This is Arkle country. The town of Ashbourne, Co. Meath, sits just a couple of miles north-west of Kilsallaghan, where Tom Dreaper trained the greatest steeplechaser of the twentieth century. Make that the greatest ever.
Equidistant to the south-west lies Fairyhouse, scene of Arkle’s 1964 Irish Grand National triumph, a mere 23 days after inflicting defeat on the supposedly unbeatable Mill House in a Cheltenham Gold Cup so memorably endorsed by Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary. “This is the champion! This is the best we’ve seen for a long time.”
Arkle’s 27 victories included three Gold Cups, three Leopardstown Chases, a pair of Hennessys, a Whitbread, a King George as well as the Irish National before his career was ended by a broken pedal bone, sustained at Kempton during the 1966 King George VI Chase.
Ashbourne’s town centre is home to a larger-than-life bronze statue of Arkle and his jockey Pat Taaffe, unveiled on April 21 last year, 50 years after their first Gold Cup triumph. Seen from a particular angle, they appear to be looking towards a Bambury Bookmakers shop, which is just as it should be, given that Bambury’s director Jimmy Finlay was among the committee members who strove to fund a lasting memorial to the horse who had brought so much glory to the area.
A couple of hundred yards further down Main Street, there’s a second Bambury shop, located next door to Kelly’s Pub, a hotspot of horseracing talk and reflection.
The original Bambury Bookmakers was established in 1950 by Patrick Bambury. Pat was a successful and well-known bookmaker and operated mainly in the south of Ireland, around Mallow and Kerry. Then he expanded northwards to Limerick and became one of the first independent bookmakers to establish a chain, which over time grew to around 20 shops. His daughter, Anne Gleason subsequently took over the business.
In 1980, Jimmy Finlay and his wife, Barbara, a relation of the Bambury family, set up an independent business under the Bambury name in Leinster and have built the chain to 14 shops today, mostly within the greater Dublin area but out as far as Meath and Kildare.
Says Jimmy: “Pat Bambury, being a shrewd Kerry man, was the first bookmaker to offer betting on the GAA. He achieved fame when he offered odds on the number of players to finish on the pitch in a famous All Ireland Final, Dublin versus Kerry. When questions were raised about the controversial bet Bambury quipped ‘May cool heads and fleet feet be the order of the day’.
“Our first shop was in Sallins, a suburb of Naas, in 1980,” says Jimmy. “From there we expanded to Clane in Co. Kildare in 1983, and then in 1985 we opened in Ashbourne.
“In 1989 an opportunity arose to acquire a shop at the other end of Ashbourne, adjacent to Kelly’s Pub. It originally belonged to the Hannigans, a well-known bookmaking family. Sadly, the lady who operated the shop, Patsy Hannigan, passed away in 1989. We then acquired the shop, kept the staff on and grew the business.
“It became one of our flagship shops. We’ve expanded it four times over the years. It’s now approximately 1,200 square feet.
“We relocated our original Ashbourne shop adjacent to the Stag’s Head in 1994. We’re very lucky in that we’ve shops at both ends of the town that are next to the two main betting pubs in the town, Kelly’s Pub and the Stag’s Head, which have both got a huge racing tradition.
“It’s been a feature of our business over the years that we either moved location to make sure we were well positioned, or if we didn’t move we expanded the shop. We’ve always kept up with the times and whenever there was an opportunity to expand or to develop or to improve our location, we always went for it.
“The town of Ashbourne itself has expanded beyond all expectations. It had a population of around 5,000 in 1985 and now it’s up to north of 14,000, so it’s one of the major suburbs of Dublin. It’s a commuter town, about 12 miles from Dublin. But there’s also a good farming hinterland. It’s the home of Arkle and there’s a huge racing tradition in the area and we try to capture that interest in our business.
“There’s also a growing industrial base on the outskirts of the town. It has all the elements to make it a good, successful country town, and that’s what it is.”
Some 13 kilometres west of Ashbourne is Dunshaughlin, another Dublin commuter town. It is home to Bambury Bookmakers’ headquarters, situated above one of their busiest shops. The HQ houses their telebetting centre, audio support group and accounts department.
It’s run by Jimmy’s son Colm, one of three sons involved in the business, the others being software programmer Mark, and “techy expert” Paul, who also looks after the shops’ infrastructure and communication technology.
As in Britain, betting opportunities have multiplied over the years. Jimmy recalls that back in the 1980s, horse racing accounted for around 85 per cent of turnover in shops, the remaining 15 per cent being dogs and a small amount of football.
