It's noon on day two of the Cheltenham Festival, the sun is just beginning to break through the clouds, and for trackside bookmaker Neville Porter things can only get better.
The sight of several Willie Mullins-trained favourites romping up the famous Cheltenham hill on Tuesday, when the Irish trainer had three heavily-backed winners, was not one to gladden Porter’s heart. “God willing we’ll get some results today,” says the bookmaker from Durham, near Newcastle. “Yesterday was a bad losing day for most of the bookmakers.”
The explosion in online betting in recent years has hit racetrack bookmakers hard, and Porter – who sold his positions at Leopardstown and Galway racecourses during the economic downturn – says his turnover has dropped by 50 per cent. This dip in their fortunes, he says, has turned bookmakers into gamblers.
“Because there’s so little money on the racecourses, you have to be aggressive with your prices on certain horses that you think might get beat. You have to go looking for the money now rather than sitting back and waiting for the money to come to you,” he says.
So what does a racecourse bookmaker do when a punter walks up five minutes before a race and places £5,000 on a 10/1 shot, leaving the bookie with a potential liability of £50,000? In this scenario, one of Porter’s staff – he employs four at each of his two stands in Cheltenham – will quickly set about backing the same horse with other bookmakers on the track. “Then if the horse wins, you go collect off them and you pay the punter.”
Today, Porter has identified two horses worth – in bookmakers’ parlance – “taking on”. He believes two short-priced favourites, the JP McManus-owned More Of That and the Mullins-trained Un De Sceaux, are bad value for punters and – by definition – good value for the bookmaker.
“If you perceive a horse to be bad value you’re not saying it can’t win, but you’ll think ‘as a bookmaker, I’m happy to take it on’.” As a consequence of Porter’s view that More Of That and Un De Sceaux fall into the “bad value” category, he has been on the online betting exchanges on Tuesday night taking bets on both.
“At the racecourse,” he explains, “there isn’t the weight of money there that you’re wanting to take. There’s weight of money on the exchanges, so at the press of a button, you can take a £5,000 bet or a £10,000 bet or a £1,000 bet, whereas at the track you’re more into the £10-£20-£100 bet, and you have to take a lot of those and it takes a of time to take them and pay them out.”
The first race of the day – Ladies Day, incidentally, though few are paying attention to the fact – has Irish racing fans celebrating as the Willie Mullins-Ruby Walsh trainer-jockey double act wins yet again, landing the Neptune novices' hurdle on Yorkhill, beating the favourite in the race into second place. It's a neutral result for Porter; it was good to get the favourite beaten, but Yorkhill was heavily supported at a price of 3/1. The first round then is a draw between punters and bookies.
Now it’s the turn of More Of That to justify his position as market leader in the RSA Chase, a stamina-testing race for potential future winners of the Gold Cup. If the Cheltenham Gold Cup was the senior All-Ireland final, the RSA would be the minor final.
More Of That, with Irish jockey Barry Geraghty on board, goes off at 13/8 – a “ridiculous price” in Porter’s view. In a thrilling race in which the lead changes hands several times, the favourite momentarily looks set to challenge as the horses enter the final straight, but his effort quickly fades and he finishes third.
Porter is exultant. “We got what we wanted. We got More Of That beat . . . I didn’t think we had to sweat any part of the race. One-nil to the good guys!”
The shock nature of More Of That’s defeat is eclipsed in the big race of the day, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, when Un De Sceaux – one of the Irish “bankers” of the week – is beaten to the line by a rejuvenated Sprinter Sacre. The Nicky Henderson-trained horse was once the best in steeplechasing, but health problems and age were thought, until now, to have made it a shadow of its former self.
Its comeback is a sporting fairytale, a story for the ages, but for Neville Porter it’s a shrewd piece of business. “Good result. As I said I wanted to be against the favourite because I thought it was bad value. Yeah, very pleased, it’s nice to get it right once or twice. Played twice, won twice.”
Irish punters and backers of favourites suffer further heartache when Nina Carberry’s mount, Josies Orders, just fails to land the cross country steeplechase. By the time the last race of the day is under way, Porter is in his car and on his way early to beat the traffic. Still winning.