Christmas, Dublin Racing Festival, Cheltenham, Irish National meeting at Fairyhouse, my Wedding day, Punchestown Festival, the summer racing season.
That is how my calendar looked. Even typing about these events makes the hair stand on the back of my neck. After a grueling set of results in 2019 for the layers, Leopardstown’s Christmas festival finally delivered a few bookmaker friendly results. Then after a tricky day 1 at the Dublin racing festival, day 2 was a day where being a bookmaker feels like it’s the best job in the world. Highs and lows, probably the best way to describe my profession.
While over at the Cheltenham festival, news began to filter through that Irish racing was going to be staged behind closed doors for a short while. I didn’t give it much thought to be perfectly honest. I don’t do Dundalk, Clonmel etc. so this behind closed doors lark wasn’t going to affect me too much or so I thought…..
Fairyhouse was first to go. Bloody hell. Work all year in the place when it is half deserted and now I’m going to miss the big festival. First jolt of reality for yours truly. A few years ago when the famous David Power was retiring, my dad (Brian Snr) told me we have got to go to the pitch auction and try and buy his Fairyhouse pitch. I thought he was crazy. We already have a good pitch why do we need another one that’s only good for a few days a year? In the end we bought it for very small money and yet again Dad proved to be correct. He has a habit of being right! 2,000 tickets Irish National day on the new pitch, it’s organized mayhem but we love it. But this year, eight staff members had no work, we missed out on what can be a lucrative weekend and Fairyhouse missed out on celebrating the 150th running of the Irish National. Ah well let’s hope we are back for Punchestown….
Wedding postponed. Siobhan my fiancé had put in a huge effort into organising the big day. If I’m being honest she did all the organisation. Another setback, but once we both got over the initial disappointment we appreciated we would get our day eventually. Many families were in a far worse situation than us losing loved ones to the dreaded Covid virus. New date selected for the end of the year so let’s hope we are in a much better situation at that stage.
Punchestown gone, same as Fairyhouse, work all year in the place when it’s half deserted and now we lose the big one. It’s now getting worrying. This is my livelihood; these big festivals are what put bread on the table.
RTE news has been banned in my house. George Lee, Simon Harris, Dr. Tony Holohan…. I can’t watch them anymore. I’ve had enough. It’s not their fault, but at the same time it’s easy for them to tell us to wear the green jersey etc. while pulling a lucrative 6 figure income while I’m sitting at home worried about what I’ve put blood sweat and tears into building. This isn’t just my job, it’s my life. I make no apologies for finding them all a little patronising.
Galway gone. S*it. The big one. We purchased Victor Chandlers pitch several years ago and it’s our crown jewel. Galway getting cancelled is the real sucker punch even if I knew it was coming. Hearing it being confirmed was still a dart. I’m numb. Dad is numb. My mother who works so hard with us at all the festivals all over Ireland and never ever minds leaving home in the early hours and coming home in the middle of the night after doing a 16 or 17 hour day in all weathers is down. This is the reality for small family run businesses during this pandemic. Thank god we are all alive and well but if I’m honest it’s hard to keep the chin up on days like this.
I’m trying to keep myself busy. I’m very fortunate to have the farm on my doorstep. Nature has no respect for a pandemic, foals have been born. Mares have been covered by Kingston Hill, Maxios, Order of St George and Capri this year. The first of the lambs were sent for slaughter last Monday…..but my mind keeps wandering back to the racecourse. Last Tuesday I had to put my calendar in the bin. I couldn’t keep looking at where I should be racing. I was only torturing myself.
The western circuit as we call it Roscommon, Ballinrobe, Sligo and Kilbeggan are all playing the waiting game. I hope we can get there at some stage this summer. These tracks are the heartbeat of Irish racing. Ballinrobe on a summers evening should be on everyone’s bucket list. I hope when racing resumes the smaller tracks get a fair crack of the whip from HRI. They didn’t get lazy like some tracks and rely solely on TV media rights money. They have done trojan work and cannot be left behind when racing resumes.
