In defence of Mick Fitzgerald

FitzyPoor old Mick, friendless in this world of social media critics. Since the announcement of his inclusion in the ITV team, I’ve read nothing but brickbats. I hope Mick kept a hold of his body protector when he retired from riding.

As a broadcaster, I think he’s improved two stones since he started. He’s almost always relaxed, comfortable and confident when they cut to him (he has the odd blip as they all do, even Clare). He’s lost that early rabbit in the headlights look and concentrates much more on his interviewee and encourages responses.

Although talkative by nature, he seems to me more thoughtful these days about what he says – which is where he seems to come in for most flak. But what do people want from him? He can’t be insightful and incisive about every horse; he talks about dozens of them every day. They each have a head and a tail and a jockey and form which is usually not dissimilar to everything else in the race. He’s not dissecting the plans for the Hadron Collider.

To those who think it’s easy, try this: go and get an empty bottle and set it bottom towards you on a shelf eyeline-high. Now talk to it about racing for a minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition. You will not get through ten seconds before you’re a blubbering wreck.

On a separate note, Nick Luck will be a huge loss, I think. His only failing seems to be in the eyes of class warriors for his appearance, accent and lucidity. He’ll be sorely missed.

Anyway, it’s all heading south. ITV’s four years will, I believe, be the swansong for racing as a terrestrially broadcast sport. It’ll end up having been on TV for about as long as I’ve been around, and maybe, like an old salmon coming home to die, ITV will prove a welcoming and appropriate final resting place.

We should all stop complaining and savour the coming end of an era.

Depression: Margy’s story

Margy McNally

Margy McNally

My wife Margy has suffered poor mental health since her teenage years. In light of the Kieren Fallon news and some social media comment, I thought I’d talk here about some of our experiences – Margy’s and mine – in the hope of casting some light.  In 2006, after spending 10 months in a psychiatric unit, Margy decided she’d always take the opportunity to talk about depression and mental health.  It’s her contribution to trying to remove the social stigma and increase understanding.

There are some cliches among sufferers:  ‘If you have a broken leg, at least people can see and understand.’ ‘I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.’ On the latter, Margy said it to a fellow patient in the unit and he said, ‘I actually wish everybody could suffer it for just one hour.’

It’s impossible to explain unless you’ve experienced it. It’s nothing to do with ‘being crazy’ or pulling yourself together, and there are rarely events which can be nailed to explain the source of poor mental health (I generalise with ‘mental health’: it covers a broad range. Margy’s diagnosis is ‘severe anxiety and depression with psychotic episodes’. During those episodes she becomes terror-stricken by two ‘people’ who talk to her  incessantly, always with evil intent. I found her one day in the bedroom (fortunately just in time) hitting herself in the face and head with a bottle to try and drive those voices out.

When deep depression strikes, she will simply lie in bed for days crying and apologising to me for ‘being such a burden’, despite my constant reassurances that the illness, like everything else in our lives, is ours, not hers. Sometimes we would sit on the bed by the window upstairs looking down on the road. At that time we lived a hundred metres from a cemetery.  Going through one of her good periods a few summers ago, I came across Margy sitting there watching a funeral go past. I sat down beside her. She said quietly, ‘You have no idea the number of times I’d watch the hearse go by and wish above all else that I was the one in the coffin.’

On the severe anxiety aspect of Margy’s illness, I once tried to get some idea of its depth. I asked if she could try to explain to me what it was like. Again, she stared for a while out of that window and said, ‘I wake up in the morning and as soon as I come to, a voice says to me “the worst thing that could ever happen to you is going to happen and it’s going to happen very, very soon. The voice says the same thing all the time, all day, until I can sleep again.”

I tell you all this not to sensationalise, not to seek sympathy, but to try to help you understand…to try to chisel away just some of the stigma. To urge those who need help to see their GP now and if the GP can’t or won’t help, get a new GP.

Much of the treatment is based on getting the correct medication mix and dose. Margy’s pharmacist once told me there are 64 different types of anti-depressant. The solution is often a cocktail of these and dosage is crucial; after almost three years, the professionals got Margy to a stage where her medication allowed her to live a comparatively peaceful life. These days, she has ECT treatment, which has helped greatly (it works for some people, but can have negative effects on others).

Recent research, thank goodness, has revealed that there might well be physiological causes to many mental health problems – inflammation somewhere in the brain looks as though it could be playing a part. I hope this research goes somewhere. Not just because it should lead to quicker and more effective solutions, but because it will, at last, offer a physical cause, something that people can identify with. Something that removes the stigma, the pull yourself togethers, the suspicions of childhood trauma, or lack of success in your career.

