Pádraig Hoare: The Monday Interview: Festival fever Boyles up once more

Four days at Cheltenham in March can dictate how a bookmakers’ business can perform for the entire year, Boylesports’ communications chief Leon Blanche tells Pádraig Hoare

With more than two million bets to be placed with Irish bookmaker Boylesports over four days of the Cheltenham Festival this week, the firm’s 1,700 staff have their work cut out, according to head of communications Leon Blanche.

The Dundalk-headquartered firm is now Ireland’s largest independent bookmaker and with around a 25% share of a hugely competitive market, Mr Blanche says the Cheltenham Festival is its Olympic Games and World Cup rolled into one.

Pádraig Hoare: The Monday Interview: Festival fever Boyles up once more

He estimates the festival’s most prestigious race, the Gold Cup on Friday, will generate 100,000 bets alone in the firm’s 249 shops, with the vast majority coming in the 40 minutes before it begins.

Friday will see 750,000 bets across Boylesports’ 249 shops and their online platforms such as Fon-A-Bet, mobile app and desktop.

“It is, by far, the most important week on the racing calendar and results can be pivotal as to how the company performs for the remainder of the year. Everyone and anyone likes to have a bet at Cheltenham.

“When you look at it in comparison to any other racing festival, nothing comes close to comparing on a business level across the four days. You’ve got five days at Punchestown, you’ve got seven days at Galway, four days at Christmas at Leopardstown — but nothing comes even close to Cheltenham, it is just unique,” said Mr Blanche.

As soon as the festival ended in 2017, preparations began for this year, he added. Ante-post, or future betting, is a popular feature for punters who look for odds on next year’s winners a year out.

Pádraig Hoare: The Monday Interview: Festival fever Boyles up once more

“From our perspective, preparations begin immediately once the festival is finished. We have to formulate our ante post books for the following year as many of our customers are requesting prices for newly crowned champions, to either go and defend their title the following year, or if you have horses running in some of the novice races, a lot will request a price for the Champion Chase the following year. Whenever the flag goes down on 2018, there will be plenty of people looking for prices for 2019.

“It does drop off a little in the summer, when flat racing takes centre stage, but once we come to October, right the way through to the following March, the main focus from a horse racing perspective is Cheltenham,” he said.

Cheltenham means everything for Bolyesports, he said — it means IT investment has to be on point, thousands of euro is spent on more betting slips and pens, while almost all 1,700 staff will row into the effort in some fashion, even those who normally are not involved in the day-to-day running of horse racing.

“In the build-up to the Gold Cup, in that 40 minutes from the preceding race to the off-time of the Gold Cup, that’s when our levels will reach an unprecedented high. There will be 100,000 bets on the Gold Cup in our retail outlets, but over the course of Friday it will be in excess of 750,000. We will well exceed over two million over the four days.

“It’s a hugely exciting time and it gives us all a buzz. Everyone wants to see where our liabilities lie, and the trading room is at fever pitch. It’s enjoyable and stressful, but this is what the business is all about. These are the days you want to be involved in. You need extra everything — from betting pens to betting slips to staff. The battle between bookmaker and punter never ceases to amaze me,” he said.

Pádraig Hoare: The Monday Interview: Festival fever Boyles up once more

Horse racing fans visiting from Ireland spent €22.3m at Cheltenham in 2016 spread across travel, accommodation, tickets and entertainment, according to an economic impact analysis carried out by the University of Gloucestershire on behalf of Cheltenham Racecourse ahead of last year’s festival.

Fans based in Ireland bought 57,375 tickets, or the equivalent of 30% of tickets sold. On average, 14,343 visitors from Ireland attended each day of the four-day festival.

Mr Blanche said Cheltenham is a festival that Irish people feel is theirs as much as Britain’s.

“It’s four tremendous days racing, with 28 races. Irish people associate themselves with national hunt racing. When you’re going over to Cheltenham, there’s that friendly Ireland versus England rivalry. That camaraderie and rivalry is a huge aspect of the festival. It adds to the buzz and excitement when you are over there for the week.

“Then you have the people who want to back an Irish winner. They want to talk about backing a Willie Mullins winner or a Jessica Harrington winner — you have people in betting offices around the country, people enjoying it with friends and family, and the Ireland-England rivalry that sets it apart.

“Ireland had a tremendous Cheltenham last year, with a record 19 winners. To win 19 out of 28 races is phenomenal. I think the uniqueness and the beautiful thing about jump racing is that people build up an affinity with a certain horse and you get to see them for many years.

“What really brings the fascination out in people is watching these horses develop through their careers, much more than you would with a flat horse because they are not around as long.”

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