Champions Day – The Bookies view..

 

 

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A few years ago the Emperor of Jockey Club surveyed his tracks in response to a grand plan from British Racing for a season’s end panto. Cheltenham seemed too bumpy and that of grotesque tweed, ohh no. Newmarket can’t stand kids, hard to find, even with Google maps. Kempton is quite simply a nasty little shack, full of dead flies. He decided he’d make more cash if they went along with the plan to create a season ending bash, at which the finest Port and cheese would, of course, be served. Ascot had been busy building a structure so vast in stature, it created it’s own weather pattern. If you’re going to have a jolly event, it’s important you have a Swinley Bottom. Or Bottoms.

Let’s get the humble pie bit out of the way-I prattled on, along with a few other lesser mortals, that the timing needed revision. The fact remains the whole shebang was saved by the very participation of one horse. Frankel. Had he not bothered turning up in 2012 i believe, the BHA think tank would have been meeting to reconsider upsetting the our froggie friends by moving it back a month. I still believe that’s the best option if we are to secure participation of faster ground animals, but I was outvoted by people wearing waist coats and deerstalkers.

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Anyway, they threatened Teddy Grimthorpe with violence, and Frankel duly turned up. The party was saved along with a few jobs at Great British Racing. Ascot was the right venue. It has the infrastructure, class and grandeur to organise an end of season bash and serves drinks in a real glass. It’s been blessed with much better weather over the last few years, and with that the arrival of some of the top equine stars to entertain us. We can all be a toff for the day at Ascot..

Even the French send over the odd runner. Foreign equine stars are my absolute pension. Ridden by Thierry’s and Moet’s. All who think they can turn in to the Ascot straight, 6 lengths back, and possibly win. Mais Non, Espece de Cretin..

I quaffed a few glasses and joined the great unwashed in the betting ring. and the big bets were flying about. £3000 and £2000 on Order Of St George and a number of notably lumpy wagers set the tone. It was down and dirty and they didn’t seem to care if I lost.. David Power gave me some fun money for O’Brien’s star. He’s no shrinking violet when it comes to betting. My eyes were stinging, not the kind of bet you get with the Supermarket operators.. St George wasn’t however the only one they came for, Stradivarius was popular and a few saddos backed the French runner.. I should have discovered betting in running..St George touched 33/1 with the Bot traders.

Whilst Harry’s thingy was popular in the sprint, one other horse swamped my book. A fellah I recognised as a warm order, stuffed £3000 in my hand and said ‘put that on horse 5.’  I checked the board. Tasleet – 14/1. ‘Don’t you mean Harry’s?’. No, I’m sure, Tasleet. To win 42 grand.

I threw the money into the bag as if i stood such bets every day of the week. I gave David Power an interest with a £10,000/£700 for being such a nice fellah. He didn’t bat an eyelid. I got on with standing the favourite for a threatening lump. The race looked all over at the two marker with Harry’s sauntering along, – to suddenly be pressed by this Hamdam thing..my big chance lay in the whip, Hamdam doesn’t take to the whip for his stars, two cracks and out, the order of the day. Fortunately. I survived the race this time, back in front.

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I spot Lord Gosden in the walkway, surrounded by 20 or so press folk. ‘Tell us what you had for breakfast John, for the fans you understand..’
‘well I’m rather partial to kippers’ JG replied, in his most aristocratic tone, and they all looked excited. scribbling away. The Gosden accent bothers me. I know John’s public school, and they don’t talk like that. He’s done a study course in phwah phwah and taken the Missus along, so they can converse appropriately.

What he can do, is train. If they stuck a Galileo in his yard covering everything we’d be celebrating 25 English group ones (or you English would) He also strikes me as rather a decent sort, batting for a bit of fair play.

Chapman was also in the ring. Wearing some kind of welly boots, and blanking me for dissing the Opening Show. Even though he was caught on camera dozing off by all 32 viewers. ITV is a paradox, their Opening Show is quite dismal, their afternoon show is, I have to say it, great. I think what they do so much better than Channel 4 is deliver it with style, if not with the Channel 4 quality of production, but that’s quibbling. Everyone looks smart, and everything is great. If you bought the ‘it’s great’ on Sporting Index, you’d be worth one Oppenheinmer…

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But Champions Day is great. And so equally have so many of this season’s flat events. In said regard, ITV is totally appropriate. There are those that say I’m hopelessly in love with Francesca Cumani, but that’s a total exageration..

Nice mix on ITV with the intelligent Weaver and Brough Scott brought back from the dead (literally) Cumani’s accuracy with horse action and Chamberlin’s style. Nice, it works for me. Chapman eternally entertaining, he makes me laugh and offers balance, but don’t tell him that, his ego is insufferable. Somewhere in the mix I hope they find jobs for Luck and Cunningham. If you’re committed to the best, then have the best in some capacity.

Viewing figures suggested a half a million, far short of the BBC ideal we were supposed to be treated to. Here you have to blame racing for its failures. Simply far too many opportunities for horses like Enable, Ulyssees and Cracksman to square off. You think it doesn’t matter? Of course it does. Far too often television companies showcasing this sport are presented with half the available participants for a top race. Too many group ones, too many countries failing to co-operate and not enough stars. Cracksman hasn’t raced since York, swerved the Arc and the Breeders and its a miracle if he trains on as a 4 year old it’s a miracle as right now he’s worth as much as his Dad. The National Hunt is in terminal decline because we ignore this cancer. A sport that denies the paying public the best squaring off can’t hope for top viewing audiences when the other channel is showing Manchester United vs Liverpool.

