Tony Keenan: On course bookies “not an endangered species”

It’s hard to find people with something positive to say about the on-course betting market in Ireland, writes Tony Keenan. Turnover in the ring has fallen from €202 million in 2007 to just €60 million last year as punters favour off-course and online while the exchanges are widely considered the place where significant late money is traded. Brian Keenan, one of the youngest on-course layers at 29, is not so negative however. When asked if there was any good news about the market on Irish tracks, he was more sanguine than you might expect.

‘I suppose we’re a bit like the farmers in that we portray things as worse than they actually are. Everything isn’t rosy in the garden, far from it, but we’re not the endangered species some people think. The game is in trouble with the industry days, midweek in the winter, but from my point-of-view the festivals are getting better and better. My turnover is up year-on-year the last three years and I don’t know exactly why.’

That is good news for him but with the broader turnover in the ring down to less than 30% of what it was a decade ago, it seemed reasonable to ask if the figure of €60 million last year was correct and if so how could some bookies be making a living? This is against the backdrop of leading layer Daragh Fitzpatrick saying in a recent Irish Field interview he would turnover €600,000 at Galway alone which seems to leave little for the smaller operators. ‘Some lads can’t be making a living. I think you have to be turning over ten grand a day and that’s on an ordinary day and trying to win 5-6%. David Power leaving the ring in 2017 did impact those figures heavily though as he was a major layer.’

Keenan spoke to me before a midweek fixture at Punchestown a few weeks back, one of eleven tracks he stands at along with Leopardstown, Fairyhouse, the Curragh, Kilbeggan, Listowel, Down Royal, Galway, Roscommon, Ballinrobe and Sligo, holding multiple pitches at most. The meeting wasn’t quite an ‘industry day’ as there was a pair of Grade 3’s on the card, but in terms of crowd it wasn’t much better than some of those bleak midwinter meetings that few want to bet on and fewer want to attend.

He described himself as a bookie with an opinion ‘which costs me some days’ and says he is a diligent form student, particularly of race replays. Having studied Food-Agribusiness at UCD, he had initially thought he would follow the ‘standard route’ into employment but time spent working for Daragh Fitzpatrick on-course opened his eyes to other possibilities and he was soon looking for a life less ordinary. ‘The job is not easy but it’s rewarding, it’s like a drug on the bigger days and you can suffer on the smaller ones. There are probably easier ways to make a living but this is mine and I’m proud of it.’

One of the things that stands out is how much he loves racing; he is not like another on-course bookie who asked him at Galway why Ruby Walsh wasn’t riding Limini in the old GPT! He talks of his passion for the big national hunt days, the clashes like Hurricane Fly and Jezki, saying that while ‘Hurricane Fly was a pain in the neck [as a bookie]’ that it was racing is about; ‘this is what the public need to see.’ While he has respect for his colleagues who ‘grind out a day’s wages, surviving on an ordinary pitch trying to nick a few quid’ that sort of money-trading approach isn’t for him. For him, it’s all about all about raising turnover and as he goes through the costs of business, both capital and day-to-day, it becomes apparent why.

‘First, you’ve got your pitch. Really good ones are expensive, for example the best pitches at somewhere like Ballinrobe are worth €50,000 with the mid-range ones about €8-10,000. The better ones at Galway could be valued at €100,000-€200,000 and Kevin McManus bought the Dick Power one at Leopardstown for a quarter of a million recently. Places like Clonmel and Thurles, not so much, and bar the top ones they aren’t much use. I suppose it’s like everything in retail these days; the good spots are busy, the bad ones aren’t just worthless, they cost you money.’

‘Day-to-day, you pay five times admission which also applies when you are absent and there is a levy of 0.25% on turnover; a full-time bookmakers turns over a couple of million quid in the year. Your IT service and on-course tech supports is €30 per day and there’s a €20 link fee if you have another slave pitch and then there’s staff and diesel. Basically, you’re not going to have any change out of a monkey for an average day.’

With all this in mind, Keenan thinks ‘you have to hold money.’ To him, you ‘can’t trade €100 at 5/2 and be betting it back at 11/4, there isn’t enough turnover to do that and just take a margin.’ Furthermore, he says he has ‘no interest in doing that anyway.’ But why should punters play with him or other on-course books when they have a myriad of other options? It is fine to say that the ring adds colour to a racecourse but that only goes so far; it might be nice to go to your corner shop for a chat with the proprietor but if your groceries are costing an extra €15 a week most customers will eventually go elsewhere.

