Could the betting ring at Ireland’s racetracks be on the verge of some ‘vinyl revival’ type resurgence?
For much of the last decade the men and women who make their living shouting the odds have appeared to be on a one-way slide to irrelevance.
Like any number of venerable professions transformed by the internet, few were prepared to take big odds about the survival of on-course bookmakers.
Stereotypes of raffish characters in sheepskins chalking up prices and keeping one step ahead of the punter grew increasingly obsolete.
The game was off-course and digital, available to anyone anywhere in the world at anytime, making the prospects for bookies look bleak.
In such a global betting market only those needed to stage the television show actually had to traipse to Thurles on a Thursday.
When the pandemic struck it felt like it could be a final economic coup de grace.
With no betting ring in operation for large periods of behind closed doors racing, bookmakers were sidelined. Even their traditional function of generating the ‘SP’ stopped, replaced by an industry algorithm reflective of how most of the market is online.
However, the return of crowds to tracks in recent weeks appears to have generated a surge of hope in the ring.
Rather than relegated to little more than ornamental fossils, the legacy of Covid-19 might prove to be renewed appreciation of an ‘auld enemy’ that those eager to bet can at least look at square in the two eyes.
The recent Dublin Racing Festival smacked of a public starved of live action relishing an opportunity to experience the living breathing reality of racing on the ground rather than second hand on a screen.
And central to a day at the races has always been the betting ring.
There’s a temptation for nostalgia to romanticise it. An undercurrent of skullduggery was all but inevitable in a business mostly run on cash. Some of the shady figures preying on that were anything but romantic.
But it resonated with the vitality and colour of the perpetual financial and emotional struggle between punters and layers.
That’s in stark contrast to the ubiquity of online gambling, a nameless, faceless industry generating billions in profits for conglomerates that are as far from any wide-boy bookie cliche as is imaginable.
Their pursuit of the bottom line has become synonymous with ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable.
The latest evidence of how insidious online gambling has become was published last week with evidence that its normalisation has left 20 per cent of young gamblers addicted or at risk of developing a severe problem.
It adds to a catalogue of misery arising from an omnipresent but largely unregulated industry that in reputational terms increasingly carries a whiff of sulphur.
It has taken far too long but legislation reflective of the gambling landscape as it is now, rather than 70 years ago, appears to be finally coming.
Ireland’s new gambling bill could pass through the Oireachtas later this year.
In Britain the focus has been on whether or not stringent affordability and restriction checks that might be put in place to try and protect the vulnerable are actually workable.
An algorithm imposing loss limits per month on accounts sounds okay in theory. But it has the potential to turn the gambling industry upside down and with a consequent impact on racing. Even successful punters have losing streaks that need to be put in the context of more than just a month.
If the criticism is that such moves are prohibitionary many will say it is just desserts for corporations that suited themselves for too long, gorging on millions of mugs oblivious to the reality of how it is heads they lose and tails the house wins.
It’s been a perfect commercial scenario. With massive amounts of data at their fingertips the firms have been able to encourage those who lose to gamble more while blocking anyone with the temerity to look like they win on a regular basis.
Such restrictive practices have become notorious even in shops. Tales of punters winning even just a few hundred quid, going to the desk to collect, only to have to provide utility bills as proof of identity aren’t unknown.
So while the prospect of a new legislative horizon may be admirable and necessary, the upshot could be drawbacks for the majority of law-abiding citizens who bet for enjoyment and are even occasionally able to make it pay.
It’s the sort of context that represents rare opportunity for what is a very different betting beast in on-course bookmaking.
There’s a touch of aggrandisement in employing the musty old term of ‘turf accountant’. But it is a lot more appropriate and applicable to a bookie on a box than someone punching numbers in a multinational call centre.
Crucially the ring has more than just sentiment on its side.
Going racing may require getting off the couch but it can increase the chances of getting on. For punters trying to have a decent bet that can be priceless, especially if it also means not having to pay commission or navigate restrictive rigmaroles. Plus, who doesn’t like getting paid in cash?
The reality is that the betting ring is never going to go back to what it was. The vast majority of betting turnover, even at the major festivals, will always be online. There’s no turning the clock back on that. In the overall context it will be niche at best.
But it can be a sustainable niche, similar perhaps to how vinyl records have bucked forecasts of their demise and remain commercially tenable, even available in the local supermarket but specialising in the connoisseur.
So it might be odds-on about there still being room for the old school bookie which will be a win for racing considering how much they contribute to the colour of a day out.