Cracksman strolls onto the field for the main event, balls gently swaying in the wind. Let’s deal with any blithering idiots reading this. If you think Enable would have downed this machine with her far more workmanlike Arc performance, you’ve taken total leave of your senses. He destroyed a top class field, as indeed he did in the Dante. This is the best I’ve seen since his Papa. He would have danced all over the filly. FACT.

I’m sure we can look forward to Enable and Cracksman squaring off as four year olds. Not.

I stood Cracksman for an appropriate amount, – and lost an appropriate amount. Ryan Moore, who’d been brilliant all day, when not under a microphone, drove Highland Reel up Sunninghill High Street. In truth his chances on rain softened ground were limited. The French nags were, predictably, hopeless, and Barney Roy, popular in the ring was held up at the back, and stayed at the back. Two Enables wouldn’t have beaten Cracksman.

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I deposited some more money with the punters in the last as the favourite came from another planet to upset the day. I enjoyed some of the Ascot atmosphere with friends before leaving, observing thousands having a great time watching a couple of nice bands. No trouble, well stewarded, a lot of very smart folk enjoying a well rounded event. And yes, Newmarket, children actually do go free. Were I to offer one suggestion to Ascot, it’s to install some kind of sub air system to Swinley Bottom, the one area that jeopardizes meetings and diverts runners.

It’s a success. I don’t say that about the National Hunt, expect a few broadsides, but its been an excellent flat season and I believe we are heading in the right direction there. Ascot knows its job and British Racing got this one right.

Pass the sherry someone? Will they make me a steward now??

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Douvan – or not Tourun

We’ve somehow come to expect as normal the practice of avoidance in racing. Potentially the sport’s biggest star will sit out this week’s Tingle Creek. Not because of ground concerns, low sun, or an eclipse of Jupiter’s 3rd moon. Quite simply there are other opportunities for the horse and a clash with Un De Slow doesn’t appeal to Willie Mullins. Willie simply doesn’t race his best stock against each other. Period.

Now, when I scream the place down about said policy, I’m met with three responses. The sheep say nothing. There are those that have made money backing Willie’s charges who will hear no wrong because he’s lined their pockets. And there are those who fundamentally disagree with this trio of self-serving individuals.

Namely Mullins, Ricci, and Walsh.

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Of course, nobody should be surprised at Rich Ricci. The flamboyant banker who’s trousered a great deal of our money, now sees a cheap opportunity to dominate a sport. And for him it is pennies. On ATR’s excellent ‘on the line’ show – Chapman gently chided Ricci on his tactics. Douvan and the Gold Cup was briefly discussed. You could see Rich visibly wincing at the prospect of risking his star against the likes of Thistlecrack.

Let’s fairly the blame for racing’s issues with top races not fulfilling their potential squarely at the foot of these men. Fine Mullins can train, Walsh can ride, Rich can bank the odd cheque. Those of you thinking they’re heroes for delivering us such quality animals, consider this. Were the likes of Douvan, Annie Power, Faugheen, Arctic Fire or the ill fated Vautour owned by differing persons, as opposed to the hands of one man, would we be more or less likely to see at least three of these performers in the one race – the Champion Hurdle, where they clearly should be competing? Did the trio not pull out Vautour from his intended target, claiming he hadn’t worked sufficiently well, yet to place him in the far lesser Ryanair to provide yet another opportunity for the lads to stand on the podium?

I note Ricci persuaded his own betting company to refund Vautour gold cup backers, after he maintained GC was the no 1 target. Those who wagered with other companies appeared less lucky. Perhaps Rich you should refund them?

Imagine you were an owner targeting your mildly lesser animal for the Mares race and Annie Power turns up, or Vautour in the Ryanair. How are such important sponsors of the sport advantaged, encouraged? Would you expect to face the Champion Hurdler elect? It’s time for Cheltenham to impose a ceiling in ratings on the participation of certain horses in such events, for the sake of those essential smaller owners, and yes competitiveness.

Who recalls Ruby Walsh’s indignant stance on Channel 4 when I dared to criticise the policy on Quevega, and her participation in a race several grades below her potential. A grade one winning mare running in the lowest rated race. A sham and no mistake.

Cast your mind back just a few years. If Paul Nicholls were to adopt similar policy, we would never have been treated to Neptune Collonges vs Kuato Star vs Denman so many times. It simply would not have happened

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If the leading jump owner of our generation, the amiable and shy JP MacManus, adopted said policy, many races over a decade would have been trashed. To be fair a great deal of racing’s top owners, Sheikh Mohammed, Abdullah, Magnier, and O Leary have provided exactly that- competition. They race their horses in the grade appropriate to their ability.

If Lewis Hamilton dropped to Formula 3, or Andy Murray to the challenge tour, surely you’d think that odd? If you bought a ticket to see Manchester United and Alex Ferguson declared they could only play Liverpool in the cup final, refused to play anyone but Scunthorpe and kept Giggs and Cantona on the bench-  would you not have been angered by his lack of ambition?

For these reasons, the denial to the sport from this trio of racing their best in the correct race or grade has to be criticised, and often. I’m thoroughly tired of those fawning to individuals so bent on self at the expense of the sport. Douvan will head to Cork in a meaningless exercise. Once again the regulator(s) are failing the sport in allowing promotion seeking owners to work the system. No grade 1 horse should be permitted in such lesser grades. It weakens the fabric of ownership, competitiveness and betting turnover.

