I’ve a confession to make. For the first time in a very long time as I tuned into Racing TV, I didn’t miss not being at a racecourse. Punchestown and Galway this week looked pretty grim. Both are wonderful places at the festival but at the industry meetings they can be fairly mundane affairs. The comfort of my sitting room was quite appealing as I watched the horses emerge from the mist and rain in Galway or as I watched Dewcup and two other market principles jump off and quickly establish a 30 length lead in the maiden hurdle in Punchestown…. A sure sign summer is over! It took me about 5 years to realise it but Punchestown outside those 5 magical days in April is impossible to win at for layers. I live an hour and a half from the track and there have been many drives home when not even the radio was turned on. It was easier to sit and suffer in silence. Nobody’s fault only my own. Self-inflicted pain. School boy error heading to Punchestown thinking a few fancied ones can get turned over, they rarely do. Infact, the contests are often over after the first furlong. Game over, ball burst.
Compare that to what lies ahead this weekend at the Longines Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown and The Curragh. The Irish Champion Stakes has always has been one of the European highlights of the year and since the evolution of the Champions weekend has grown even more so. In my opinion, it’s now the second biggest race on the European calander after the Arc. The role of honour speaks for itself. The support card is also top notch as is the following days racing in the Curragh.
For an on course bookmaker with 3 pitches in each venue it’s a weekend that has the potential to make or break the year. Massive turn over, ferociously competitive racing and die hard racing fans present leads to the perfect combination and presents an opportunity for us that not too many other weekends can. Highs and lows. Thankfully more highs. Great memories like The Grey Gatsby beating Australia and giving my dad a wink knowing we got out of jail. In 2016 Harzand and Minding were all the rage, good old Almanzor did me a favour. In 2017, Decorated Knight and Poets Word had a ding dong battle, a half a furlong from home I stopped watching, it didn’t matter, the money was in my bag and it was staying there. Of the low’s Roaring Lion still stings. Standing him for more than intended he got the better of Saxon Warrior in an epic battle. The neck cost us a small fortune but there were no excuses. It’s a game of small margins and the best horse on the day won.
The Curragh as we all know has had a few challenging years, most of which has been self-inflicted but things had begun to turn there for the better. The atmosphere was nicer, the stake holders were more content in their work and the paying public were beginning to come back. The Pat Smullen charity race at last year’s St. Leger day was the best atmosphere I’ve witnessed at the Curragh in years. Pinatubo was breath-taking that day and Search for A Song winning the classic at a double figure price ensured the weekend was profitable for all layers in the ring.
Alas, none of us will get to enjoy this year’s Champions weekend like we would want. From an on course bookmakers point of view its devastating. It’s our chance to put bread on the table. We heard all about hair dressers, the publicans and the aviation industry and their struggles, government rushed to help them with all sorts of grants and re start funding. My colleagues and I have got nothing and have no idea when we will return to work. For us there has been no change from April to September. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the chin up. There aren’t huge amounts of light at the end of the tunnel. Some may call me greedy, selfish etc. but I really do feel we need to get spectators back at sporting events. Too many livelihoods depend on it. I make no apologies for taking this stance infact id be neglecting my business, my family, my profession and my staff I felt any other way. When your ability to earn a living is taken away from you it makes a person feel useless, worthless and sometimes hopeless. You can feel like your letting those on who rely on you down. This year has been brutal.
On a run up to champions weekend or any other major racing festival I usually try and get in the zone a week or so beforehand. Early nights, try and eat reasonably well, no pub etc. just the small things. Some people can work and party simultaneously, for me the big days are too important not to be on top of your game. The money is too big; the stakes are too high. We try and get to the track 3 hours before the first race, get all set up, make sure everything is working. Everyone on the team knows their role at this stage, its important it all runs smoothly, we are fortunate we have excellent people working with us. Even typing this gives me a slight knot in my stomach. My god I miss those big days. A way of life stalled for 6 months now. It doesn’t get any easier as time passes.
I hope the 2020 Irish Champions weekend is as big a success as it possibly can be. Readers of my blog will be aware of my disappointment and frustrations at both Horse Racing Ireland and Association of Irish Racecourses. I feel they have done little or nothing to help on course bookmakers during this pandemic. When the tracks needed support they were quick to seek it from HRI, it’s a pity Association of Irish Racecourses haven’t been as quick to help and support us in our hour of need. The ‘im all right Jack’ attitude hasn’t taken long to come to the fore.
Leaving my grievances aside I hope that the weekend goes well for all involved. HRI, sponsors, Leopardstown and The Curragh put in huge work to run the weekend. Trainers and Jockeys can have season, if not career defining moments at this weekend and for owners it’s the pinnacle of the sport. Without them none of this would be possible. I wish all participants the very best of luck. This is the very best of what Irish racing has to offer. I advise you all to tune in, I guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed.
So instead of early nights, healthy eating and form study I sit here typing this blog at 1 am, drinking tea and iv run out of chocolate biscuits to dip into my mug. I’ll watch the racing this weekend, it’s too good not to but it won’t be easy. If Ghaiyyath is beaten at odds on in the champion stakes, I’ll take the dog for a walk. That would be the final nail in the coffin.
I have no idea when I’ll be back on a racecourse but hopefully its sometime soon. Id nearly even settle for one of those long drives home from Punchestown after doing in my money at this stage!
All the best,