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Perhaps surprisingly, Keenan agrees with this. While he says one of the USPs of the on-course bookmaker is ‘the personal touch’ and ‘there will be a fella coming to me with anything from a fiver to a ton and I’ll boost it from 100/30 to 7/2 when it is 4.3 on the machine’ he acknowledges that it is a nicety rather than anything else. ‘We can’t expect punters to bet a horse at 9/4 when it’s 3.7 on Betfair; you have to compete. The way I try to compete (and it’s working at the minute) is more pitches and better pitches to have more turnover and try to hold more money. I know everyone plays at their own level and I’m far from one of the biggest layers, with plenty of lads in a different league, but I have to hold money at big meetings.’

He is pro-free Wi-Fi on Irish tracks, saying that ‘we have to give punters choice.’ There are occasions when he might not fancy something that is 2.38 on the machine and ‘I’ll put up 6/4 and if someone wants €400, €800, €1000 that’s no problem. It won’t be every race or day but I have to live by that.’ He cites a recent maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse where he laid Sometime Soon to a punter €2,500 to win €2,000 and 30 seconds later the horse was 4/9 and 2/5. ‘That wasn’t a bet I was particularly looking to lay but I’m there to lay bets and it’s part of the reason my turnover is up, same with people like Daragh Fitzpatrick and the O’Hares. People know where they can get a bet though I’m not for a second saying I’m only laying those sorts of stakes, I will lay the lad that wants two quid too.’

He goes on to point out that punters playing off-course or online won’t get away with betting two and a half grand at 4/5 on horses that go off 4/9 too often. On the subject of knockbacks on-course he says ‘there is no one who is banned with me.’ He says ‘there are a couple of lads that are very difficult to beat but I’ll bet a fella to win a couple of grand, not because I think I can beat him as sometimes I’ll have to ship some of the liability on.

’There are times ‘when you’re beat into a corner and you just have to take it but that is what you’re here for; if you don’t hold money you can’t win it.’

‘I can only speak for myself but you have to lay a bet. It really doesn’t always suit you and sometimes you have to take the penalty but you can’t be happy to only lay a punter when it suits. Some of us didn’t cover ourselves in glory in recent years, knocking punters coming in to have €50/100 on a horse and saying no because the price was gone on the machine… You have to respect a punter, lads know when they’re been taken for a ride.’ Again, he reiterates he is not only there for big punters though: ‘the target market is everyone, beggars can’t be choosers.’

Despite complaints from other on-course layers, most notably Sean Graham, that Tote lreland are given an unfair advantage by Horse Racing Ireland, he doesn’t really see them as the competition.

‘The challenge for us is mobile betting and punters need to know that – in many cases – we are the place to bet in the 15 minutes prior to the off.’

This is the time when most turnover is done and he points out that ‘we often offer better prices than are available on the app but punters don’t compare the different sets of odds and there is no commission either.’ He thinks the on-course bookies don’t make this widely known enough, struggling in the face of the advertising machine of big betting, but it needs saying ‘that while we’re not always the best price, we’re not always the worse either.’ He says that ‘I’ll often be overbroke in those big handicaps one the first five in the market, 5/1 a favourite that is 1.8 in the place.’ It may be a different story if you want to back something at 14/1 plus but the key here is choice and many will want to back one of the front few in the market.

Of course, for punters to note this difference in odds they need to be at the track and that is a problem. ‘We need people racing and have to work with racecourses to make that happen. Traditionally the on-course books and tracks didn’t have a good relationship and the Dundalk dispute didn’t help that.’ He singles out some racecourse managers for praise like Conor O’Neill at Punchestown and John Flannelly at Ballinrobe. Ballinrobe is a track Keenan is particularly fond of, saying that despite the quality of racing there ‘it is packed to the rafters and you do loads of tickets there with lots of small punters. To help do out bit, we gave out a 1,000 free fiver bets at their last meeting.’

Keenan is less positive on some of the major tracks believing that are too content with their SIS money and don’t work hard enough. While he loves the festivals at Leopardstown and wouldn’t miss the quality summer Thursday flat meetings for anything, ‘if they didn’t have the music there, the place would be practically empty.’ He thinks a 13,000 attendance for the Saturday of Irish Champions Weekend was far from praiseworthy, especially when contrasted with the 37,000 that made it to the Friday of Listowel.