When I read of Ruby Walsh, a genius in the saddle, but sour as a lemon out, telling bookmakers what nonsense it is to offer Douvan at 5/1 for the Tingle Creek,  I genuinely wonder if he realises just what a giant hypocrite he is. One of the architects of avoidance in the sport. Part of the problem, telling us we’re fools because we can’t second guess his team. He’ll jump off Douvan to ride Un De Sceaux, by the way.

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The solution is to tell Ruby Walsh to do his talking in the saddle.

Incidentally, if you had £20 on Douvan at 5/1 to win the Tingle Creek – you’d lose £20. His next outing will be at 1/8 odds at Cork. If you joined the gamble, to whatever level, you’ve lost your money. And the blame for that lies squarely at the door of Mullins. He declared the horse right up to the last hour.If you backed Un De Sceaux at 4/1, I fancy you’re kissing Willie’s backside.

If you bought a ticket at Sandown expecting to see one of these great stars turn up, you’re likely disappointed. I welcome the decision of Michael O Leary to remove his team from WM, it can only serve racing. Fans mean less to this trio than a podium in March, and it’s time to call them out, not apologise for, tactics so damaging to the sport.

The BHA – Acting in the best interests of Racing or Stakeholders?

It’s become routine these days to hear and read informed commentators, pundits, industry experts discussing the issue of small fields in racing, indeed last year the BHA undertook an expensive consultation into fixture levels in an attempt to combat the issue of small fields and lack of competitiveness in racing.

The result? More fixtures in 2015

BHA announces races attracting small fields will be deleted from the programme

The result? No races removed, a three month trial period suddenly introduced, and one deleted race restored in the face of opposition from horsemen

9 new board members with little, or no experience running racing, at the BHA. Two of these new directors have been appointed to ‘bed in’ six of the others. Tell me you’re joking, or have the stakeholders grabbed two important ‘blockers’ on the board?

The BHA announces the scrapping of small field events to address the appeal of the sport.

The result? The BHA backs down in the face of opposition from the trainers involved in the race and the NTF. It goes further in placing an NTF official to the BHA Board. I’m sure he’ll be supportive of an initiative which followed an expensive consultation.

What’s the value in an authority that doesn’t govern the sport with its best face in mind? Someone tell me.

After the removal of the best politician we’ve ever had in charge, Paul Bittar, from the equation we’re left with an entiely new board, in every sense of the word. Opposing these new directors – the stakeholders. Betting, Owners, trainers and racetracks and their interests. And they’re clearly out for what’s best for them, even if the sport cannot progress

Do you care? Or would you classify yourself as one of the silent apathetic ones- to criticise the sport is wrong, it’s just not done. To my mind, constructive criticism is a requirement and you should get involved and stop taking the guided tour

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Quite what the Australian did wrong or whether he had just had enough is unclear. Nobody is asking the question. I didn’t always see eye to eye with Bittar during his tenure, I’m always going to take issue with the pace of change, but it’s clear he shared many of the same concerns. Particularly in regards to ‘stakeholders’ and their negative impact on the sport, and integrity issues relating to low funded racing we seem determined to produce more thereof.  He was capable of pulling the disparate parties together given time. Continue reading “The BHA – Acting in the best interests of Racing or Stakeholders?”

Cheltenham Open Festival- The Bookies Eye

I know the National Hunt season doesn’t really end with Aintree, it burbles on without it’s stars through the summer. I’d like to see it curtailed for a month – perhaps in June when Racing is so resplendent with riches such as Ascot and Epsom. For me, though, the season really starts with Cheltenham’s excellent ‘Open’ Meeting.

It needs a new title, because Open doesn’t do it justice, and we need Festivals in the winter, perhaps they should call it ‘The Tweed’ – it’s the only venue which accepts folk in that ridiculous garb. Children point and stare  – you can’t blame them..

For me, it’s suits. I pack several to go with the alternating seasons Prestbury affords us. I pick up the delightful Miss King and head off into the rainstorm. I talk, she texts her boyfriends and updates her facebook. It’s an odd relationship. I’ve become dull

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There will be a few of you who accuse me of using sex to sell betting tickets. All true. Don’t write to your MP or call the cops. I admit it.

We stop at what used to be the Hotel De La Bere, to pad JP’s income.  I read the paper, Stephanie has a text argument with one of her spotty friends. The office bombard me with calls, on bets we shouldn’t be laying. Disappointingly for a Bookie who works indoors at 72 degrees ambient, the sun has come out, and will wreck my takings

The bastard.

Friday isn’t as busy as Saturday for the Bookies. We work hard at offering a service not only at Cheltenham, but at the ‘away’ meetings. I’m glad I had Mick and Vicky dedicated to paying out, because Wolverhampton was on.  Hitler should have bombed Dunstall, I wouldn’t have minded speaking German then.What I made at Cheltenham, i gifted back to those betting at Wolverhampton. The decent people of Jockey Club stop by for a chat, they’re comfortable in the product and with good reason. People vote with their feet, the attendances are good, and racing needn’t always be seen as a vehicle for the Ladbrokes Life. JCR are experts at Festival meetings and I admire their sense of decency.

