Toals’ Belfast shop

It’s big, it’s very big; at 7,600 square feet – 7,588 to be precise – it’s the largest betting shop in the UK.

Located in the former passport office on Belfast’s High Street, Toals Bookmakers opened their flagship premises in March, just in time for the Cheltenham Festival.

Built in the mid-1970s at the height of the troubles, the property came up for sale in 2007 and was acquired by the firm’s director Gary Toal in 2008. This was no speculative purchase; he had been doing his homework for a long time.

“The passport office were the tenants and I’d a fair idea they’d earmarked somewhere else for the passport office,” explains Gary. “I felt it was my best chance of getting myself onto the High Street.

“Because it was an illegal activity until 1957, most betting shops were in alleyways or hidden away from the high street. It’s very hard to get a new licence in Northern Ireland but if you’re extending an existing premises there are ways of doing that. I knew from the premises my father and I had bought in Belfast I’d be able to extend onto the property when the passport office moved off the High Street.”

He finally received the licence on November 26, 2014. Three years of planning and “26 different sets of plans on how we were going to lay it out” would be condensed into a three-month renovation programme to ensure it would open in time for Cheltenham.

“Cheltenham is big across the water but it’s nothing compared to the Republic of Ireland, and we’re not far behind the Republic,” says Gary. “People save all year and take the week off. It’s a huge thing.

“I knew it was going to cost X and it’s probably cost me 3X. When it got up to 3X I thought ‘have I lost my mind here?’

“We had 20-odd guys every day bar a couple of days over Christmas and we got it open for Friday, 6th March, four days before Cheltenham started.

“Apparently, there were 350 people standing in the shop for the first race on Tuesday, Champion Hurdle day. I was at Cheltenham that day but I really wanted to be in High Street, Belfast!”

The L-shaped shop features a state-of-the-art 12ft x 7ft video wall – three above three above three – as well as dedicated sporting zones and refreshment areas. Above the shop are two floors of office accommodation containing the firm’s headquarters.

“It’s performed very well,” reflects Gary. “There was always this perception of betting shops hidden down alleyways having smoke-filled atmospheres in which women didn’t feel comfortable. But there are girls coming into our Belfast shop every single day; they settle down, have a coffee, read the paper; they think it’s great.”

It’s well worth taking a virtual tour on Google Maps. You’ll find it hard not to be impressed.

Toals’ History

Toals Bookmakers was established in 1932 by Tommy Toal, grandfather of Gary. His first shop was in Ballymena, Co. Antrim.

The 1957 Betting and Lotteries Act (Northern Ireland) legalised betting shops in Northern Ireland – four years before a similar Act gave the green light for Britain to do likewise.

“One of the requirements of the Act was to prove that you’d been in the premises for five years previously,” says Gary. “The best way of doing that was by getting a summons for being an illegal bookmaker. You didn’t need to be convicted of an offence but it was the best way to prove to the courts that you were there.”

Sure enough, it was the serving of just such a summons that enabled his grandfather to open a legal shop, in Larne, in 1957.

“My grandfather had an accident around the time the legalisation came through in Northern Ireland, so my father, Michael, left school at fifteen to run the family betting business. My grandfather passed away in the early 1960s.

“After I left university (he studied business and economics) in 1986 I helped run the firm. My father found me an opportunity with a shop in the Republic. I then got a second shop the year after and subsequently sold to Barney O’Hare a number of years later. We then we started very slowly acquiring one shop here, one shop there, one or two every year.”

That gradual expansion over the years has accumulated 45 shops, all in the North, making Toals second only to McLeans (60 shops) among Northern Ireland’s independents.

Sadly, Michael Toal passed away in 2006, but Gary’s daughter Lauren has been an important part of the set up for the last seven years, thus ensuring that the family business has extended to a fourth generation.

“We’re in a lot of the major provincial towns and several large villages in the North, a huge geographical spread,” says Gary.

“We’ve had our own interior shop fitting team for at least 20 years. They work for us full-time. Normally we build everything off-site in our workshop outside Ballymena, get it ready and reassemble the jigsaw. It’s a modular system that can be tweaked to suit individual shops.”

He believes that interest in soccer is even greater in Northern Ireland than in England’s betting shops. “I remember 30 years ago that horse racing was probably 90 per cent of the business, whereas now it wouldn’t be 45 per cent,” he reflects. “Soccer is now more than 20 per cent of our business.

