A battle on–course bookmakers simply must win

LAST Friday night at Fairyhouse may well mark a watershed in the efforts of on-course bookmakers in Ireland to actually survive in this game.

It centred on their refusal to work for the first race after Ladbrokes, who run the on-course betting shop, decided to accept wagers on the Fairyhouse meeting.

Prior to Fairyhouse you were not allowed to take single bets in an on-site shop on the home meeting.

In the wake of the controversy, Ladbrokes', Michael O'Kane, was quoted as saying: “We have the full approval of Horse Racing Ireland to take singles.

“Bookmakers operating on-course betting shops have an agreement with HRI to take singles on the home meeting. This is an HRI initiative and when we spoke to HRI they had no problem with on-course betting shops taking singles.”

Personally, I would have been amazed if that was HRI's attitude and, sure enough, chief executive of that organisation, Brian Kavanagh, was quickly out of traps. He was quoted as saying the following: “It is untrue for Ladbrokes to say they have the approval of HRI to accept single bets and it also untrue that there is an agreement in place with bookmakers who run on-course betting shops to take single bets on the home meeting.”

Gas isn't it and you really have to ask the question how Ladbrokes got this so wrong, or is there far more to the affair than meets the eye?

On-course bookmakers, those who stand on boxes and risk their own money, have never faced such competition. The exchanges, the likes of Betfair and Betdaq, have taken a huge amount of money out of circulation.

Morning prices too are important and many punters increasingly do much of their business before arriving at a meeting.

It naturally follows that the world of betting on horse racing has undergone a massive change over the past decade or so. The exchanges, relative to what the layers can muster, can often offer much inflated odds. Betting offices were once just about the unhealthiest place you could be. And I'm not talking about the now banned smoking.

No, many of us can remember a time when you paid 20% for the privilege of having a bet. You couldn't win in the long run lumping that on top.

But those days are long gone. There's no tax anymore and there's the double-result, which should never be underestimated.

On-course bookmakers know they are facing an uphill struggle. I would hate to be regarded as any sort of apologist for them, but it is mighty important they win this battle.

It is absolutely vital for Irish racing that the betting ring remains vibrant, colourful and, above all, strong.

You only have to go racing in a country where bookmakers do not operate to realise what a boring game this can be. If Ladbrokes are given the green light, the rest will immediately follow, to accept bets on the home meeting then it is only a matter of time before they bring in the double-result on course.

And if that happens on-course bookmakers may as well draw down the shutters, because it would be lunacy to bet with them rather than the shop on-site.

On-course layers will never be able to bet double-result, it would be financial suicide. It's not a big deal to the likes of Ladbrokes, Paddy Power and many of the rest.

I'll tell you why. Those firms make huge profits literally every year and taking the odd hit here and there is no big deal.

They know their shops are littered with mug punters, many of whom can't distinguish between a 40-60 handicap and a Group One.

Buckets of mug punters equal massive profits. You do not have to be one of those firm's accountants to work that out.

There is far less mug money on the racecourses of Ireland. An on-course bookmaker who ends the year with a decent profit will almost certainly have earned his corn.

Apparently discussions are on-going between the relevant parties involved. I will be shocked if HRI nods in favour of bookmakers who want to take bets at a home meeting in their on-site shops.

I can see no need whatsoever for such a change in current policy. It would further weaken the betting ring, possibly beyond repair, and that would be bad for racing.

Obviously, bookmakers have to help themselves, price their boards earlier, play the game as far as percentages in the way they bet are concerned and, generally, attempt to give a better service.

But that's a discussion for another day. Allowing the likes of Ladbrokes to bet on the home meeting would be a serious development.

It would call for racecourses to build some huge betting shops on their tracks, because that's where most of the betting public would want to be.

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