I’d like one day to persuade this influential body to see exchanges outlawed from bookie software on course , it’s a thorough cancer on service, and emptying the sport of money it deserves. Make sure you support me here if you value the flavour of the betting ring or I will ignore you at parties.

As a sidebar, people who bet at the All Weather don’t wear tweed, they’re known as bonus junkies. They scout around for ‘free bets’, – never go racing, – just sit at home in their underpants ‘greening up’. Sand racing is for camels, but we’re stuck with it, it seems. Don’t blame me, I can’t stop the fascination with grunge. Saville is a sick man, he’s hoping Jesus makes a comeback and performs a loaves and fishes trick on field sizes, with rocking horses to bolster poor fields. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear 68 fixtures being awarded to Comet 506b  (taken from York.) I mean it does have the perfect racing surface..

It’s not busy on friday, so Mick finds time for a hug. He’s a charmer and ‘The Rinser’ doesn’t work that hard. Here’s one of her, not on her phone, with my main man

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Friday night is a predictably boozy night in a gorgeous country pub. Everyone tells stories, – mostly lies. My favourite is telling everyone I was in the SAS, which I think everyone believes. Mick orders the fishcakes and is crestfallen when they offer us free fishcakes, by way of canapes, at the bar. He doubles up anyway.

Saturday dawns, The Morning Line tips all the favourites, Paddy Power makes me chuckle and the show hums along in entertaining style. They have someone on from Timeform, I’m glad he didn’t launch into an explanation of ‘Sectionals’ – probably gagged I expect. I wish people would stop whining about Ch4, we’re all so damned fussy about what we want to see, and my good friend Barry Orr and his x ray specs represent good value as a stand up comic 🙂

We arrive early at the track, the crowd looks substantial. Entrance fees are very fair, the track looks the business. Cheltenham is the class of National Hunt. Except for those odd plastic beakers they dosh out to customers in their lovely Golden Miller bar. The only mild blemish for me. I give the catering boss a hard time for flogging me an £85 bottle of Veuve in a kiddie cup. He tells me glasses are a health and safety issue. I ask him what the champagne comes in. He says he will feedback my comments..

The Centaur has a brash new screen, 6 hard working Bookies, the Magic Sign and Tote. They serve clods of Guiness, so everyone has their bet, farts and leaves us with the smell. I suppose given the results that’s about fair. We massage a victory. It’s very busy. Do we bet a bit better than outside? Yes we do, a half a point here and there, but we’re in business and our focus is service, not begging a bet. Besides, most traders outside don’t understand the concept of ‘sustainable margin.’ Punters are a fair lot. They just want to be treated with respect and I find most would rather they found Bookmakers who lay a fair bet and pay up with a smile. We don’t do ten pound offers, we leave that to the really BIG bookies. I’d see that outlawed when I’m in charge

We take just over 2000 bets, we don’t have any hedges, they’re for gardens. Results go in favour of the punters but I catch a break with one favourite actually winning me money and I walk away heavier than when i arrived as the punters clap me out. We peel off the bets as fast as we can and try to pay out with the same alacrity where possible. A customer with his money in my pocket isn’t wagering in the next. Punters climb over the weak and infirm to get on, experienced pensioners trample young fit men to get on. As far as we know we didn’t lay any 17 year old Gambling Commission stoodges any bets. But you can’t be too sure..they’ll write to me I expect. I don’t fancy my chances with Mrs Williams

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There’s no other way to describe the Racing on offer than exhilarating. Horses that looked done in, walked all over, came back to win or held on. We were lucky with one of Geraghty’s- Druid’s Nephew, who ran too free and got under his fences, but jumping is the game. Cheltenham tends to offer some of the most unpredictable finishes in the Sport. Some horses turn in going easy and flop, and others, like Caid Du Berlais, whose jockey supplanted whip for cattle prod. It’s the very soul of National Hunt racing. I understand why the track dominates the code.

I recall one slightly inebriated looking fellah who walked up to me, gambling commission plant methinks. I lay him a bet.

‘tenner each way on Budweiser’ he slurred, displaying his opt out of gambling forever card

‘Don’t you mean Buywise Sir?’

‘Err, yeah, sorry, er, repetition, you know, – been drinking for four days, – where am I?’

He loses his money. Well, to be fair, 13 year olds shouldn’t be betting- and no mistake..

A couple of suggestions to friends in charge to improve the quality of winter racing. Do away with both Jumpers bumpers on the all weather, as well as ‘racecourse gallops’. It’s time to force the stars back to work in races which struggle for quality entrants. I know you’re all looking at each other round the board table at that one.

Saturday night is predictably good, another beautiful Cotswold pub and a few bottles of the firm’s champagne to reward the team for looking after my clients. They guzzle as if its their last, particularly ‘The Rinser’

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Sunday is predictably quiet, although the racing remains competitive. The day starts with the shock news of Dessie Hughes’ passing. A minutes silence is strictly observed as we watch replays of the mighty Hard Eustace, as if we needed reminding! Many Bookies turned their boards off and I didn’t hear anyone talking in the ring. A great tribute to a legend.

One odds on chance at the meeting is all,  a load of great finishes, punters and bookmakers alike celebrated a great trainer, the gate staff are the same people the track has employed for years, the views remain beautiful, – the Open became a showcase for two decent fellahs, Phillip Hobbs and Richard Johnson. Little wonder the season tends to revolve around this jewel in the Cotswolds

Put fifty pounds in the box on your way out. Thanks

Six more fixtures

I don’t want to bore you with statistics, sometimes they can prove meaningless, but there’s one stat that cannot be ignored in the sport we hold so dear. From 2008-2014, the horse population has declined by 1600, around 10%, that’s to say horses in training. In the same period – the number of races has grown by 15%. I hesitate to coin the phrase ‘the net result thereof’ – but you have to admit there appears a strong correlation in these two figures. More races – less horses..