‘The difference there is that locals like Pat Healy are proud of their town and racetrack, they work hard at everything and get the basics right and are in touch with the ordinary guy. They get local sponsors, give out tickets and get a crowd in.’ He goes on to say that his nearest track, Roscommon, did just that at an early October Monday fixture with local businesses bringing clients and staff and he did 600 tickets in all.

On the day I met him at Punchestown, turnover was nothing like as vibrant. After the sixth race, he reported things as ‘middling’ having done 110 tickets and was losing €1,800 on the day after making the mistake of laying the Jamie Codd-ridden Sizing Rome at all rates from 5/1 to 7/2 in a handicap race for amateur riders; ‘I never learn in these races, it’s all about the jockey!’ That race, despite being the worst in terms of quality on the card, was his biggest loser which says something about the Irish betting public; they like to bet on good racing, particularly good national hunt racing, but they have some weird predilections too.

‘Bumpers, bumpers, bumpers’ says Keenan when asked about what is popular with his customers, ‘even on a poor day the bumper can come alive.’ So it was at Punchestown when he took 45 tickets on the final race and he got a result too with the Liz Doyle-trained Chapmanshype beating a trio of horses from the Mullins, Meade and Peter Fahey yards, all of whom had been well-backed to one degree or other. That turned a losing day around as he won €2,400 on the race to put him €600 in the black but reported that ‘today is almost as quiet as it gets but that’s the reality of midweek racing outside the summer.’

Getting crowds to the track is not something Keenan believes has been particularly well-facilitated by the 2018 fixture list. ‘I don’t like being Mr Negative here but the fixture list hammered us. The decision to move a lot of what were summer Sunday fixtures at the Curragh to Friday evenings doesn’t recognise how hard it is to get out of Dublin on a Friday. We have more than enough bad days so you need to spread the good days out but Laytown is in the middle of Listowel and the first day of Irish Champions Weekend clashes with it too.’ On the subject of the Dublin Racing Festival, he says ‘bigger is better with the festivals but I imagine the likes of Naas and Navan [who have meetings around that time] have seen their attendance impacted’ and the meeting needs to be supported; he strongly believes that racing needs to be competitive and was not a fan of the recent upgrading of a novice chase at Limerick on December 26th, saying ‘if the track needs to be rewarded, do it in some other way but Leopardstown is where it has to be at over Christmas.’

As so often with Irish racing, the subject of integrity comes up and for Keenan it is as much a concern for bookmakers as punters. He references a recent beginners’ chase at Galway won by Voix Du Reve in which the winner and two Gigginstown horses had it between them from an early stage as the other 13 runners played no meaningful part in the race.

‘The aesthetics of that are poor. A woman came in to back a 66/1 shot in the race with a bookie beside me for a fiver and he gave her a free bet, handed her the fiver back and told her to keep her money. That’s fine for people who know the game but it looks terrible.’ He goes on to say that while Irish racing is ‘by and large fairly clean’ events like the withdrawal of Ballycasey from the Galway Plate ‘don’t help.’

‘One punter had €400 on Saturnas with me at 12/1 or 14/1 earlier in the day because Ruby was riding.  Whereas a lot of us knew there was a good chance he would switch; what does that fella think about racing afterwards? Willie Mullins bent the rules there, maybe I’d do the same, but if the rules don’t cover this, they need to be changed. It was the same with Carlingford Lough previously but nothing changed in the interim; there seems to be no hunger to alter the rules.’ For him, the Irish stewards are too tolerant of excuses, merely noting them but rarely carrying them forward into future enquiries. ‘People in racing don’t like being questioned. Look at the James Doyle ride in the Arc, I think it was a good ride but anyone questioning it got hammered even if they were being logical as some don’t like the status quo being challenged.’

Keenan questions whether the authorities have younger people working for them and thinks ‘about how incidents like this are perceived on social media. Take Paul Townend on Al Boum Photo, he made a mistake, mistakes happen. But social media and rumours go wild, people were saying to me that he pulled it which was obvious nonsense but the stewards released no report and there was no comment from the jockey himself or Willie Mullins. Why not tell us what happened, what decisions were made and why? This stuff isn’t life or death, it’s only racing but transparency makes it better for everyone.’ One gets the sense that for Brian Keenan it might be a little more than ‘only racing’ but his overall point holds.

Tony Keenan

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