That stigma stops many from seeking treatment. Fear of stigmatization prevents people telling their doctors; they don’t want it on record for employers, or insurance companies, or maybe legal cases at some future point. So they suffer in silence and sometimes that silence and suffering leads to suicide and the stigma deepens.

It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to try to understand it. It’s time to stop condemning people like Kieren Fallon for not turning up for a ride. The chances are that Kieren wasn’t sitting lazily on a riverbank in the sun. He might have been in a darkened room somewhere, watching hearses pass, and wishing.

 

 

Time for racing press solidarity in backing stable staff

handsCredit to Lee Mottershead and Kevin Blake for recent articles on the plight of stable staff in the UK and Ireland. Last week was Stable Staff week, an initiative backed by Racing Welfare, a charity dedicated to raising money to support racing’s workforce, and Betfair, (not a charity) dedicated to raising money for its shareholders.

Google does not reveal who came up with the idea for Stable Staff week, but the originator is entitled to the benefit of my doubt. I dislike seeing year-round issues being ‘highlighted’ by a special day or week. Even if it is meant to raise awareness, too often it becomes an opportunity for conscience-salving that’s restricted on a midnight to midnight basis. “I put a fiver in the tin.”  “I retweeted that plea.” “I wrote an article.”

And the whole concept, at industry level, is founded on a disingenuous premise: “Stable staff are the backbone of the industry.” “Our staff are our greatest asset.”  “We value the commitment and dedication of our staff.”  Er, no you don’t, or they’d be better paid, have more days off and fewer horses to do. What you really value is the capacity for a thoroughbred to enchant the human spirit; to give a boy or girl something to cling to, to dream of, to take meaning from and some hope. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a trade-off, and one that enough lads are still willing to accept. Lads who, I suspect, would rather the industry acknowledged this than dress it up in corporate speak.

But where something extra can be done, perhaps it should be, especially by racecourses. Lee and Kevin mention in their articles how tracks treat staff with regard to recognition of achievements. Some tracks treat stable staff superbly. Most tracks behave shamefully in discriminating between the professionals who work on course.

Lee’s piece, and Kevin’s are the only ones I can find which cover Stable Staff week. Perhaps it got a mention on Channel 4, I don’t know. It’s not a particularly sexy thing to campaign on and sports editors aren’t renowned for dedicating space to such causes. Still, online journalism beats newsprint on space. Column inches are unrestricted so long as you can hold the reader’s attention. But campaigning comes with responsibilities other than writing a column. The racing press, what remains of it, gets better treatment from racecourses than jockeys do, than stable staff do.

The press have a dedicated room which is, at the very least, normally warm and dry. The press badge allows free entry. The track executive provides free food and drink in most cases. The posh word is ‘complimentary’. The compliments are thinly veiled bribes to the people who write about racing, the people with a voice. “Complimentary” swings shut with the hinges of the press room door. With the exception of a handful of tracks, complimentary is not a word you will find in a stable staff canteen or even a jockeys’ changing room.

Again, campaigning comes with responsibilities beyond a dozen paragraphs once a year. Campaigners could perhaps end each racing report every day with something like this: “Free food and drink was available to the press but your correspondent declined both as the racecourse did not make the same offer to stable staff.” I’m sure their colleagues in the press room would show solidarity.  Perhaps they could even make it known to the track in advance…you never know from where a conscience might suddenly reveal itself after so many years.

 

 

Bookies are right to close accounts

hold_positionA recent report by the Horserace Bettors Forum (HBF), a relatively new body which the BHA helped put together, claims that up to 20,000 betting accounts have been closed by bookmakers in the past six months.  That’s not to say 20,000 punters have been affected; many online punters have multiple accounts.

This is a bandwagon that never stalls. It is kept rolling on forums and social media by punters who range between disgruntled and apoplectic. The Guardian ran a piece yesterday and I see that a blog article by the informed and respected Kevin Blake is back doing the rounds on twitter. Kevin’s argument is long and lucid, and that length and lucidity seems to have taken in some judges who are normally more objective.

Kevin’s case is that by closing accounts, bookmakers will steadily drive away highly informed and dedicated racing folk from the sport, thus damaging racing.

Here is his case for the prosecution, along with my comments:

 

Where this stops being just a problem for a sector of the betting public and becomes a potentially major problem for the entire racing industry is here.