Next year- six more fixtures. I want to make clear from the outset, I was given more than fair opportunity by the British Racing Authority to state the case on behalf of those of us who believe there’s simply too much racing. I was simply out-voted, or failed to press my arguments, indeed I think it’s fair to say my view stood pretty much alone in the face of data and reports compiled by important racing entities, to include the Racecourse Association, Arena leisure and Jockey Club. Racecourse Media Group, and Attheraces. The Levy Board also support the current level, based on data provided by big betting.

The consultation group doesn’t include any elements of Betting..

The aforementioned ‘pick five’ of racing (excluding Bet365, who oddly declined any participation, perhaps they don’t see us as serious?) Ladbrokes, Betfred, Coral, William Hill, Betfair broadly agreed with the current levels. This, despite their complaints on field sizes, elements of planning with competing fixtures devaluing certain races they sponsor, quite understandable, – that .

As to the influential Horseman’s Group? I honestly don’t know where they stand.

The BHA? As usual they get the blame, despite only controlling 200 odd fixtures themselves. One has to bear in mind, the OFT stripped the body of its powers in effect, and this is the result. I believe they definitely favour a reasonable cut. After all, the consultation was their plan. They weren’t prepared for the various stake holders to play rough, with spurious claims as to what any kind of cull would cost, without mind to the potential benefits in a raising of the bar on quality.

The sport is losing TV viewers and racegoers midweek. Bookmakers are the dominant sponsors, even if some view that as distasteful. Cheltenham lost six sponsors for their major festival races alone.  The margin in betting has seriously declined, so has racing’s market share of the betting cake and lay to lose is a cancer on the sport. I’m sure racing’s most important group of tracks would prefer to move to a more balanced sponsors book given the pervasive influence of betting, but can’t find sufficient alternate companies at the current time. After all our tv networks and newspapers are literally stuffed with adverts from gaming empires. I’m aware some of you don’t care, nor understand the long term impact of this. But a full moon is coming.

Ladbrokes, one of the largest operators in betting worldwide, have already told you of their concern as to the viability of racing as a betting product. Were you listening, or did you put it down to their failures as a company to deliver a competitive digital platform?

In order for the BHA to ‘monetise’ the sport abroad, to betting, and to new sponsors, they must deliver on field sizes, and control the level of ‘grunge’ – low quality racing put on exclusively for betting, and stop the tendency for our best meetings to compete with England vs Moldova. An instant fail.

The critical Asian market, we base some of our Levy upon, bases itself on numbers betting, – often backing several in a race. The odds permit this kind of play. How does that fit with a five runner race at Southwell? Indeed, of what interest are such events to our betting public – other than the professional players? None. Of course, I’m painfully aware to some track bosses this is of no importance right now, but change is coming with the new media rights negotiations.

In the face of the spirit of change from the Authority, Arena leisure have threatened legal action.  Yes folks, the same group who benefitted from the whole Good Friday concession is now holding the sport to ransom over their demands for a gothically dull floodlit mile for predominately low class horses at Gosforth Park. In much the same way as Pat Cosgrave was delivered back to racing – by lawyers, and their assertions. Tracks aren’t about to permit any reduction in their share of a media rights cake that has seen Bookmakers pay more than a hundred million more in recent times in fees to racing, with racetracks the primary beneficiary, and they’re not going to let a good thing go lightly..

We’ve reacted to the threat to field sizes by actually increasing the number of fixtures. Hard to believe it’s true. One is bound to question the purpose behind expensive consultation processes, other than to witness a circling of the wagons from ‘stakeholders.’ They simply refuse to countenance change, even if its utterly clear this is exactly what the sport requires to prosper.

The consultation discussed the removal of races that attracted low turnouts midweek. What’s wrong with that? It also discussed reducing the grade in certain races, to grow field sizes because we have more horses of very poor quality. This is to embark on a programme of lowering the overall quality of the programme still further. That wouldn’t be my choice, but I believe there are those who would use rocking horses if it made up a race.

All weather is on the increase, despite poor attendances, which adequately demonstrate the public have no appetite for it. The fare is largely unappealing. Racetracks focus our jewels in a one hour slot on Saturdays, often opposing more popular sports such as soccer. The midweek continues to be run down to the extreme. Sunday night racing, distressingly, has now appeared on the calendar. Nobody trumpeted that. Hardly surprising.

Few of these measures are customer focussed or about increasing quality. They evidence of an Authority boxed in the corner. Placed there by the office of fair trading. What a mess they made, ignorants with clipboards.

I’m fully aware though, there’s a strong body of fans and insiders who believe the current volume of the sport is farce.  That to prune the programme by less than 1% and move a few races about won’t change things much. It’s a view I’ve heard many times from my customers, read constantly on social networking. Most of these views are the punters of course. The vital stakeholders group in racing who don’t have a seat at the top table, as things stand currently. They are joined though by a few brave souls from the training ranks, and some well intentioned journalists.

