Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Bookmakers holding all the Aces

On-course bookmaker Orla McCartan at Dundalk in 2019
© Photo Healy Racing

The perpetual tussle between punters and bookmakers is as old as time. But, while the bookmakers have always held the edge, that advantage is getting far more pronounced as technology and corporations replace the human face of the sole-trader bookie.

The old days of fearless on-course layers willing to take an opinion on a race were but a fading memory prior to the advent of Covid as ‘the machine’ had long since governed the prices on offer at the tracks.

With no on-course layers for the time being at least, and no high-street betting shops either, all the trade now takes place in an online world where the algorithm is king.

We are constantly being warned about protecting our personal data and GDPR has become a buzz word for safe-guarding consumers from the worst practises of big business. But an online betting account is the ultimate tool for the modern corporate bookmaker. They now know everything about your betting habits. When you bet, what you bet on, how much you stake and crucially whether or not you’re a winner or a loser.

Once their algorithm weeds out the small percentage of potential winners they are left with a distilled pot of losers. In fact, their data analysis has become so advanced that they no longer need to close accounts of the potential winners and can instead limit stakes on certain bet types and events and relax those limits where they know there is less risk.

The online bookie is in GAA terms the equivalent of Dublin. Virtually, if not totally, unbeatable and only getting stronger.

The vast array of online bookmakers in the market is proof, if any were needed, as to just how lucrative this business has become. The only real surprise is that Tesco, Lidl and Ryanair haven’t looked for a slice of the action yet.

You would expect a market as diverse as the online betting arena to offer greater choice for the consumer but that is scarcely the case. All firms quickly fall into line behind the biggest players in the market and even when pricing up events as subjective as horse races there is rarely more than a point or two in the difference on any individual runner.

Bet365, a giant of the online space, is currently offering ‘traditional’ Ante-post markets on all Cheltenham races so it should follow that there’d be an edge for the punter when rival company Paddy Power announced last week that they were going NRNB (non-runner no bet) on all 28 Festival races.

I looked at the Champion Hurdle betting with both firms and Paddy Power, with their money back concession, are shorter odds on every single horse. So, any potential advantage for the punter disappears into their higher over-rounds. Over-rounds that were already bloated on the Bet365 market.

Paddy Power are masters at these corporate sleights-of-hand where at first glance the offer looks great value for the customer but when you delve into the fine print you realise it’s not quite what it first seemed.

Most bookmakers follow Paddy Power’s lead so their recent change to the now standard offer of Best Odds Guaranteed will likely filter down through the industry. This week they reduced the daily limit on this concession from €50,000 to a mere €1,000.

The relentless advance of the corporate bookie should in theory spell its own demise. If punters can’t actually win why would they continue to bet? You’d probably need a team of psychologists to answer that question, but the addictive nature of betting must be a significant factor.

The structure of racing both here and in the UK is increasingly reliant on bookmaker profits by way of levies paid to the sport, TV rights and sponsorship deals. The success of the sport is precariously linked to the success of the bookmakers; which is all under-pinned by its audience consistently losing money. Not a financial model any sport would set out to achieve.

Point-to-Point racing was dealt a blow this week with news that the 2021 season has been suspended due to Covid-19. The sport does not meet the Government’s criteria for professional and elite sport and no fixtures can take place until further notice.

Point-to-Point is an important nursery ground for National Hunt racing, both here and in the UK, and is the shop window for many owners and breeders.

Those with stock to sell will presumably now look to run them in Bumper races on the track. Bumper races where the same horses will be ridden by the same riders that were deemed less than ‘professional’ if it was a point-to-point race.

The British Racing Industry Covid-19 Steering Group has made the decision that Amateur riders can no longer ride on their racecourses based on similar professional and elite sport guidelines published by the UK Government.

The UK amateur rider is an altogether different breed to their Irish counterpart who to a large degree are only Amateur as a flag of convenience. But try explaining that to NPHET.

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