Slots don't fit bill -- for now
S LOT MACHINES in betting shops: a legitimate money-maker or a tacky means of preying on gambling addicts?
One or the other, it was somewhat surprising last week when Racing Post readers met with the headline: 'Bookmakers in Ireland opposed to shop FOBTs' (fixed-odds betting terminals). Opposed, even though they are happy to make money from them in the UK?
The Irish Bookmakers' Association called on the government to consider the introduction of FOBTs in its pre-budget 2008 submission, so what has changed? According to the umbrella body's chairwoman, Sharon Byrne, the IBA was "never looking for slot machines".
She added: "We were hoping to get the betting opportunity ones that would let us compete with the online firms -- strictly betting, no slots," she insisted to the Sunday Independent.
"Slot machines would entail a completely different licence -- and there already are licensed arcades in the country. For example, we would like machines that would let you have in-running betting which I can't offer over the counter at the minute," added Byrne, who is employed by Bruce bookmakers.
"Definitely, the younger generations like the computer-generated products. The increase in betting on virtual racing is steady (whereas) betting on Irish racing is down to about 10 per cent (of overall bets) in independent firms." Paddy Power -- who are not affiliated to the IBA -- claim publicly to object to slot machines in their Irish shops because of the "cultural difference" between here and the UK, though it is understood that other high-street firms would welcome FOBTs if the legislation allowed.
According to reports last week, that seems unlikely, with Government recommendations to reform the Republic's gambling laws expected to ban the introduction to betting parlours of gaming machines.
One may not have to be entirely cynical to speculate that the bookmakers are cautious about irritating the government, given the threat of online and telephone betting potentially being subject to tax in the future.
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A Ladbrokes spokeswoman said her firm was in agreement with the IBA's stance. The Magic Sign revealed 2009 profit reductions last week and William Hill followed with a similar admission on Friday.
The Hills chain reported an overall drop of 74 per cent in full-year profit for the group --a figure slightly misleading (the company took one-time charges against earnings totalling £76.6m for telephone and Irish assets) but nonetheless alarming.
Hills' online operating profit grew 36 per cent to £74.4m last year -- but profits from the company's betting shops dropped 16 per cent. Indeed, 14 Irish shops were closed last year by the firm, with 35 still extant.
Some reports on Friday exaggerated the threat to Hills' remaining Irish-based employees, but it is arguable that the brand suffers from an image problem here relative to the likes of Paddy Power.
While Boylesports invest so much faith and funds into making their shops comfortable and inviting -- with free tea and coffee of a surprisingly reasonable quality to coax the floating vote -- Hills' shops tend to be more old-fashioned.
Indeed, it was jolting that their Eden Quay shop -- perched so close to Dublin's city centre and adjacent to a pub (like all good Turf Accountants) -- was forced to pull down its shutters for the last time in 2009.
The recession had an inevitable role in Hills' slump last year, though their difficulties illustrate the challenges facing shops as Licensed Betting Offices have seen their share of the overall national betting market fall from 91 per cent in 1999 to less than half nowadays.
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Today's spectacle at Leopardstown is more than just a race meeting, with horses (including the long-absent Mikael D'Haguenet) galloping after the bumper as preparation for Cheltenham.
With that in mind, the Wexford GAA Supporters' Club also hosts a preview night at the track around 7.30.
Tranquil Sea -- a leading fancy for the Ryanair Chase -- was supposed to exercise post-racing, but instead runs in the Newlands Steeplechase, a Grade Two which was transferred from the ashes of Naas' aborted card a week ago.
Those who oppose him will contend that he will not be fully primed and no Irish trainer takes Cheltenham more seriously than Edward O'Grady.
Those who support him will stress the inadequacies that define the opposition.
It is unlikely that any of the seven Ballsbridge Hurdle runners will be bothering the judge at Cheltenham. Won In The Dark will surely go off favourite but can be taken on, given the distance and forecast ground.
When Davy Russell's mount obliged at Punchestown lately, Wild Passion was just over five lengths adrift and is now five pounds better off.
It signalled that the ten-year-old -- which was off the track for three years before returning in December -- may still retain enough ability to trouble rivals whose overall form is generally patchy.