As we keep lowering the bar on quality, we make the whole thing just that bit less interesting to bet on. The USA has seen a dramatic decline in interest and betting in the sport. Excessively dull as a product. That’s precisely where we’re heading. Believe it’s true. The global data is fully at odds from that argued by the Levy Board and Betting.

Of course, I know we can offer some superb product, and accept we can’t always have group ones. Anyone at Ascot last weekend on British Champions Day can only be thoroughly impressed by the event. Cheltenham, Aintree, York and Goodwood showcase the best of Racing. Horseracing in Britain can be utterly superb at times. I want no mistake made that I have the utmost faith in the sport. Yet we seem to be choosing the route as driven by big betting, and backed up by their highly questionable data. I don’t want to dwell on the tracks themselves. If they’re paid to race in front of empty stands, they will do just that. It’s a business. They will inevitably favour the current level. Many have impressive debt levels to service.

People are persuaded by betting by two very simple phrases. ‘Every race contributes to the Levy’ and ‘if we don’t provide racing when the punters are in the shops, we will simply sell rival products.’ Data is brought out to back up this argument. As a colleague correctly pointed out, it’s hard to take the argument for a cut in the volume of racing forward when the data appears to show we could lose substantially from any cut in the programme. I argue in a different vein. No data has been produced, nor analysed, to show what would happen to the sport’s finances were we to embark on a programme which raised the overall bar on quality. No figures have been produced to show that in fact were we to raise the average field sizes by just one – from the current average of 7 to 8 horses a race, that the extra business we would ‘field’ would more than balance any loss in the total volume. Horses would seek other opportunities.

I hope I have made that simple point well.

Let me explain big betting for those who do not understand it. No, I’m not here to discuss those who ‘get on.’ Broadly speaking, what the multiples desire is ‘product’ – lots of it. The successful supergiant will deliver as many betting opportunities as they can in an hour. Racing is marginalised as a product in comparison to gaming, which is the engine of their businesses, and other sports such as soccer. The actual number of races put on every week, make the sport relatively inexpensive to bookmakers in real terms, and they generate noise and footfall in the LBO’s. They get so many spins of the wheel. Anyone who’s remotely threatening in the modern betting environment is closed down with alacrity.

What’s our future? I believe the data rights deals racetracks have enjoyed likely heftily squeezed by the bookmakers, and we will see racetracks close.  The bookmakers simply carry far more commercial nous. Midweek racing most weeks has simply collapsed. Even our finest races ‘carve up’ between a select few, whilst lesser owners struggle at the cost of keeping their horse as the balance between prize money at the highest level and most of the programme is thoroughly disproportionate We can make more of the product.

We can grow, by embarking on a programme to cull more fixtures and move the overall quality and competitiveness right of centre. How many of you are prepared and supportive of the battle the BHA faces in forcing change, or to contribute financially towards a more interesting programme? The simple fact of life – we need a robust BHA, thoroughly in charge of what’s best for Racing. How vocal will you be in support of the surgery we actually require? I don’t see many leaders. We need a few more prepared to serve the sport and not eat its lunch.

Racetracks are feeding off rich machine based pickings from Betting, whilst many fixtures deliver a very poor product much of the time. Their focus has to be in deliverance of a better product for bettors. Not holding their hand out because 8 races makes more money than 7. Poor thinking

If I’m ever asked to stand to post and serve the sport I love in a capacity other than pricing up races, by people who seek and desire constructive change, I shall of course, but will evidently have to climb over a few stakeholders on the way! Geoff Banks October 2014

Cheltenham – The bee all and end all?

Cheltenham – The Bookies Eye

The National Hunt Festival is the one event in Racing’s calendar which means the same to the Bookie as it does to the Punter. It’s about the gambling, pure and simple. Of course there are a few folk running around in tweed, they can’t wear anywhere but Cheltenham. You know the type, they drift out to watch Sprintre Sacre defeat a field that doesn’t include Simonsig and think it’s splendid. To the real afficianado, fed a diet of odds on chances for months, they couldn’t care less. If it’s not a race they can bet in, it’s a procession.

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I first started working for my Dad at Cheltenham, when I was 16. Taking bets over the rail, as you do when you think you know it all. Too late to take his license off him for that little offence! In those days the main betting ring was rammed with bettors, tic-tac men and Bookies. He refused to price up until a half hour before the first, despite the fact many of his peers had been at it for two hours. He wanted them to tear it up first, before entering the fray to more serious wagers. For an fledgling Bookie, it was a serious buzz. The bets came thick and fast, averaged £50 or more. The Old Man was adjacent to the likes of Colin Webster, Stephen Little, and in his later years the Gentleman likes of David and Willy Power. Wagers to lose ten thousand or more were routine. Unremarkable.

It might surprise you to learn, that whilst he had an opinion, John Banks made little study of form. He built a legend out of being braver than most of those in the ring about him. If something represented ‘value’ to lay, he wasn’t afraid to lay it lumpy. Sometimes stepping back into the market to lay it again, if he felt its contracting price improved his overall lay odds and gut feel. He was more of a gambler than his opponents, challenging them to match his opinion of odds over their convictions and wallets! Hedge bets were never recorded, although he might wager for himself, he never reduced his risk by backing a horse back. And I do mean never.

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Of course, even with his great skill in ‘reading’ the market, he probably wouldn’t have survived the nonsense of modern exchange driven fare. Exchanges are the ultimate number cruncher. There are no false favourites, and everyone is betting to a hundred percent book, and creating tiny margins from backing horses back. A cycle in futility. The ultimate fiddle. He’d have got bored of the flashing boards with the same odds and the weakness of the modern ring a long time ago.

