Tuesday 25 June 2019

The tsunami of punting that they call Cheltenham

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The horse was called Good Prospect, running at Cheltenham in the days when I'd have to cycle to one of the bookmakers in Athlone on my way from school, to place a bet. Good Prospect was 10/1, and it won.

It must have been quite a struggle to place that bet, because my clear memory is that I was in bed with the 'flu, listening to the commentary of Peter Bromley on a crackly transistor radio tuned into the faint signal of BBC Radio 2. So I must have dragged myself in to school that morning - not to go to school as such, but to be able to drop in to the turf accountant later, and then to get back home for Cheltenham, my business done.

Close readers might also be wondering if I had to negotiate any controversies with said turf accountant around the issue of my being significantly and obviously underage - to which I say, no, the matter was never raised and frankly, I'm surprised that you ask.

I was old enough to pay 20pc betting tax like everyone else in the SP offices, on top of my bet which in those days traditionally was a Yankee - four horses on which there would be a combination of 11 bets in all, six doubles, four trebles, and an accumulator. It was a classic formula which gave you "an interest" throughout the afternoon, with the slight catch that to win anything, you had to win at least two races, and it was only when you got three up, that you were getting into the serious money.

A classic "mug" formula then, to be more precise.

Indeed it caught me out on that day, because after Good Prospect won, at 10/1, I had only one other winner out of the four, a short-priced favourite which meant that I would be "collecting" only on one double - for which of course I would have to get out of my bed eventually and cycle back to the bookies, but we thought little of such hardships back then.

The whole operation now seems like something out of the voyages of Ernest Shackleton, by comparison with the effortlessness of the online experience.

But if by any chance you're feeling sorry for me, either because of the difficulty of the procedure, or the fact that I didn't get enough bang for my buck with a 10/1 winner, there's no need.

Such was my elation at picking a 10/1 winner at Cheltenham, such was my pride in that stellar punting performance, such was the simple joy I had experienced listening to the voice of Peter Bromley calling the finish to that race, I felt it would almost be asking too much to be getting rich out of it too.

It is one of the many weaknesses which we will be bringing to this horrifically unequal contest with the bookies, at Cheltenham and beyond, the fact that essentially we are in it for the love, and they are in it for the money.

I'm sure it was always like this, back in the days when bookmakers were actual people, like Terry Rogers, Sean Graham, or Malachy Skelly, rather than global corporations such as Paddy Power Betfair which reported last week that operating profits rose 19pc to £392m last year, from £330m the previous year. But it was never even a vague possibility that men such as Rogers or Graham or Skelly could move from the betting arena to something as prestigious as the banking sector - whereas it is now considered completely normal that a former chief executive of Paddy Power such as Patrick Kennedy could become the deputy governor of the Bank of Ireland.

In some ways, the ancient templates of bookmaking have not changed - the "colourful characters" standing on boxes at the rails have been replaced by the "hilarious" lads at Paddy Power, you can still be losing a lot of money for a long time without anyone shouting stop, and young lads are still doing Yankees or other such tragic permutations - but if by chance they have the 'flu on the first day of Cheltenham, they won't have to get out of their beds as I had to do, and face the ravages of the outside world.

Indeed even if they are perfectly fine and full of energy at the prospect of the First Day of the Festival, they wouldn't have to get out of their beds in order to get involved.

Indeed last week, still dozing after perhaps a long night punting on the American basketball, they could have been listening to the Ryan Tubridy radio show running a competition with "our friends in Paddy Power" for an all-in trip to Cheltenham.

They could check out the RTE website in which Ryan is pictured in upbeat mood, above what is essentially an advertisement for Paddy Power, giving details of the competition, the Paddy Power Race Minute Quiz.

Now it must be stated that none of this is unusual in any way - that all sorts of people in the media in general join with anyone with any kind of an "interest in the proceedings" to celebrate what is effectively Ireland's national holiday, and one of the great sporting festivals of the world.

I know. I was on to this Cheltenham thing when you needed to have actual pound notes to put across the counter.

But this is another fundamental difference between the ancient ways of the Turf Accountant and those of the corporate bookie - not only was a Terry Rogers or a Malachy Skelly unlikely to be "heading up" the Bank of Ireland, they would not be buying up oceans of airtime and generally being treated as a normal part of the fabric of Irish family life, akin to the makers of Fruitfield old-time Irish jam and marmalade.

It has been one of the great corporate triumphs of the age, and not just in Ireland, this normalisation of the gambling culture, this never-ending promotion of feel-good vibes about punting and punters - which is all around us, and which is going to become a tsunami in the days ahead.

Against this, in fairness, Tony O'Reilly and I have been on radio shows with Ray D'Arcy and Matt Cooper and Kieran Cuddihy and Eimear Ni Bhraonain, and podcasts with Eoin McDevitt, talking about our book Tony 10, the story of the postman who gambled €10m - mostly with Paddy Power, €1.75m of which was stolen from An Post, for which he went to jail.

We have been featured in this paper, which has always been entirely supportive of my efforts on this subject. So the dark side of this voracious industry is not being ignored, it's just that many will be drawn to the blinding light, because there is just so much of it.

Of Tony 10, it has been said that you really couldn't make it up, that a postman could eventually find himself so far down in the hole, and you couldn't make this up either: last Friday, the first entrant in the Paddy Power quiz on the Ryan Tubridy show was a postman.

I need hardly add that, of course, he didn't win.

Sunday Independent

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