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Bookmakers to take up pitches at Punchestown but threat of protest lingers

Ray Mulvaney, chairman of the Irish National Professional Bookmakers Association
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Bookmakers will stand at Punchestown on Tuesday, but the prospect of a protest has not been removed with the suggestion on-course layers may not take bets for a race.

Ray Mulvaney, chairman of the Irish National Professional Bookmakers Assocation (INPBA), said on Monday bookmakers would take up their pitches on Tuesday, despite not having any fresh communication from the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) in relation to INPBA grievances. 

On Sunday, the INPBA released a statement outlining that they could not commit to servicing every card on a growing fixture list.

The body has become frustrated with AIR's lack of action over costs at routine midweek race meetings in particular.

On Monday, Mulvaney said he had not heard back from AIR, or Horse Racing Ireland. Although he insisted bookmakers would be trading in the ring at Punchestown, he suggested they could stand down for a race.

"There will be bookmakers at Punchestown tomorrow," he said. "There has been no talk of a strike or a boycott but what I will say is that bookmaker members at midweek fixtures don't see any future under the present pricing format.

"Will we be trading for a full racecard tomorrow? That remains to be seen, but we don't want to disenfranchise our customers."

SP concerns

SIS generates starting prices in Ireland using a sample of the average prices in the on-course betting ring. Should the on-course layers stand down, Mulvaney suggested online firms' morning prices could be used to generate a starting price. 

Paddy Power recently began trading their own prices until race off times, eschewing show prices from the ring. 

"That's a matter for SIS and we have no problem with SIS," Mulvaney said of the SP dilemma in the event of a strike.

"But if AIR don't engage with us, in five years' time there won't be any bookmakers to provide an SP." 

In Ireland, bookmakers pay five times the admission cost to trade at their licensed pitch on a given day. In outlining their grievances on Sunday, the INPBA made clear their issue was with the challenges they faced on quieter midweek days.

"The history of our pricing structure goes back to 2004 when tracks were struggling," Mulvaney explained. "Now, turnover has collapsed with bookmakers from €200 million in 2004 to €50m where we are today.

"In that period, the number of us as permit holders has gone from over 200 to about 80. There are no new bookmakers, so the demographic has changed, but our pricing structure hasn't changed.

"Significantly, what has changed is that there were 280 racedays in 2004 and there are 360-odd in 2019. Bookmakers are expected to pay their charges when there is nobody in the betting ring at meetings that would be recognised as industry days."

He continued: "We want to be proactive with tracks, but the whole thing is being done at the behest of SIS, midweek especially when there is low attendance, eight-race cards with 35 minutes between races, early starting times before noon. It is not consumer friendly.

"We want the tracks to thrive because that means our business will improve as well, but nothing is being done midweek. They are sitting on the laurels of the SIS money."

The changed nature of on-course betting is one of the factors that has also negatively impacted Tote turnover, whose revenues have continued to collapse, with 2018 figures showing a 33.3 per cent year-on-year decline to €69.2m.

The state-owned model is undergoing a thorough review and HRI's chief executive Brian Kavanagh said in Monday's Irish Times that all options, including selling all or part of the subsidiary to private investors, would be considered. 

Horse Racing Ireland chief executive Brian Kavanagh suggests reduced on-course betting activity is a sign of changes in modern betting practices

Speaking subsequently, Kavanagh said HRI would be happy to facilitate further talks between AIR and the INPBA, but the governing body had "no overall role" in the dispute. 

"I can understand the frustration that bookmakers feel but it is much better to discuss your problems and tease them out together than adopt a megaphone-type diplomacy," he added.

Of the general challenges faced by on-course betting operators, he said: "It's not just footfall, it is a change in dynamic of betting in general.

"People are attending race meetings in similar numbers to five years ago but there is less betting in the ring and less betting with the Tote, because people are betting on their mobile devices.

"So that is a challenge for the betting operators and racecourses. The HRI board has tasked us to look at long-term strategic options for the Tote, so we are doing that."

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I understand the frustration but it is much better to discuss your problems and tease them out together than adopt a megaphone-type diplomacy
E.W. Terms