The group that bet restrictions and account closures affect the most may not be big in number in the overall context of the entire punter population, but they are one of the most important groups of all racing followers, passionate racing enthusiasts that have the made the long-term commitment to grow their knowledge to an extent that enables them to bet successfully on the sport.

Those customers are exceptionally difficult to attract from scratch and those that we already have should be cherished and looked after by the racing industry.

Why should they be ‘cherished and looked after’? Racing’s levy income is a percentage of the profits bookmakers make from bets on racing. Punters who ‘bet successfully on the sport’ reduce that income.

However, there is little doubt in my mind that bet restrictions are the single biggest source of frustration for this highly-valuable group of people and my fear is that if the situation doesn’t change, they will be frustrated into reducing their interest in betting on racing.

Again, ‘highly valuable’ to whom?

The dangers of this should be obvious, given that racing’s share of the overall betting pie has already been significantly reduced in the last 15 years due to the ever-growing popularity of sports betting and online casino-style games.

Racing’s share of the betting pie has indeed been reduced, and yes, much of that reduction is down to the actions of bookmakers in promoting other betting ‘opportunities’. The main reason bookmakers have done this is because racing has become a very expensive product for them, especially in betting shops.

The normal costs of business on the High Street are onerous for many retailers. Bookmakers have the added burden of media rights payments to racecourses (for live pictures and commentary), and the Levy payments. High Street bookies do well to make between 1% and 2% net profit from racing. Why wouldn’t they try to promote other products with a much higher margin?

Kevin acknowledges this:

An even bigger development in Great Britain has been the introduction of extremely lucrative fixed-odds betting terminals in 2001. Such low-risk high-turnover betting mediums are far more attractive betting products for bookmakers than horse racing. They are also much cheaper for bookmakers, as horse racing costs bookmakers many millions in media and data rights.

Indeed, a cynic might suggest that it would suit the interests of bookmakers just fine if punters continued to turn away from horse racing and towards other betting mediums, but horse racing cannot afford to lose such valuable customers.

I’m afraid customers are only valuable in the business sense if they contribute cash to the sport. Yes, let’s have more of them by making racing a much more attractive product for bookmakers to promote. Make a start by slashing media rights costs.

Given just how vital media/data rights and the funds generated by betting tax/levy are to the funding of horse racing at both sides of the Irish Sea, anyone with an interest in the future of horse racing needs to sit up and take notice of this issue, as the long-term consequences for what is going on should be clear to everyone.

If bookmakers continue to be allowed to conduct their businesses are they are, effectively making it very difficult for anyone with a clue a fair shake at making a profit by betting on horse racing, the future effects on betting turnover on horse racing could be very serious.

To use an old cliche, turnover is vanity, profit is sanity. There is no point increasing turnover by 500% if it cuts profits by 5%.

A further drop in betting turnover on horse racing will not only detrimentally effect betting tax/levy takes, but it will inevitably lead to a drop in value of media/data rights that play such a prominent role in racing’s finances. In that event, closures of racecourses and prize money reductions would be inevitable.

If a turnover drop affects media rights, that might actually be helpful for racing. Media rights payments do not go to ‘racing’ as some collective body, they go to racecourses (because the BHA foolishly surrendered commercial fixture rights to tracks). So those profiting from huge media rights income are the likes of Jockey Club Racecourses and Arena Racing Company who between them own 30 racecourses.  Yes, they put some cash back in by way of prize money (especially JCR), but they are at liberty to use their income as they see fit – as, of course, are the remaining 29 racecourses.

Kevin Blake’s suggestion as a possible solution to account closures:

A very curious precedent has recently been set in Australia. Last year, officials in New South Wales introduced a minimum bet that bookmakers must accept, with bookmakers with turnover of more than AUS$5 million being obliged to lay a punter to lose AUS$2,000 at a city meeting and AUS$1,000 at country fixtures, while bookmakers with less than AUS$5 million turnover will have to lay their customers to lose AUS$1,000 on all thoroughbred meetings.

All of these conditions apply to bets placed online or on the phone from 9am on the day of an afternoon meeting and from 2pm in the case of an evening meeting. This ruling was greeted with great criticism from local bookmakers, but almost a year on from its introduction, the vibes from Down Under is that it is working well for both punters and bookmakers.