This enforced time out has left me reflecting, there is not really a lot else to do! I now realise how lucky I am to work with my parents every day. I’m pretty sure I took this for granted. Like all family business’ we have our arguments but it’s always for the right reasons. I often think of my fellow bookmakers, most of them the most genuine people I’ve ever known. Due to the nature of our job, a bookmaker will never get much sympathy but these people all have families to rear, mortgages to pay and this pandemic has had an enormous effect on them. We hear the struggles it has caused trainers and jockeys, but we never hear about the oncourse bookmakers. They are not multi national corporations, they are sole traders, family run businesses who despite the common misconception are not all millionaires. They are just a group of normal people who work very hard for a wage and are an integral part of the Irish racing scene. I often think of their staff, hard working loyal men and women who have given their whole lives to the game. Most know nothing else. I hope they are all keeping well and I look forward to seeing them all when we do get to return to a racecourse. You can probably get a sense at this stage we are a close-knit community. Racing is a small circle. Everyone knows everyone. Hard nosed, ruthless business men and women all fighting their corner but there is still a mutual respect between all parties. The same clowns in different towns the great racing photographer Pat Healy calls it. Next time you are racing take a look how much time Davy Russell or Rachael Blackmore will give a child who asks for an autograph, you wouldn’t see it in any other sport. This is unique to racing. It’s people are tough, hard, ruthless. They have to be, but they are humble. The access to the super stars of the sport is amazing and they are all very generous with their time. I encourage you all to get to a racetrack near you once it’s safe to do so.
Racing will resume behind closed doors at some point in June. The quicker it happens the better. It needs to happen. It’s an industry that plays a huge role in rural Ireland providing thousands of jobs. Alas, behind closed doors is no use to on course bookmakers. I hope we can get back with limited crowds at some stage this summer, Listowel in some form and champions weekend. I believe the rule book (pitch rules) for on course bookmakers needs to go into the shredder and be re drawn completely. It’s no secret relationships between the on course bookmakers and Association of Irish Racecourses and HRI haven’t been wonderful since the famous Dundalk case over a decade ago. Truthfully speaking, I don’t think they give a hoot about us. Proposals by the bookmakers to sponsor gates etc. in recent years for lesser meetings were shot down. They just did not want to know. It’s frustrating, very frustrating as I genuinely believe working together we could make the race day experience for the racegoer so much better which would be beneficial to everyone. Irish racing should be achieving so much more than it is.
Going forward like all business people I just don’t know what the future holds. I know things are going to change, it’s those of us that can embrace that change that will survive and prosper. I started offering credit and debit card facilities at all meeting a few years ago and surprisingly the uptake hasn’t been very big. I think punters still love the wad of cash. Will this change after covid? I wouldn’t bet on it but we are prepared if it does. I wanted to change the way I bet on handicaps a few years ago to compete with shops and online competitors. I wanted to bet 5 places 1/5 of the odds rather than 4 places 1/4 the odds on feature race handicaps at big meetings but I was informed it would be a breach of my betting permit issued by HRI. The shop 50 yards from my pitch betting on the VERY same permit were betting 5 places 1/5 of the odds. The playing field has got to be levelled. I think the on course game is going to be even more reliant on weekend racing in winter and festivals and summer racing. Standing out on a wet Tuesday in November doesn’t sound too appealing. We should not be paying pitch fees for those days, currently we are charged the fee even if we don’t attend.
I’m an optimistic person in general. I’m young (31 this year), enthusiastic and very determined to succeed. Failure is not an option. I know I have a product that people want. We provide a valuable service to punters all over Ireland and if I don’t fancy a horse at short odds you won’t get better value anywhere if you want to back it. There’s a reason so many professional punters still drive the length and breadth of Ireland to attend racemeetings to bet with on course bookmakers. We are there to lay a bet, we accommodate all types of punters from the professional to the 2 euro punter, all are welcome. There is no knockbacks or account restrictions, we are a no gimmicks outfit. What you see is what you get.
At this stage you probably are beginning to realise how much I miss going racing! It’s no exaggeration to say that my whole world has been turned upside down in the last 10 weeks. Some people are adapting to restrictions and lockdowns but for me as each day passes the more I miss my job, the sport of racing, the characters and the travelling the length and breadth of Ireland in the van.
We will return eventually but until then mind yourselves. Thankfully it looks like we are through the worst of this bloody pandemic. I hope you enjoyed reading this piece and didn’t find it one long moan!
When you are racing next come up and say Hi, I genuinely do love meeting customers and having a chat and you may even bag yourself an extra point or two on your bet!!!
All the best,
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