Rails Bookies, in those days, didn’t have LED boards. Prices were off his card. Cardboard tickets sufficed for the punters. Clerks were highly skilled, and disputes were very rare. It was an exciting place to be. So, there I stood, green as the grass, looking into ‘members’ whilst my Father looked into the main ring, where the vast majority of hefty trade action was to be found. I knew precious little, other than what he had schooled me on. Coupled odds, and such. A novice, having a ball, wearing his trilby and stealing his bins. Son of the Father 🙂

So this day, a slightly built Irish fellah appears through the throng at the rail and asks me what price the favourite was. Peering at my card, ‘9/2’ I says.

‘Twenty’ he says.

‘Ninety pounds to twenty’ I call to the clerk, readying the ticket. The man smiles, no antipathy, a pleasant and patient type. ‘No Son, twenty Grand’

‘Oh’ Panicked, I turn to the Old Man, surrounded by a throng of tic-tacs and workmen. ‘Dad, this guy wants 20 grand on !?’

He turns round, smiles, not at me – ‘Hi JP. Yeah you got that.’ JP, doffs and walks on to Webby. The Old Man casts me a baleful look.

An education or what? It got beat – I avoided a bollocking.

You’d expect as a Son, for me to say my Father was a good man, and he was. To many of his customers he was the kind of Bookie they respected. Everyone called him John. They got their bets every time. He never cussed when he lost. These are the facts, and I make no bones in telling you these truths about the man. To me though, in business, he could be brutal in advice. The game was tough. If I was to take over one day, something he was fervently against, I had to learn the hard way. So getting it in the neck was a fairly common occurrence, and he didn’t mind who heard him! It worked though, because I’m still around, and it’s no longer exactly a license to print money.

Cheltenham was more than just a series of races, a betting cauldron. The whole event was a gambling emporium. Nightly poker games supplanted racing. I remember when I was older, had started betting for myself. I found myself less of a genius than when I was sixteen.. We stayed in a hotel in Tewkesbury, and a game of 7 card stud poker was the standard order of business on the Monday before the festival. I remember the characters in the game, fearsome gamblers. Jimmy Caldwell from Scotland, a long time pal of my Father’s. Dudley Roberts, Johnny Lights. A hefty punter who went by the pseudonym of ‘Chinese Dave’. who didn’t last long in the Webster-Little-Power-Banks era.

I declared myself ‘in’. Stuck my £50 ante in and waited on the first hand. 7 of clubs, 3 of diamonds, jack of hearts. What to do? Could hope for three more jacks?

Stack.

Cut a long story short, the first ‘pot’ was six and a half grand. My eyes were like saucers. The Old Man was trying to chase a few away with a pair of 6’s. Sometimes you can bully the pot, but not this mob. Desperadoes. He turns to me and asks if I really want to be in the game. ‘ehm, no’ My bravado only extended so far, and everything I had was for gambling the horses. ‘I’ll have a dollar in the pound with you Dad.’ (25%). I took myself to bed. I was all chat in those days.

Gets up in the morning and as I close the bedroom door, Jimmy Caldwell emerges from an adjacent room, eyes on the shag pile. ‘What happened last night Jimmy, how did Dad do?’

‘I dinnae Ken’ Jimmy says. Odd, he was in the game? He’s got a mark on his shoe methinks.

I head down to the breakfast room. All the suspects are at breakfast, but nobody looks at me. I’m the best looking by miles- what’s the game? I sit down and wait for the Ayatollah to come down.

He walks in, sees me sitting there and grins. Genuine mirth.

‘Obviously you lost, cos nobody will speak to me – what was the damage?’

‘Ten’ he says, still smiling.

‘What? You can’t have lost ten grand??’

‘No,  that’s what YOU lost.’ The rest of the table bursts out laughing. An education. Nobody seemed to care I’d managed to do my tank in whilst asleep in my bed

As a postscript to this tale of pre-Cheltenham tradition, I will, in my defense, say that I learnt my lesson and only took a dime in the pound the following night. (10%)

That cost me 3 grand.

Business at the Festival has dropped off significantly from the days of John Banks. But the impact of the meeting never really diminishes. In years past, when I was sent from the Rails to the nearest Tatts firm, it was a labour of Hercules, the Ring was a crush of punters. Unlike most major racing festivals, it remains the one almost pure betting event, despite racetracks unfortunately appealing more to boozers than bettors. The atmosphere is created by the nature of the course, the size and pace of the fields and because people are there predominately to beat the Bookie. Punters still haven’t worked out things that bolt up at Kempton flop at Cheltenham. I bet in the new Centaur arena. They sell a lot of Guiness in there. People come to bet, fart and leave. I never turn down a bet, I could do without the smell though. The wagers are a lot smaller these days. Of course I’m there for the crack, as are my punters, I’m going to give them some stick if I can and stand every favourite for its nuts. Most punters I find deeply honourable. They press crumpled cash from their pockets, stinking of chip fat, into your hand in a sea of bettors. Some must be tempted to leave you a tenner short, but they don’t. There’s the odd villain in the pack, but I take a rather sympathetic view of such souls. Need to get one over on me for £10? You enjoy yourself. The majority of customers are good natured, they don’t expect to win, but they will enjoy their day out. And I will put the fun into betting along with my betting girlies!