The key difficulty in the above system is that once your account has been closed, you cannot bet at any price.  Even for those whose accounts are still open, the above is not a cure-all; here is an extract from the terms and conditions on the NSW policy (italics mine):

“All punters are entitled to the price publicly displayed in the wagering operator’s latest betting market on their website or betting board. The only time a changed price can be offered after a punter places a bet is if the official APN price had just changed or another bet has been layed at the original price and the wagering operator is adjusting the price, which will flow through to their website or betting board. Time log records can be checked to confirm this process.”

So, if 2/1 is on display for your selection, by the time you click ‘bet’, the price might have changed as the algorithms alter the price according to stakes arriving from punters elsewhere. This effectively renders the guarantee useless.

Perhaps the most practical point to make in the face of this rolling bandwagon is this: what would you do if you were running the business?  No company bars people from whom it can make a profit. Yes, some ‘innocents’ will be caught in the crossfire of algorithms that are constantly being refined, but all in all, bookies must be happy that they have got them just about right.

Also, there is a legal aspect to this. Company directors are legally obliged to act in the best interests of their shareholders. If they are aware of a tool which can be used to help protect shareholder funds, they must use it, unless they can construct a convincing argument against doing so. I’ve yet to see anyone make such an argument, and lest you think I’m a bookmaker’s advocate, I too have been ‘restricted’ in my betting (though I have never had an account closed).

I’ve been in bookmaking and racing  all my working life and the bookie side has been much maligned, wrongly so in my opinion. Bookmakers are, in the main honourable people running a very tough business. I’d be just as willing to criticise them when I think they are wrong (like the Grand National day nonsense of silly and greedy overrounds). But in this case, they are doing what any sensible business person would do. If critics would take the emotion and self-interest out of it, I believe they would concede this.

Supreme. Unbeaten: 20/1

binocularsA week today at half past one a roar will rise from Cheltenham’s grandstands and another Festival will begin. As the sound rolls down the track to the galloping horses, it’s possible that there will be just one among them who will be unbeaten – Moon Racer. Three others with a rack of 1s against their name – Winter Escape, Yorkhill and Long Dog – could miss this race for other engagements, leaving Moon Racer the only runner about whom we can say ‘we don’t know how good he is.’

That’s if Moon Racer makes it to post. His last run was a year ago when he won the Champion Bumper comfortably. Training troubles have kept him off the track since, but David Pipe, his trainer, says he will declare him at the five-day stage and see how it goes. You can’t get more touch and go than that with racehorses.

But the triple winner is valuable property. His connections won’t let him run in this hottest of novice hurdles unless he is capable of winning. He hasn’t jumped a hurdle in public, but they must be happy with how he’s schooled or he’d already have been counted out.

Min is the short-priced favourite. Altior looks the key challenger from England, at least according to the betting. But Moon Racer is, I believe, the best value in the race if you bet now, because you can have 20/1 (Betfred), with a guarantee of your cash back if Moon Racer doesn’t run.

When lining up last year for the Bumper, Moon Racer hadn’t run for five months. He was backed into favourite. I believe there will be money for him again if he lines up on Tuesday.

If you want one for an each-way double at around the same price as Moon Racer, try Kilcooley in the Ryanair World Hurdle. He is another who’s had a troubled season which has kept him at home since the end of October. But he seems likely to line up against Thistlecrack on Thursday.

So, take on the two short ones with two long ones.

Good luck

 

Here we go again with Un Beau Roman at 33s

iStock_000009081252SmallThis fella is becoming another Rajdhani Express for me. I’m convinced he has a decent race in him; it’s just a matter of whether I have any money left by the time he finally wins.

He runs at Newbury tomorrow in the 3.25. I’ve backed him at 33/1 Betfair Sportsbook. He has two entries at Cheltenham: the Brown Advisory and the Grand Annual, and he has 10st 4lbs in each. Now, that might not guarantee him a run, as there is a safety limit in each race on the number of runners – I believe both these races are 24.  If he wins tomorrow he’ll get a 5lb penalty for doing so and that will ensure him a run at Cheltenham

At the end of last year he moved from W Mullins to a small trainer, Paul Henderson, who won with him on his second run for the yard – a Kempton Chase, which was where I first noticed him as he travelled like a real good horse off a fast pace before winning comfortably.

On his next run, he was again travelling well when he made a real bad error five out and that finished him (heavy ground didn’t help). That was a Grade 3 Handicap. His next run was in the G2 Game Spirit, where on form he looked outclassed, but I backed him anyway. He again travelled well until the principals kicked on and he was allowed to come home in his own time, never asked for any real effort.

Anyway, he travels like a good horse. I’m not saying by any means that he’s high class, but he will win a decent race. Might be tomorrow, so if you’ve followed me with him so far, you might not want to desert him now.

