On-course bookies face tough hurdles to get back on right track

By Tommy Lyons

[timgcapimported=A large crowd observes proceedings at Listowel last September. ‘The key question isn’t when racing will return, it’s how long social distancing will last,’ says on-course bookmaker Tim Murphy. Picture: Healy Racing]e4b2482c-a4ea-444d-9f66-a90825000969__e5fa987d-9941-401f-94a8-e03aee01053d.jpg[/timgcapimported]

Perhaps hopefully, there is a growing feeling that horse and greyhound racing will return in Ireland in May. That is likely to be the case, but would you like to bet on it?

If so, your options may be limited because that is a different matter altogether. The date remains fluid but what seems certain is that racing behind closed doors will be the method used while the Government strives to find a way to instil confidence in people to get the economy moving. It is going to take time, and that will be reflected in all industrys.

Racing can be no different. If this approach is adopted, there will be no requirement for bars, restaurants, Tote staff or on-course bookmakers at the tracks.

And as ‘social distancing’ is a term we will be hearing long beyond the end of the lockdown it seems most likely betting shops will not be given the go-ahead to reopen in tandem with racing’s return. And that must have a financial knock-on effect for the tracks, many of which depend upon the revenue from the live pictures.

Tim ‘Spike’ Murphy, who has been licensed to stand at the greyhound tracks since 1974 and horse racing meetings a couple of years later, is expecting a difficult time for the on-course layers as they await the resumption of their trade.

“The key question isn’t when will racing return, it’s how long social distancing will last?” said Murphy. “There was a small fraction of a recovery for on-course bookies last year, with figures up from the previous year, but this is a huge setback — I hope it’s not the killing of on-course bookmaking.

“There will be no work there for us for the foreseeable future and by the time it happens, you have to wonder what state the economy will be in.

“When we are given the green light, I imagine some of the bookmakers won’t return.

“Look at the age profile of people going into the tracks, particularly those midweek meetings. You certainly don’t see that many young people. Not alone are we to wonder how long before we can all return, but also many punters will be slow to return to places with a crowd.

“When set-up costs, staff, and other expenses are factored in, it won’t be viable for on-course bookmakers.

“Forgetting about results, which don’t matter anyway if you aren’t doing the turnover, meetings like this will be a loss leader.

“As the current situation goes on, people’s attitudes to many things, including money, are changing more and more. This is the leisure industry and the casual fella no longer has the money to spend on it, while the publican, the restaurateur, garage owner, and many more like them have had their income murdered. You can’t get all these shows back on the road if the economy can’t sustain them.”

For many years, as online bookmakers sprung up everywhere, it has been difficult to attract punters to bet on the tracks, with many happier to bet through the smartphones. And it looks as though it will only get tougher for the layers.

“Society seems to be moving towards using cards rather than cash,” added Murphy. “I was in Newbury for the Hennessy meeting and went into one of the bars for a drink with a couple of friends. It wasn’t one of the more exclusive bars or anything like it, and when I took out a £20 note to pay for the drinks, I was told they didn’t take cash, only cards.

“That’s more prevalent in Britain at the moment. You can bet with your card with some on-course bookmakers here, but it doesn’t work at a busy meeting. It is laborious, and not a great system for punters rushing to take a price, nor bookies trying to take bets. How often have you or the person in front of you in the queue in a shop tried to pay for something with a card, only for it to fail a couple of times before going through?”

Murphy is right. Take Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium as a perfect example. It’s a cashless environment and, one of the benefits put forward is that it is a more hygienic way of making transactions, with staff not handling notes and coins, one can assume that the ease with which Covid-19 has spread will result in a global push to make this the norm.

The last few months have shifted the goalposts of what ‘the norm’ is and, in a sector which has been struggling, this latest test might be the most unwelcome.

“When we finally return, tracks need to make a concerted effort to get people through the turnstiles, whether that be letting them in at reduced rates and giving them a race card, or whatever else they can do,” added Murphy. “It isn’t going to be easy, but the tracks need to get creative in a bid to get people back through the turnstiles.

“The last thing we need is for horse racing to go the way greyhound racing has gone here and in Britain.

“Whereas one time there might have been 10 and even 20 bookmakers standing at many of the greyhound stadia in Ireland, there are now only two or three. At one time there were 18 tracks in the greater London area and now there are none. And greyhound tracks continue to close over here.

“These are difficult times. Horse Racing Ireland will need to come on board and give relief to the bookmakers, whether that be in pitch fee reductions or whatever other system they can devise to help. It will be desperately needed if bookmakers are to survive.

“The best of the year, and most of the festivals, will be gone by the time we return. It has to be remembered that there are still many people depending on the industry for their livelihood. What we need now more than ever is for everyone to pull together to get us all out of the mire.”

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