“Business has diverted from horses and greyhounds to sports that are on TV. If it’s on Sky, people will have a bet, but more people have terrestrial TV, therefore it gets a huge boost.

“We don’t have the same volume of machine business; it’s routinely over the counter. The machines are here but it’s not as significant. We are bound by the British code of conduct – four maximum per shop – but they’re set up differently.

“We have a telephone betting facility, situated above the High Street Belfast shop. It’s quite significant.

“We have a website advertising everything that’s available in the tills and screens. It’s essentially a customer information site, although I do hope to be trading online by January next year.

“Also we have a share in BizTech which provides the Arkle EPOS solution for betting shops.”

Northern Ireland’s licensing laws are far stricter than those in England, Scotland and Wales, with the demand test criteria still being in effect. While there is no limit on the number of shops permitted in a town, when applying for a licence there is a need to prove a demand for facilities in that locality – and that can be hard to prove.

“If there’s an objection, you’d be 99 per cent certain not to get it,” observes Gary. “It’s a very costly exercise.”

Another major downside is that Northern Ireland’s betting shops are still prohibited from opening on Sundays, despite ‘regular’ retail shops having been allowed to open on the Sabbath for many years, the sole trading restriction being that premises larger than 3,000 square feet can only open between 1pm and 6pm.

It’s a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs, resulting in punters from the north heading south to Dundalk to place their bets, or to bet online. Furthermore, it is not hard to find pubs and clubs running illegal books all over the province. Regulation rather than prohibition is surely long overdue.

Bookmakers and Northern Ireland’s racecourses

Toals Bookmakers have put their names to both horse and greyhound racing over the years

When they still had a presence in the Republic they sponsored Dundalk’s prestigious ‘525’ until Bar One took that over when buying the Dundalk shops. In 2013 Toals backed the Ulster Greyhound Derby at Drumbo Park, the race being won that year by Jaxx On Fantasy, owned by Hungarian Mihaly Ganyecz and trained by John McGee.

On the horseracing front, Toals Bookmakers have sponsored the three most recent runnings of Downpatrick’s flagship event, the Ulster National, this year’s renewal going to the Gordon Elliott-trained Riverside City.

“We had three shops in Downpatrick but I tripled the size of one of those in 2014 and closed another,” says Gary Toal. “We also have shops in the three closest towns to Downpatrick. We always sponsored at least one race there every year. Over the years, that became several races. When they lost their principal sponsor I was happy to take it on.

“It’s been very successful. Downpatrick has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. I’m on the board there as well and I’m happy with my association.  It’s the best race of Downpatrick’s year.”

There is, though, a longstanding issue between Northern Ireland’s two racecourses, Down Royal and Downpatrick, and the North’s bookmakers. In a nutshell, the two racecourses operate through a funding model based on a fixed-sum contribution from bookmakers on a per-shop basis. It’s a mandatory payment whereby bookmakers are required to pay an annual fixed fee per shop in order to be able to renew their licence.

Since 2010 the sum has been established at £2,000 per shop. However, built into that arrangement was a default clause, whereby the contribution would revert to its pre-2010 figure of £1,123 per shop in 2015 in the absence of any renegotiation. When negotiations to agree a new deal failed to take place last year, the sum reverted to its pre-2010 level. Meanwhile, the racecourses insist that the figure of £2,000 was already inadequate for their needs.

Conscious that he wears two hats, Gary chooses his words carefully. “The racetracks approached the bookmakers in 2008/2009 saying there were exceptional circumstances and there were improvements they had to make in order to survive. They asked for more money for five years and then they’d revert back to how it was.

“The bookmakers sat down with the two racetracks, we agreed, we shook hands, and it was put on the statute. This year was the first in which it reverted back to £1,100 a year, yet the racetracks chose a year and a half ago to lobby everybody to say they should get more. That didn’t sit well with a lot of bookmakers.

“The reason it went back from the inflated charge to the original charge was the increase in media rights. The racetracks went to the Stormont committee and told them that the bookmakers’ charge was the most significant part of their funding. That is certainly not the fact. The most significant part of their funding is media rights. Bookmakers are paying twice.”

Hopefully a settlement can be reached. Failing that, it may be left for the governing body, Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) to initiate a review and make a decision. Should that decision go against the bookmakers, a challenge to the ruling can be expected.