Just in case…you ought to have a bet on him for both his Cheltenham races with Bet 365 who offer NRNB: he’s is 66/1 for the Brown Advisory and 33/1 for the Grand Annual.

Good luck

Joe

 

Festival 2016 Handicap entries – full press release

spyglassCourtesy of my friends at Racenews, here’s a PDF with all the news of the handicap entries for Cheltenham 2016

 

Fez16 hcap entries press release

25/1 Dark horse Kilcooley just a gallop away from the World Hurdle

CLIn October I tipped Kilcooley at a big price for the World Hurdle. Like last year’s World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden, Kilcooley had just won the Bet365 Yorkshire Hurdle.

Training problems have kept him off the track since then. On the upside, they’ve also ensured he has slipped well below the bookies’ radar. On official ratings, Kilcooley is one of three sitting just 4lbs behind Thistlecrack. On Topspeed ratings he’s the fastest in the race.

Kilcooley’s trainer, Charlie Longsdon, told me yesterday, ‘”Killer” is very well and I am doing a racecourse gallop with him before I make a final decision as to whether he will be ready for Cheltenham or not. If he is not, I will send him to Aintree.

‘He has had a few muscle problems since he last ran, but hopefully they are now a thing of the past. He has had a lot of help from our vets and all the physios, and I hope that will pay off in three weeks. As for his chances, he is the forgotten horse of the race. He is the joint second highest rated horse in the race and he will go on any ground’.

Kilcooley is 25/1 NRNB with a few bookmakers and it looks like he won’t be risked unless he is spot on, in which case he has an excellent chance. With money back if he doesn’t run, he is great value.

Good luck

Joe

Who will become the Amazon of online betting?

binocularsAs Amazon, Facebook, and Google have proved, where there is a global desire for a product, online dominance of that sector is not only possible, but it is becoming the norm.

Netflix for streaming movies, Spotify for music, Uber for taxis…why shouldn’t this work for betting?

Bookies offer different odds – that might be one argument, but how many casual punters care about that? If you just want a bet on the football or on the National or The Masters, the difference between 9/2 and 11/2 won’t matter much. So long as it is easy to place the bet, you get paid right away and, if something does go wrong, customer service is splendid.

So, how do you beat your rivals in this fight for dominance? Well, brand recognition is a crucial aspect. If I were the CEO of one of the majors, I’d be grabbing every sponsorship opportunity I could get while my rivals dithered about agreeing ABP status.

The usually astute Paddy Power seldom let an opportunity for name recognition pass, and I’m astounded that they’re hanging around on the question of ABP.

I’d take every sponsorship of every race I could get my hands on for the next five years, so that all that the betting public sees, a dozen times a day, seven days a week and at all the major events would be my company’s name. Not only is that name drip, drip, dripping into their consciousness, it’s displacing the names of all my rivals, for there is nothing left for them to sponsor.

Of course, they can go into other sports, but at what price? And I’m going to be there too, with a much more recognisable brand.

I’ve worked in the betting and racing game since 1971 and I’ve seen some short-sighted decisions, but this is one to beat the band.

Is there nobody out there with the vision to grasp this opportunity for long-term dominance?

Be wise with Buywise at 50/1 in the National

national_jumpersThe Crabbie’s Grand National entries were published today, and Buywise caught my eye. He’s trained by Evan Williams who has a good record of placed horses in the National, and for the romantic among you, Williams has sworn ‘I’ll win the Grand National before I draw my last breath’.

Buywise could be the one. He’s certainly worth betting at 50/1, which is twice the price he should be in my opinion. He’s a talented but, so far, luckless horse who has run well in some really good handicaps. He tends to run into trouble at a crucial point, take a bump or run into the back of something, or just make a bog-standard jumping error. But that seems to be steadily getting ironed out. He was 3rd at Doncaster last Saturday and made no mistakes. He was staying on well at the end and his trainer now believes he might have been running the horse over the wrong trip.

Buywise, like many before him, will be wide-eyed when he sees the Aintree fences for the first time, though they are nowhere near as punishing as they used to be, thankfully. Some horses get scared and can’t or won’t jump them cleanly. Some find it exhilarating and fly round. I’m hoping Buywise is in the latter category.

I’m certain he’ll be much shorter than 50/1 come April 9th, but, as always, much can happen between now and then. If he doesn’t make it to the race (a pre-race injury would rule any potential runner out), your money is lost, so stake accordingly.

Good luck

Joe