8 weeks and counting…

8 weeks have come and gone since bookmaker’s boards lit up on Irish racecourses once again after our 15-month absence. After a gentle introduction at Ballinrobe, our next stop was the Galway festival which went very well and my colleagues and I were more than happy with the business. Most of us only got one day due to crowd restrictions, but after 2020 we were glad to be there for any part of the festival.

As the weeks have gone by and we begin to get back into our groove, all of the questions that were going around in my head over the last year or so are slowly being answered. Thankfully it’s looking reasonably positive. Punters appear to want to avail of our service, business has been brisk for the 3 bookmakers in attendance at each meeting. I expected a novelty factor to be at play and then the business to slow down, but that doesn’t appear to be the case and we’ve been very fortunate with good weather which is always a help. However, there is always a but….

A few weeks ago a close friend invited me to go to Manchester United’s opening league game in Old Trafford against Leeds. The 75,000 seater stadium was rocking. The atmosphere was electric and the atmosphere in the packed train back into the city afterwards was incredible. The City was vibrant with a great atmosphere and colour. It was a privilege to be at such an event, no darn mask fogging my glasses and no unnecessary illogical rules. Britain has moved on even if the experts tell us the virus hasn’t. I couldn’t help but wonder on the plane home that night, when will I hear the roar of a crowd at an Irish Race meeting again. Initially I was glad to be back racing, now I want more. I want to be racing as many days of the week as I can. I don’t like sitting on the side lines. It was acceptable to miss 6 days of Galway in July when I was getting to go for 1 day. But not anymore. I need to be back working full time. Patience is wearing thin. Every where I go I’m questioning why is there a crowd at this event or in that place but not at a race meeting. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to feel like this. In fact if I didn’t think this way, I would probably be better off doing something else for a living.

The bookmaking fraternity have lost one of our own to retirement in recent times also. Willie Kelly has called time on his career in the betting ring after 41 years’ service. Willie was the man on the box for the Pat O’ Hare firm and is well known by all in the racing game. He was a gentleman to deal with and was always the first man I would turn to if I needed anything at all. This game is the entertainment industry and really does consume your whole life. Many times I’ve had to call Willie at unsociable hours to back a horse back, and he always obliged. I’ll miss Willie on race days as he is a close friend, would always have a nugget of information and often paid for the coffee! I wish him all the best in the next chapter and I hope he enjoys getting to spend more time at home with his family. He has travelled millions of miles during his career, and I’ve no doubt has witnessed many changes in betting rings in Ireland and the UK over the years. Everyone in the ring will miss Willie. You wouldn’t hear a bad word spoken about him, and I hope he realises the high regard we all held him in.

Pat Keogh retired from the Curragh this week. I was working in the Curragh last Friday night and the transformation in the place has been remarkable. It was a really nice evening with a lovely atmosphere which was well attended by local people. I got really angry and cheesed off with the way Curragh management treated the paying public and bookmakers during the rebuild of the venue. Seeing elderly men lugging heavy equipment in bad weather up to betting rings was infuriating when they could, and should have been allowed to drop it up in their vehicles. The tone and attitude of previous regimes towards members of the public and bookmakers was nothing short of a disgrace and Pat came in there and almost instantly turned it around. He was firm, but fair and was always very approachable. Not many know this, but he took the time to write a very kind letter to the bookmaker’s organisation last year during the pandemic which is something he didn’t have to do. Some of our members voted against going into the Curragh for the trial event on Derby Day this year and I strongly believe they shouldn’t have voted the way they did. They let us all down and they let down a man who has been very fair to us over the years. I hope we haven’t seen the last of Pat’s involvement in Irish Racing as he has so much to offer. The next man in the door has big boots to fill.

Most courses have put in a big effort to get public back racing. My local track Roscommon has really tried hard and have attracted crowd’s back. Ballinrobe, Killarney, Naas, Galway and the Curragh are others that have come in for praise from my fellow bookmakers. Good management is easy to identify at these places. Unfortunately, some others have sat on their hands and have not welcomed public back and one gets the impression they would prefer if owners didn’t show up either. They are quick to take public funds but then don’t welcome the public to use the facilities. Hopefully the tracks that didn’t take a short term selfish view get rewarded for their initiative, and the few that were too lazy to bother making an effort should not receive any further public funding to improve facilities etc. It’s no coincidence that the progressive tracks were the first out of the blocks and the usual suspects were left dragging their heels. There’s a very small number of tracks in this country that need a good kick up the back side and should be forced to pull their socks up.

Champions weekend is just around the corner and the crowd increases will make it that bit more special this year. If you can get a ticket, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a super weekend of top class action. Decorated Knight, Almanzor and Laurens have done me huge favours on this weekend in recent years. Here’s hoping there’s a few more juicy results next weekend!

I am slightly disappointed with the attendance figures at Champions Weekend but I’m perplexed by the 2,000-person limit at the Listowel festival when legally the course is allowed to host 50% of its maximum capacity. HRI and Listowel are saying they are happy with the figure but deep down they must know it’s a joke. There’s a few weeks to go before the event so fingers crossed this figure can be increased dramatically in the meantime. Otherwise it will be the Harvest festival in name only.

September is a busy month traditionally and hopefully this year is more like 2019 than 2020. We need a good month to carry us through to Christmas! Hopefully I’ll see many of you at the races in the near future and as always it’s nice to meet new faces and new punters.

Best of luck,

Brian