Geoff Banks, son of John, a bookmaker way ahead of his time, writes of his festival experience and his frustrations with the industry.
Bankers. We used to count the banker material in the car with my Dad on the way to Cheltenham. It was our benchmark to success at the meeting. And that was the word – success, because losing at the Festival was a non runner for Bookies like John Banks.
The environment has changed. I don’t use betting exchanges to price up my book, I value opinion over trading between Bots and the numpties. I’m very much in the minority. Modern day Bookmakers can’t see past exchanges, trading every penny they take, offering poor service to the customer, which starts with uniformity of odds.
We have Rob Hughes to thank, the casting-vote chairman of the Levy Board. He introduced exchanges to betting rings – now decimated. Bookies have become their own worst enemy.
Me? I expect to win by taking the aggressive line. No, I didn’t offer ten pound bets on Sprinter Sacre at Evens, but then I’m not running a casino. I don’t study a yard of form pre-festival. It clouds my plans. If I spent all night studying form, I’d surely end up with the same book of hotpots as the punters do. Dynaste, Quevega, Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth and Simonsig.
My job is to get them beat.
Tuesday rolls in, starting well for the Books, with the hard pulling My Tent Or Yours looking assured of victory, outbattled by Champagne Fever. Last year we started poorly and never looked back. This year was more muddled. Wins for Simonsig, Hurricane Fly and Quevega placed the straight bat layers on a sticky wicket. We lost. Plenty. The bright spot? Handicaps. Result after result all week stunned punters.
Wednesday, a gloomy bunch of Bookies snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the first, with Back In Front rallying. Groans and queues around the Centaur for payouts.
I employ 3 people to just pay out the cash, which by nature is more time consuming than accepting a bet – it wasn’t enough!
The office rang – running up bets onto Irish wonder-horse Pont Alexandre in the next. This from multiple bets onto Back In Focus and yesterdays ‘heroes’. ‘How much do we have it for?’
‘Don’t ask’, says my senior trader, ‘we’re behind the sofa in here’.
Talking-horse, not wonder-horse. And it kicks off panic with the punters. They barely scrape a return in another race for two days. Who cares about Sprinter Sacre? Not the Bookies – they ignore him. Ooh aaah, well done, move on.
Round after round to the Bookies continued through Thursday. Had you asked me to write down my own set of results, I couldn’t have penned a better set. It was almost embarrassing. Thursday night we celebrated, care of the Richard Power firm in Cheltenham. Smiles all round and stories of derring do and how what looked on paper a punters’ festival, had turned so much our way. We were well in front.
Friday. Hmmm. I remember thinking I would coast round, secure that even if the results were similar to Tuesday, we couldn’t finish behind now. That’s not to say I intended backing off and hogging the pot. Oh No! not my way at all. I’m too daft to do that. Punters on the ropes and down… I was going to put my heel gently on their necks.
Hard to remember a plan proven more wrong, as result after calamitous result ensued. The worst of which for me was Salsify in the Foxhunters. Backed in from 9/2 long term to 2/1. It was a catastrophe. I was stunned by the manner of his victory, speechless at the turn of events, and the volley of noise in the Centaur was unbelievable! It didn’t surprise me to watch McCoy boot the last favourite home. I was numb. The punters deserved their day.
How much did the Festival cost the firms? Well, we lost double on Friday what we’d reaped on Wednesday and Thursday. Those are traditionally quieter betting days.
I’m not crying, I have a track record of winning long term. Overall, the Cheltenham bash cost the Bookies big time. More with the large offshore concerns, who outdid each other with one moronic offer after another.
These days they seem to treat the whole event as an opportunity to pad their online products with lovely names and addresses. And the dimmies queue up to sign up as if it’s Christmas. Is that a fair comment? I believe so, because every tenner laid at evens on Sprinter Sacre usually gets ploughed into something else. I mean who deposits a tenner and goes through the rigmarole of withdrawing it the next day? It’s ploughed into some other product and Bobs Worth’s your uncle.
Whilst everyone from the BHA downward is clapping themselves on the back at producing another showcase event – and it was, I offer a word of caution. I listened to the great Micky Fitzgerald on the excellent Morning Line, a show I’ve been lucky to participate in, eulogising about his former boss producing the horse in tip top condition to wrest the big prize of the Gold Cup. And I congratulate my friend Nicky for his skills.
However, the last time I saw the great Bobs in action was November. He wasn’t the only one of course. A number of top jumping stars rested from December onwards. Fine, the weather was poor in January, but there were still opportunities to be had, rejected by stable stars with owners rich enough to take the gamble and lie low for months.
In the meantimeTV viewers , and, worse, attendees on course endured uncompetitive events and ‘match races’ for months.
There have been 23 grade one events this season. 16 won by the favourite, and 6 by the second favourites.
That highlights the predictable nature of jump racing these days, and hardly pads the Levy. It’s not good enough in my view. I don’t care who wins the Gold Cup, it’s a great institution, and whatever lifts the little cup, Dessie or Nortons Coin, is going to be big news.
Micky Fitz was right to congratulate the great one, but he forgets the intervening months have become drab and boring. Might I remind those looking in that Desert Orchid ran 8 or 9 times a year. He was an athlete and so are today’s horses. It disproves the current lame excuse given for horses languishing in their boxes, that they’re not ‘capable’ of winning top races if they run in February.
And if you’re Newbury or Kempton? You’re doing the industry no favours by permitting quiet gallops for top stars after racing. Ask Fontwell who provided 50 grand for a five-runner race how they felt at the lack of ambition?
Where was the inventiveness of connections then? Small fields for Championship races at the Festival? An alarming development for Racing. As for Quevega? Group class in a seller. It just leaves me cold. There’s only one horse who cannot be bested these days. One.
Let them race.