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Dublin: -1°C Monday 1 March 2021

Johnny Ward: Many bookmakers are afraid that the game is up

The life of the bookmaker has been hit hard by Covid-19.

Empty bookmaker stalls at Dundalk race track.
Empty bookmaker stalls at Dundalk race track.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

SPARE A MINUTE or two in these days of many hours to ruminate over the on-course bookmaker: that dying breed, no bread earned for the bones of a year. Racing stopped in Ireland last March. It returned in June but without racegoers. Bookmakers thus had no role to play. Many are afraid that the game is up.

Perhaps we take as an afterthought now how mobile telephones have taken over our lives within a generation. Without realising it, we spend hours online – every day. Be it via phonecall, email, text, WhatsApp, social media and so on, we are pretty much always on call.

Many effectively kiss good night to their phone rather than partner as the last act before going to sleep and wake up to their phone before greeting their partner.

Your phone is now your bank, your newspaper, your TV, your music collection, your Sat-Nav, your encyclopedia, your third arm – and, of course, your bookmaker.

Covid-19′s taking over of the world about a year ago has made cash, if not completely outdated, something not far off it. Bookmakers, when they return to the racetrack, will surely need to deal in contactless payments in order to survive, but one wonders what the point of that is, as everyone who bets has been forced to bet online for nearly 12 months now.

The art of returning a starting price has been taken away from the on-course layers and punters betting at home have been able to avail of bigger prices on their winners. Gambles on horses now have nothing whatever to do with bookmakers on track, and this is unlikely to change even if they are allowed lay again.

The adage that you never see a poor bookmaker has long been rendered obsolete by the power of the internet and betting exchanges. It may to some be hard to feel sympathy for the men and women who have made a life out of laying bets at the racetrack; perhaps people will lose no sleep over the publican too.

However, when you take away someone’s livelihood for one month after the next, one season into the other, with no clear end in sight – the end not necessarily an end in itself; his or her daily pattern suddenly ripped up, fading gradually into memory, the mental health costs can be stark.

Some of these fine people know of nothing else. Even as the game changed utterly, never to go back to what it was, they still could revel in the social aspect of meeting people at the racetrack. I know of some of them who are finding it increasingly tough. We all need reason to get up in the morning.

This weekend, the Dublin Racing Festival takes place to satisfy an audience of fans, many of them watching it all on their phone. If they want to bet, they will be on their phone. When Cheltenham comes around next month, they will be on their phone.

It is Superbowl Weekend, too, and it seems an apt time to put up Wide Receiver to win at Cheltenham in March. Admittedly his price of 6/1 might seem skinny, but it was hard not to take notice of the British mark given to the horse for a presumably unintended engagement in Musselburgh this weekend: 136.

jack-kennedy-onboard-wide-receiver-comes-home-to-win Jack Kennedy and Wide Receiver at Leopardstown in December. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Somewhat cryptically, Eddie O’Leary, brother to owner Michael, says this weekend will for Wide Receiver involve “running somewhere”, and presumably he’s talking about the horse. These O’Leary brothers can have an enigmatic sense of humour. So do many bookmakers, from what I recall.

The horse has been getting there with every run over hurdles and has long been considered potentially very useful, certainly better than a handicapper, with the Martin Pipe Conditionals’ Handicap hurdle a race that Gordon Elliott loves targeting, given that he educated himself at the Pipe yard.

Elliott has won two of the last four editions. With there being a chance that Wide Receiver could yet run in one of the graded races at Cheltenham, and he is entered in another at the Dublin Racing Festival, the safest option is to back him to win any race with Hills, though he is slightly bigger for the Martin Pipe race.

Go to your bookie to back him. On your phone. Come March, he can carry your money and power up the Cheltenham hill to the sound of silence, observed by ghosts in a haunted betting ring.

Recommendation (scale 1-5)
Wide Receiver to win any race at Cheltenham
1pt 6/1

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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