Cheltenham week. Money down, bets on. The one week in the year where it feels like no big deal to gamble on seven races a day. And sure maybe, late on with a few in, a few quid on the all-weather come teatime. Ye don't have to lash into every race, lads. Yeah, whatever, Captain Sensible.
For the last fortnight or so, this column has been getting ready. Listened to all the podcasts, read all the features and stable tours, devoured the streams of all the digital preview nights. Plans hatched, ante-posts guessed at, account deposits made. All set for Tuesday lunchtime.
Somewhere towards the end of last week though, I happened across The Cheltenham Survival Guide. It's an episode of The Problem Gambling Podcast, hosted by addiction counsellors Tony O'Reilly and Barry Grant.
O’Reilly is the author of the incredible gambling memoir Tony 10 and although horses were never really his thing, he and Grant had some chilling insights into what this week of all weeks means in the gambling community.
If you’re in recovery from gambling addiction, Cheltenham is a week-long trigger for all your worst inclinations. It’s the one week in the year where the thing you used to do obsessively and in secret becomes normalised.
The truth is, we don't hear anywhere near enough about problem gambling
It becomes a real and present thing, out in the open, in your WhatsApp groups and on your Facebook page, in newspapers and on telly and on radio. There is literally no shame in it.
Grant and O’Reilly’s survival guide was eye-opening in so many ways. In normal times, they’ve known clients who have gone so far as to book a foreign holiday for Cheltenham week, taking themselves off to a country where there is no chance of coming across the festival in any shape or form. With that option not open this year, they advise making a specific plan for each of the four afternoons, to give themselves a project for the week, to be busy, whatever they choose to be busy with.
It feels like we hear a lot about problem gambling. Every bookie advert tells you to gamble responsibly. There’s any amount of slogans around the place telling you Be Gamble Aware and When The Fun Stops, Stop and so on. Every couple of weeks, a news story bubbles up about the latest move on some bit of political legislation to tackle it. If you want to, you can gerrymander all the various initiatives and campaigns into one amorphous bloc and point to it. See? This is how we’re dealing with it.
But the truth is, we don’t hear anywhere near enough about problem gambling. Relative to the devastation it causes, it leaves a minuscule footprint on the national consciousness. In many ways, this is completely understandable. It might not be very helpful but it’s easily explained.
To begin with, there’s a natural reluctance to talk about addiction of any sort. In that perfectly Irish way, we know in our bones that there isn’t a family in the land that has escaped the experience. And yet we still cloak it in embarrassment and shame. We still zero in on the perceived weakness of character at the root of it.
When we do talk about it, we talk mostly about drink and drugs. Alcoholism and drug addiction are public-facing diseases. They can be hidden, of course. Denial is a very strong shield but it only works for so long. Eventually, the truth becomes obvious. Society can’t not talk about it.
Problem gambling doesn’t have that outward-facing aspect so we don’t see it as such a serious societal problem. We don’t see it at all, really, which makes it so insidious. It is, by nature, a private pursuit. Self-contained, unspoken, ignorable. Loved ones only ever get a sense of the size of the problem long after it’s too late. Nobody has to be carried out and put in the back of a taxi because they backed the wrong horse. If only it was that simple.
But there’s another reason we don’t talk a lot about problem gambling. Part of it, yes, is the secretive aspect that obscures it from general viewing. But part of it too is that plenty of us like a bet. And we find it hard to talk about something we enjoy in terms that portray it as a menace to society.
So much of sport is tethered to gambling now precisely because of this. Mug punters like me and you and all the rest of us like a bit of sport and like to have a few quid on here and there. We’re easy marks for the bookmaking firms who see that there’s money to be made in portraying the sport and the betting as one and the same experience. All a bit of fun. A bit of an interest. No big deal.
This creates an awkward dynamic, whereby you can back a weekend football accumulator but still feel uneasy the prevalence of gambling sponsors on so many English soccer clubs' jerseys. You can read Aaron Rogan's piece in the Business Post yesterday showing that the Irish gambling industry's trust that was set up to support addiction services is 39 per cent short of its donation target but it still won't stop you having a bet on the golf.
The Cheltenham Survival Guide was a difficult podcast to listen to precisely because of this. This is going to be a strange kind of Cheltenham because the betting shops are closed and so are the pubs. There won’t be that feel of it in the air as you walk through towns and cities across the country.
It will all be so much more internalised, with everyone betting online, conversing (if at all) from detached silos, nobody to truly know how well or badly they’re getting on but themselves.
Here's who we do know is doing just fine. Bookmakers are. Flutter, the parent company of Paddy Power, announced a fortnight ago that its revenues had increased by 106 per cent in 2020.
Think about that - in a year when global sport came to a complete stop, it didn’t take a pick out of the gambling industry’s ability to grow. In fact, it almost certainly helped - or at least the increased level of boredom among the general populace did its bit.
Cheltenham might feel like the wrong week to be wringing our hands about all this. But if not now, in the week where so many of us are temporarily transformed into the kind of gamblers we’d worry about the other 51, then when? It is obvious that society is storing up a world of pain for itself. Better we talk about it now than gnash our teeth about it later.