While dogs have continued to be a staple diet of the shops – accounting for about 10 per cent of Bambury’s turnover – football now accounts for between 7 to 10 per cent, with betting on Lottery and virtual comprising around 5 per cent. Perhaps surprisingly, interest in GAA sports is limited.
“Gaelic football is of huge interest to the population of Ireland but as a betting medium it doesn’t lend itself all that well,” observes Jimmy. “In many cases the betting can be lop-sided, so it’s not so easy to engender the same interest as in other sports such as soccer. There is some growth, albeit from a small base, within GAA in areas such as first player to score, half-time/full-time. That’s beginning to develop but the scale of betting in GAA doesn’t reflect the degree of interest.”
There has been speculation that FOBTs would be introduced in Ireland since 2007 but that has consistently proved wide of the mark and Jimmy sees no possibility of them being allowed in the foreseeable future.
“The Labour Party in government have set their sights very much against it,” he says. “The adverse publicity emanating from the UK has not helped our case.
“There is a growing market for the BGT (self-service) machines that have sports and horse racing content, where the punter can bet straight into the machines, particularly among our non-nationals who appear to be more adaptable to that type of betting. It helps them that they don’t have to come to the counter; there might be a language issue, whereas they can interact with the machine more easily.”
Irish betting shops remain governed by an archaic piece of legislation that dates back to the 1931 Betting Act, Section 20(1) of which precludes “the maintenance within registered premises of any attraction (other than the mere carrying on of the business of bookmaking) which causes or encourages or is likely to cause or encourage persons to congregate in such premises”.
“It contains some silly prohibitions that have never been enforced,” notes Jimmy. “For example, we’re not allowed to have televisions in our shops by law; we’re not supposed to display results in our windows, and other rules that have been ignored over the years.
“The government is now looking at the law governing betting operations in Ireland. It’s a very complex area, particularly with the advent of the online business. Governments not only in Ireland but all over Europe have had difficulty getting their heads around how they can police, manage and, above all, try to get some money out of their activities.
“Our government announced new measures this summer that will affect the operation of shops. There is also other legislation in the pipeline regarding the governance and compliance within the area of customer care.
“There is still a lot of discussion going on. Developments have been so rapid that nobody can get a fix on what can be allowed that will be sustainable over time and won’t be subject to challenge or to other technical innovations that will render it obsolete.”
However, the biggest issue impacting bookmakers in Ireland, particularly the independent sector, insists Jimmy, is the turnover tax of 1 per cent on every bet taken, be it win or lose.
“It’s a major problem for us, because it doesn’t take account of whether you win, lose or draw. Nobody has any issue paying taxes – that’s the reality of life – but if you’re obliged to pay tax on business where you lose money, that doesn’t make sense.
“The VAT situation has also impacted on us in that we don’t charge it but yet we’re liable for it. You can claim it as part of your operational expenses but it has added to our cost base at a time when we least needed to have a costs forced up, particularly during the last six years in the worst recession in living memory. That’s a further issue that will have to be addressed if retail bookmaking in Ireland is to remain viable.”
He is, though, despite the ongoing restrictions, taxes and regulations, optimistic regarding the future of Ireland’s betting shops, albeit with some major changes.
“There’s been a significant downsizing in numbers but the betting shop will still be in existence. There will be changes in how the betting shop is perceived and how it will operate with the punters. In the last 15 years the betting shop and online have had separate existences but in the last year or so we’ve begun to see some of the online customers coming back into the shops.
“But I think the biggest breakthrough that may be coming is a blending of the online with the shops, in that technology will allow mobile phones to operate within the vicinity of shops whereby people are able to bet into the shop tills. There’s new software being developed that will ultimately allow mobile phones to be used within shops. If that happens, then I do see a ‘second coming’ of shops.
“The other significant development in Ireland has been the extension to allow us to open for evening racing during the winter months. The fact that we had to be closed for evening racing over the wintertime has been a bonus to the online people. The law has been amended to allow betting shops to open all year until 9.30pm.
“Now that shops will be open in the evenings I think you’ll see more of the online customers coming into the shops to savour the atmosphere, watch the games live in a bigger panoramic surrounding.
“This is the first full year we’re going to have evening opening of betting shops in Ireland and I think it will help the business overall.”
Bambury Bookmakers were one of seven independents responsible for founding BetPack in 2009, pooling their resources to offer an online betting service to stem the leakage of business from the shops to the online platform.
The original seven founders – Bambury, Hacketts, Mulhollands, Tullys, Track, Pat Toolan and Terry Rogers – have remained in place, albeit there have been changes in the composition of their shop portfolios. Terry Rogers no longer has a retail presence, though he remains a valued member of the team.
