before you do anything. It then costs the guts of 15 grand to get sorted with computers etc . . . So it’s 30 grand before you can even start,” he says.
Where there is rare unanimity however is that racing is the poorer for the lack of a thriving betting ring. It brings a unique atmosphere to the sport and its fingerprints will be all over next week’s busy Galway action. Whether it will continue to be so in years to come is the biggest question of all.
“There is a future,” Francis Hyland believes. “But it won’t be the same model in future.”
Ray Mulvaney: “The worst Galway result I ever had actually came at Goodwood. Missunited was trained by a great character in Cork called Mick Winters. She won the big hurdle at the festival the year before (2013) but this time she went to Goodwood on the flat and the whole world backed it.
“Mick is very popular and I bet ‘away’ meetings as well so you can imagine what it was like. The payout was six figures.
“From our point of view the best result obviously is if a 50-1 shot wins the Galway Hurdle. But if we can get one of Dermot Weld’s or Aidan O’Brien’s beaten in a maiden that’s a good result. And that can happen at Galway, particularly if the ground is soft.”
Daragh Fitzpatrick: “I go to Galway knowing there’s going to be business in front of me, knowing I seldom lose in Galway, and that I can win a few quid.
“I would hate to tell you how much I’ve lost over the last three weeks because the results have been chronic. But if I win at Galway I’m going to have a very good year. And that’s the festival in a nutshell. It’s that important.”
Francis Hyland: “I’ve retired from Galway. I can’t compete. I don’t have the turnover to compete in those big races so I found I was very vulnerable.
“But I’ve nothing but praise for Galway. It’s the best managed racecourse in Ireland and has built a festival out of nothing. Then you look at the Curragh and all these big races and they can’t make a Derby festival.
“The worst day I had in Galway was when that good JP McManus horse (Carlingford Lough) won the Plate. I was done on win and place and couldn’t believe how much money I lost.
“The best was a long time ago in the Plate as well. Master Player won it (1984). It was the most I ever won on one race. I laid everything else. I’ve really missed that horse!”