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These days the Festival is a vehicle for high street and internet ‘casino’ operators to poach clients from each other. Outdoing themselves, and their own bottom line, with unsustainable money back offers. Unsustainable that is, if we are only talking about their Racing profits. But of course we’re not. Other products erode Racing’s share of the products to such an extent they’re fully prepared to throw to the wolves what used to be a premium betting week. For firms like my own, leading very much on service and a fair bet at all times, it pressurises the organisation. You can’t ignore their prices and keep your clients happy too. The good news – many customers still prefer service over ‘free bet’ offers. Most of which are a cheap sham. Take for instance one firm who last year offered their first 10000 customers even money Sprinter Sacre for £10. Punters are bamboozled by such deals, forgetting they’re walking round the corner to save themselves 6 quid (if it wins!) – subjected to a lifetime of invasive e- mails and texts. Other firms run FOBT promotions through the week, encouraging their staff to flow customers to their addictive product. Who can blame them with profits of £960 a machine- and 4 to a shop? Fortunately for me, most of my customers want more than a fiver on, and we discount their payments when they lose. That’s cold hard cash. It’s not a here today – gone tomorrow offer. More’s the point, we don’t make our clients feel like they’re literally ‘begging a bet’. Know what I’m talking about?

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I’ve watched, disappointed, as this National Hunt season wilted in a sea of poor fields and avoidance tactics amongst major players. This despite racing taking place pretty much throughout the winter on ground more often than not, good to soft. Three trainers carve up the sport. Ireland’s top man, for example, doing his best to present his leading charge, Hurricane Fly, with an open goal in the Champion Hurdle, likely placing his better horses in other events and feeding us, and presumably his owners, a diet of lame excuses. The likes of Un De Sceaux (who couldn’t take on any other target) the brilliant Annie Power, or Quevega, a mare never allowed to dine at the top table – taking the selling plate every year. Nicky Henderson adopts similar policies, to the detriment of owners, who seem unwilling to challenge his authority. To be fair, Paul Nicholls often opposes his charges, and I feel understands his responsibility to Racing. The Festival last year suffered from small fields in Championship events, 7 in the Arkle, 9 in the Champion, 7 in the Queen Mum, 8 in the Ryanair and only 9 in the Blue Riband event. You know, it really doesn’t matter if Bobs Worth does, or does not end up winning the Gold Cup, – if we don’t see him for months. Somebody will win, and it will always make headlines for the right reasons. Arkle ran 9 times in 1963. He survived.

If you don’t see this situation as unhealthy for the sport, you must gorge on apathy. This situation is wrong. Further, I can’t see it a positive for Racing if we are treated to a daily diet of sycophantic reports or interviews with these trainers. Where are the dogs beating down the doors of the BHA demanding results, rather than sound-bytes? An organisation with a race planning department that year-on-year subjects us to the same races, at the same meetings every year. Blinding stuff. The gravy tastes too good for some Hacks. In fairness – and probably in no small part to folk like me having a go, I’ve seen some great articles from Muscat, Mottershead, and the entire Guardian crew of late. Boyce, Chapman, Yates, Hislop, Cunningham all deserve a positive mention, and whilst Luck strikes some as ‘stiff’ – he remains one of the best anchorman in sport.

Less so for Simon Mapletoft, reporting for ATR, with a thoroughly inept interview with the trainer, John Butler, unloading Stand Guard, who that morning had pronounced Racing ‘crooked’. Did he ask for clarification of his remarks, as any self respecting journalist would? Did he hell. Two minutes later the ‘match at Southwell’ degenerated into another head banging farce.

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Channel 4 pull few punches, despite the carping about its format. I enjoyed an excellent interview with David Walsh discussing the Fenton case and describing Racing as condoning integrity breaches routinely. Credit to the programme for letting the segment run over. What’s wrong with facing the truth? Questioning the authorities?

Less so from the embarrassing Millington, the champion of FOBT’s. ‘what’s the point in re-examining the Zarooni affair?’.  A Racing Post editor who sees the biggest doping case in the history of the sport as something to be tidied away. Yikes.

Back to 1990, I recall Victor Chandler’s men coming down to back a horse with my Father, New Halen, 66/1, in the Midmay Of Flete, last race on day two of three in those days. The bet? £50,000/£750 each way. Total liability £62,500. Chandler was a hefty punter in those days – fighting a long running, if mutually respectful battle with my Father. I remember his expressionless face as it won. Losing the best part of sixty grand in 4 minutes. He talked normally and almost casually in the car on the way back to the hotel. We were now behind at the meeting

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By the fourth race on the Friday, and from a hefty losing position at the meeting, he’d won the fifty grand back, and more. Bolstered particularly by standing what was, in his view, a non stayer – Desert Orchid, in the Gold Cup, for nearly 40 grand, when he was losing 50. The man had balls the size of grapefruits.

My worst moment at the Festival? Whilst by no means the most expensive –fairly light at a £40,000 swing, it was the ‘victory’ of Salsify in the Foxhunters. Beat like a rabbit over the last, and with my rep in my ear telling me we were safe from his challenge, we watched in horror as Jane Mangan’s mount jinked at a tape rail and deposited the exhausted pilot on the deck. I hanged the rep  for opening his mouth too early. It seemed the right thing to do. He’ll get over it.

To a Bookie, – that’s the National Hunt Festival. Buy a ticket. Have a bet.