“My wife may not agree but I now treat the off-course bookmaking business as a hobby,” says Chris Troise, owner of Norfolk one-shop independent Greenhill Racing.
A hobby it may be, but as a chartered accountant he knows the figures must add up.
Greenhill Racing is located in a parade of shops on The Street in the village of Long Stratton, to the south of Norwich. Long Stratton comprises two villages; the larger, Stratton St. Mary, being to the south, the smaller, Stratton St. Michael, to the north. It is home to a population of around 5,000.
Chris’s interest in racing came via his father, Joseph Troise, a former runner for the likes of well-known local bookmaker Dougie Pye back in the days before the legalisation of betting shops. He earned £50 in commissions the day Black Tarquin won the 1948 St Leger, which helped as a part deposit for his first house. He later set up his own catering business.
“My father took me greyhound racing at Yarmouth Stadium at an early age,” Chris recalls. “It was only ever a pastime for him – I never knew him to have more than a pound on a greyhound race right up to when he died in 1996.”
A qualified chartered accountant operating in his native Yarmouth area, Chris relocated to Aberdeen in 1993, working there for a couple of years before the business was bought out by part of the Fluor Corporation seeking a foothold in the oil and gas markets in Europe.
“When I came back from Aberdeen I began betting on-course at the greyhound tracks at Yarmouth and Swaffham. I then took a half-share in a betting shop run by a business partner, Mark McMahon, at Needham Market, about ten miles from Ipswich.
“That was in 1999, pre-exchanges and pre-online. It traded under M & J Racing and was an outstanding shop, even though the machines never really took off, with fantastic telephone account business and some significant football bets. It had a large free parking area and was a magnet for punters from the surrounding villages and from Ipswich itself.”
Already in possession of a bookmaker’s permit for his on-course greyhound business – he continues to stand at Yarmouth Stadium three times a week – Chris looked for a second location and found one in a former electrical services shop in Long Stratton. He opened for business in 2002, having completed the shopfit himself with the aid of his father-in-law and a couple of local tradesmen.
“We purchased the shop but subsequently sold it and leased it back,” he says. “The reason was at that time there was talk of a by-pass by-passing the village and we didn’t know what sort of impact that would have on the business. I didn’t want to be left with premises that had lost their value.
“It’s not the most ideal location, with the local pubs, the Queen’s Head and the Swan, being quite a long walk away, but we’re located on the main A140 Norwich to Ipswich road and there’s a large free car park at the rear so we do get a fair deal of passing trade, and we always try to engage with them and do all we can to retain them. We endeavour to provide them with immediate tailored concessions depending on their type of bet. For example, if they’re betting on greyhounds we might offer then a 10 per cent bonus on forecasts, maybe guaranteed odds. We get a lot of those casuals returning.
“We still have plenty of decent staking punters who aren’t interested in the exchanges or who combine it with traditional shop betting. We always try to accommodate those as far as possible at exchange shows less their notional commission rate.
“For many years I subscribed to SIS, Turf TV and Sky. I no longer have Sky but I’ve still got Turf TV and SIS. I’m still on the original SIS system; it works for me.”
Greenhill Racing is the only bookmaker in Long Stratton, the nearest competition being William Hill, Ladbrokes and Coral in the town of Diss, about nine miles away.
The business started out with two full-time managers, Dean Munnings and Keith Dicks, plus one part-time cashier, Nina Pawsey, with Chris providing only limited cover, mostly during staff holidays. That remained largely unchanged until early last year when a review of the financial situation prompted unwelcome but necessary changes.
“At the beginning of 2014 I made Keith redundant – he’s since returned on an occasional basis – and I took on more hours. I then was committed to running the shop largely on my own with part-time support. I unfortunately had to give Dean notice earlier this year – which was a difficult decision because I wasn’t just losing a shop manager but also a very good on-course clerk at the greyhound stadium.
“I’ve rescheduled the operating hours. We’re closed on Sundays, there’s no summer evening opening any more, and we’ve changed to a later opening time, 10.20am until around 5.00pm weekdays, which enables us to get to the greyhound track in time. On Saturdays we open an hour earlier.
“Terry Saunders, a former greyhound trainer attached to Yarmouth, is my main part-timer now. Terry used to train one or two for me going back in time. Terry comes here in the mornings, which allows me to just come in at lunchtime for the racing. Keith is here three or four days a month; Nina comes in on an occasional basis.”
The need for staff cutbacks is a sign of the times, as is the reduction in the number of independents in the area. The Needham Market shop in which he once held a half-share is sadly no more. A couple of independents have closed locally in recent times; one in Harleston this year, one in Bungay last year.
Chris scrolls through a mental list of half a dozen or more one- or two-shop independents that used to operate in and around Norwich, all no longer around. There are now only two others left.
Betting shops aren’t the only disappearing business in the area. Long Stratton has recently lost both its local bank (Barclays) and a convenience store at the end of the parade of shops, which used to give cash-back.
Greenhill Racing does, however, have the benefit of being able to utilise merchant services through its bank, a provision not generally available to many small bookmakers. Chris notes the importance of being allowed the facility now that the bank has closed. It is an important advantage for attracting and retaining machine players.
Chris did at one time stand at Yarmouth Racecourse. “It was enjoyable but it was too much effort for so little return, even though I’m local,” he reflects while doffing his metaphorical hat in respect of those who travel long distances from meeting to meeting. “And on the days when we had greyhound racing in the evening it was always a rush to finish in the afternoon.”
Yarmouth’s greyhound stadium races three times a week, on Saturday nights, and a Bags contract for meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays from September through to April. Chris, along with his on-track partner Shaun Hill and part-time clerk Peter Carse, is an ever-present.
The temporary closure of Yarmouth’s racecourse last year for remedial work on the home straight, along with its short-lived return to action, culminating in the controversial abandonment of the second day of its flagship September meeting and loss of the remainder of its 2015 fixtures, provided an unintended knock-on benefit for the town’s greyhound track.
“The greyhound track has done particularly well this year,” says Chris. “We certainly had some very good nights there this summer – we took just shy of 1,200 bets at one meeting. When the racecourse began their drainage work at the end of 2014 they were insistent they’d be open for business by the end of June. When that didn’t materialise, there were people on holiday who were looking for their gaming fix, so I’m sure we picked up some extra trade as a result of the horserace course not being ready to reopen.
“The greyhound stadium use promotional tools such as Groupon deals which give discounted admission, and the seasonal trade results in a high number of casual punters.
“The difference is that, with horse racing, everything is now governed by the exchanges, whereas with the greyhounds we price up every race ourselves and we bet to our opinion. None of the bookmakers at Yarmouth Stadium use the exchanges to hedge into. This helps discourage regulars from using exchanges in front of us.”
He expresses an admiration for Bet365 and Betfred – Totepool have sponsored the East Anglian Greyhound Derby for the last two years – for the manner in which they have developed their businesses over recent years.
Meanwhile, he maintains a watchful chartered accountant’s eye on the viability of Greenhill Racing.
“While we’re not as dependent on our FOBT machines as some independents, they certainly make a good contribution and I suppose without them I wouldn’t be here,” he observes. “If they don’t perform or further restrictions or increased taxation are placed upon them it would very much make up my mind as to the future of the shop. I do have the option of operating a credit only operation with my loyal band of telephone account customers if the machines and over the counter business don’t continue to generate the thousand pounds a week overhead which would otherwise be saved.”