Wednesday 26 June 2019

For bookies, an empty chair is not a good look

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The bookies were everywhere in RTE's coverage of Punchestown, as you'd expect. And the vicissitudes of their ancient trade were never better demonstrated than in the finish to the Growise Champion Novice Chase - in which jockey Paul Townend made the astounding error of bypassing the last fence, veering to the right while in the lead on Al Boum Photo, taking Finian's Oscar out of it as well, allowing The Storyteller to win in a ludicrously unexpected way.

You will not get a more poignant illustration than this, of how the punters are mocked by the baleful gods - of the way that the aficionados like to see themselves as General Eisenhower, as strategic overlords directing the D-Day landings, when in truth they are more like the troops in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, being shot to pieces on the beaches of Normandy.

And, yet, even some of those troops managed to stay alive somehow - likewise such torments as were endured by backers of Townend's horse, could be contrasted with the wild elation of supporters of The Storyteller, celebrating the proverbial bullets they had dodged.

Yes the bookies were everywhere at Punchestown, they were all over the television, they were giving it loads.

The previous night on RTE, they had not been so forthcoming about the intricacies of their game. In fact, though they were in great demand, they could not be seen at all.

In the outstanding RTE One documentary All Bets Are Off, presenter Baz Ashmawy explained that three of the main online bookmakers had been invited to make an appearance, but had politely declined. On the Claire Byrne Live programme straight afterwards, again they addressed the issues of gambling raised in the documentary, and again we were told that bookmakers had been invited, but had declined.

Now that more attention is finally being paid to the addiction of online gambling, and the carnage it is causing, those empty chairs are starting to look more empty all the time. Apart from those two programmes, aired at prime time, there was an announcement by Fianna Fail TD Anne Rabbitte, that her party's Gambling Control Bill 2018 will be brought to the Dail for a two-hour debate the week after next - again we can envisage a request from The Late Debate or The Week In Politics for a contribution from Paddy Power or Boylesports or Ladbrokes, again their current policy suggests that they will be represented by our old friend, the empty chair.

But then regular readers of this paper will be somewhat familiar with this policy stretching back over the years, in particular in relation to the case of Tony O'Reilly - "Tony 10" - who also appeared in All Bets Are Off, who was swept away by a gambling addiction to the extent that he stole €1.75m from his employer An Post, which he transferred in large quantities into his Paddy Power online account.

I would submit questions on this to Paddy Power - just very obvious things, like, would they consider giving back the stolen money? - and the corporate response would come: "We do not discuss individual cases…"

For the book Tony 10 they extended the "individual cases" line to say that "we are continually evolving our responsible gambling procedures and improving our interaction with customers who display signs of harm. There are, naturally, positive developments in our approach now from the time of this case".

Positive though these developments might be, they did not extend to any further discussion of this "individual case" (as if there is any other kind of case) even when the individual in this instance, Tony O'Reilly, was happy to participate in any such discussion.

So it wasn't his privacy which was being protected here. And still we were looking at our old friend, the empty chair. The industry is ubiquitous when it wants to be, and invisible at other times, bringing a new dimension to the concept of hiding in plain sight.

And yes it is clearly a policy, rather than just a reaction to each individual case, if you'll pardon the expression.

The betting corporations are just not going to be getting into arguments with the likes of me, or anyone else who wishes to debate the possible downsides of online gambling in particular. They have decided there is no percentage for them in that, they are "Taking the Fifth", as it were.

Meanwhile, they will pump out their advertising and their sponsorship with relentless zeal, not just buying themselves a piece of the action, effectively owning the action.

At a certain level I can understand their position here. Indeed, we should all be able to understand their position - because they have been enjoying a boom the like of which has not been seen since the Irish were buying apartments in Bulgaria straight off the plans. Unregulated and yet purveying one of the most addictive recreations known to humankind, they are entitled to be in a permanent state of irrational exuberance. They are partying.

They can receive €1.75m of what is now known to be stolen money, and all that happens is they do their "individual cases" bit, and they move on. The CEO of Paddy Power at the time when "Tony 10" had his account, Patrick Kennedy, was recently announced as chairman of the Bank of Ireland.

Nobody asked him if he had reflected on that tragic case, seemingly nobody even thought to mention it.

Here is an industry which exists in some other realm, a place of the imagination in which the usual forces of nature do not apply. So yes, it is understandable that they can be approached about a TV programme on gambling and can reply "nothing to do with us, mate", or words to that effect. But now even these lucky, lucky people must be wondering if the empty chair is working for or against them - maybe with this increasing awareness all round, there's a point at which there are just too many empty chairs, at which they become too conspicuous by their absence.

In what was an exceptionally busy week for them - busy in the sense that they were busy avoiding it - an independent review of integrity in tennis found that there was "a tsunami of betting-related corruption", especially in the lower levels of the game. There have also been reports that the tsunami has reached the higher levels of the game, and has reached both the lower and the higher levels of many other games, too.

In their favour, the bookies have the fact that very few people really care about tennis at any level, or have cared about any of this stuff until quite recently. Naturally there was no mention of their position, if any, on the growing corruption of sports which they have facilitated.

But they'll be looking at the numbers now, at those big numbers who watched All Bets Are Off, and who carried on into Claire Byrne Live, and I would not be surprised to see them filling that empty chair, pretty soon.

They are very good at what they do after all, and in this as in most things, they will expect to win.

Sunday Independent

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