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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Voice of the punter

Imago image. Credit: Robert HerrettImago image. Credit: Robert Herrett

When I first started working at Irish race meetings David Power was the undisputed king of the ring. This quiet unassuming pipe-smoking layer was in a different league to the other bookies on the circuit. He had an unrivalled list of private clients and all the biggest punters gravitated to him.

His odds, particularly when it came to favourites, appeared to be painted on his board. Often it didn't seem to matter how many bets he laid, the price remained unchanged. He never went fancy odds about outsiders - 20/1 was the biggest price he’d chalk up no matter how little chance the horse might have - and he rarely went the best odds about any horse, but if someone wanted to get real money on a horse he was their first port of call.

In 1988 it seemed an unlikely partnership when he teamed up with fellow bookmakers John Corcoran and Stewart Kenny to form Paddy Power. Stewart Kenny in particular was the polar opposite to David Power and the cheeky, lads’ mag style he brought to their new venture was a million miles from the reserved and conservative persona of Power at the races.

In any case their alliance flourished and the business grew rapidly. Before long they had reversed the trend where British bookmaker chains were hoovering up all the offices in Ireland and Paddy Power’s rapid expansion then turned its focus on the UK.

During those early years as their high street presence grew Paddy Power had a reputation as one of the few big chains that would take a decent bet over the counter.

Fast forward 30 years and the whole betting landscape is unrecognisable. Online is everything and the bookies have become corporate and global. Recent years have seen consolidation in the industry with Paddy Power now just one of a number of major brands under the Flutter umbrella and many of the other well known high street names have merged in an effort to stay relevant.

The industry has grown so fast and in a manner that the ordinary horse racing punters, who were so well served by the likes of David Power in the past, have been reduced to anonymous digits on bookmaker spreadsheets as these corporate giants churn out a never ending array of profit-squeezing algorithms to maximise shareholder returns.

I’m not talking about high-rollers looking to bet telephone numbers with the benefit of inside information, or shrewdies looking to arb. I’m talking about ordinary racing fans that like to study the form and want to back their opinions with relatively small bets. They are the ones in particular getting a raw deal.

One such punter contacted me recently complaining about how he is consistently getting his bets restricted by Paddy Power and its sister company Betfair Sportsbook despite only looking to place small wagers. These restrictions have been in place on his accounts for around two years.

Here is a typical example of some bets he tried to place in the last week: “For my first bet (Paddy Power online account), I placed €20 on Great Truth in the 5.13 at Leicester running at odds of 5/4. To my surprise, the bet was accepted. The horse won, providing a return of €45. Unfortunately, this was the only unrestricted bet that I have since been able to place.

“I attempted to place €5 each way on Carrigeen Konini running in the 15.40 Cartmel at 20/1. However, the maximum stake acceptable was €2.88 so I did not place the bet - attached screenshot.

“I switched to Betfair Sportsbook and attempted to place €5 each way on Badda Bing at the Curragh and my bet in this case was restricted to between 11c and 29c -attached screenshot.

In the above example the account restrictions worked in favour of the punter as the two horses he wasn’t permitted to have €5 each way bets on both finished down the field.

I asked this punter to request from Paddy Power and Betfair his betting history for each account. In the case of Paddy Power they furnished him with the entire betting history since his account was opened in December 2002. As of the time of writing Betfair still hasn’t sent the betting history to its client, but this is somewhat irrelevant as very few bets were placed on that account which was only opened to attempt to get around the Paddy Power restrictions, but it had restrictions applied to it from the outset.

Looking at the Paddy Power account history, which spans a period of almost 21 years, this punter only bet on horse racing, rarely placed any bets in excess of €20, often considerably less, and the maximum stake placed on any bet on the account was €100.

Overall the account shows a loss of €5,004.68 for the punter over this 21 year period. That mightn’t be enough to get the likes of Doireann Garrihy out of bed in the morning, but it is what you might consider a model account for a bookmaker. A loyal, regular, online customer, losing an average of €238.32 per year. Multiply him by a million similar punters and you have the perfect business.

There doesn’t appear to be any change in the betting patterns of this punter over the lifetime of the account. The majority of bets placed were win or each-way single bets rather than multiples and perhaps it is this rather than any unusual activity that caused the account to be flagged and the bet restrictions applied. Bookmakers are constantly trying to steer punters into placing exotic multiple bets which they know have higher profit margins, but this punter wasn’t biting.

Flutter’s website says their Paddy Power brand is “known globally for our mischievous marketing and longstanding focus on delivering fairness for our customers.” It’s hard to find much fairness in these restrictions on the account of a customer with such a long history with the brand.

Paddy Power also claims to be “the voice of the punter” but that moniker doesn’t really ring true in this instance either.

In recent ‘live chats’ with Paddy Power the punter was told that their ‘trading team’ had placed the restriction on his account. In the case of Betfair, they said it was their ‘security department.’

Neither firm gave any explanation as to why the accounts were restricted in the first place, but miraculously both rescinded the restrictions simultaneously following the recent queries from the punter. This was possibly the first time humans had looked at either of his accounts.

Anecdotally, these restrictions on accounts are widespread across the betting industry and it appears they are most often linked to horse racing bettors.

The whole idea of bookmaking is to work to margins and that strategy applies perfectly to Casino and most sports betting products where a predetermined percentage of profit is built into the odds. Horse racing doesn’t always conform to this model because the markets on individual races tend to be far more volatile. This is presumably why horse racing bettors are the ones being singled out by the corporate bookmakers with their restrictions.

We automatically presume it is winning punters that have restrictions placed on their accounts, but this example shows that losing isn’t always enough to ensure you can place bets, you must also be losing in the required way.