“BetPack gave us a presence in a market that we didn’t otherwise have a foot in, the online market,” says Bambury’s Jimmy Finlay. “Our initial feedback was very positive. We did have some issues early on with the particular software provider we were working with but we got that ironed out and saw significant growth both through the shops and through online registration, and the business grew very rapidly.”
While the independent sector is still comparatively strong in the Republic of Ireland, there has been a significant loss of shops over the last six, recession hit, years.
“Shop numbers in Ireland reached a peak of about 1,250 in 2008,” says Jimmy, “but I believe the figure today is somewhere near 800, down about one-third, and most of that one-third has come within the independent sector. We’ve lost some significant players. We are now down to about 250 independent shops from a peak of 600. That’s a reflection of how difficult the recession has been and how it has impacted on us all.
“The BetPack group doesn’t have as many shop numbers as we had at the outset – we’re down to about 120 shops nationwide.
“The recession to some extent took some of BetPack’s focus away because we were so busy with the day-to-day running of our shops. We possibly could have done a bit more by way of promoting it in the shops but with the impact of the recession, our focus was to maintain the business within our shops and, hopefully, the online would look after itself.
“Bookmakers came into the recession a little bit later than everyone else because punters wanted to hold on to their spending habits. The significant cutbacks in wages didn’t happen very early on, but then, as the recession began to grip, we noticed people weren’t spending as much, weren’t coming in as often. Obviously the development of online impacted us because a lot of people started betting through that medium, so it was a combination as the recession and the growth of online began to hit the shops quite badly during the middle years of the recession.
“We’re now beginning to see a bit of a pick-up as the government has got to grips with some of the major economic issues within the country, but it’s going to be a gradual recovery within the retail sector. I think you’ll see quicker growth with the industrial/commercial sector before you see it at retail level.”
Ashbourne commemorates Arkle
Ashbourne and its surroundings are steeped in the tradition of Arkle, trained just down the road at Kilsallaghan by Tom Dreaper. Yet it was only in April 2014 that a stature was erected in the town to honour the legacy of ‘Himself’. Bambury Bookmakers’ Jimmy Finlay takes up the story:
“About six or seven years ago we had a Cheltenham Preview here in the town. Jim Dreaper (Tom’s son) and I had a conversation and I said it was a pity we’d never got round to creating a lasting memorial to the horse. Jim agreed.
“Jim then contacted a few of the locals who were very close to Arkle and put together a committee led by his daughter Lynsey, who did Trojan work in putting the whole thing in place. The Arkle committee was formed in 2011 and we decided to honour the horse in a fitting way.
“We set about fund raising – with the gale-force wind of a recession still blowing on top of us – but we got stuck into it. Gradually over time we tapped into a vein of interest. We approached lots of people and they all agreed it was about time something was done.
“We had a big fund-raising race day at Bellewstown – we even brought Lester Piggott over and the crowds came out to see him. Barney Curley threw his weight behind the project, as did all the big owners and breeders. We got support from everywhere.
“The money began to come in; we engaged with the renowned equine sculptor Emma MacDermott and eventually we had enough funds in the kitty to start the process. Pat Byrne, who was chairman of Fairyhouse, then became a leading light within the committee and added huge impetus to the drive to get the job done.
“The upshot was that in April 2014 we realised the hopes and aspirations of everybody when we unveiled it to the people of Ashbourne, the surrounding area, and Ireland. There was a huge turnout of 5,000 people; I never saw a bigger crowd in Ashbourne than were there that day. Racing personalities from everywhere came along; Des Scahill was the MC, and we gave the horse a great send off and a great launch.
“He’s up there now in pride of place in the town. It’s been a great boost to the town and a great boost to our business too because a lot of punters come to see the statue and of course they go to the betting shops to talk to the locals.
“Many of the people associated with Arkle are still alive and well and that’s been a great boost to the whole interest in the horse. And in fairness to those lads, they put their shoulder to the wheel too.
“At long last we’ve now got a fitting tribute to the horse that’s going to last a lifetime.”
And there are further plans to capitalise on the Arkle tradition, as Jimmy reveals.
“We’re going to gather memorabilia of Arkle and set up a visitor centre. We’re in discussions with Meath County Council. This is going to be a focal point whereby people coming to view the Arkle statue will then experience the full Arkle history and see the horse in a way that we haven’t been able to pay tribute to until now.
“That’s all hopefully in the pipeline. The local authorities and the town of Ashbourne want to see the story of Arkle developed to the fullest of its potential.”