One word to describe Cheltenham? Olympics
The Cheltenham Festival through the eyes of on course bookmaker Berkie Browne
What is your background in bookmaking?
>> My father Eric bet on course at some horse meetings and at greyhound tracks and shortly after doing my Leaving Cert I opened a betting shop in Listowel in 1992 and it just kicked on from there. I was just gone 18 and I was probably one of the youngest bookmakers in the country at the time. Looking back on it, it was fairly daunting but we eased into it and got it going without any major hiccups. I enjoy it hugely. It is an easy game when things are going right.
What makes a good bookmaker?
>> Good question. Patience. You don’t have to win it all in one day. Everything is based over a period of time, whether that be weeks or months. This game is all about a figure at the end of the year. Yes, there are a lot of other factors in being a good bookmaker — your sporting knowledge, mathematical abilities in terms of odds and having the odds in your favour and all that but I still think patience is the one that is most important.
How did you end up with a pitch at Cheltenham?
>> We bought a pitch in 2001 when the Festival was cancelled due to the Foot and Mouth outbreak so it was not the best of starts to life in England! It was a very big outlay at the time but the market had just opened up for the first time in England. Prior to that, you couldn’t buy pitches over there so we felt it was too good of opportunity to miss out on. We bought pitches in Cheltenham, Aintree and Epsom though we sold Epsom subse- quently. It was a big spend day one but I think it was worthwhile. For Cheltenham we bought in alongside two other Irish lads — Ian Murphy and Shane Grant and we operate under the title of Elite Racing. It is right on the rails and is a great pitch.
How do you look ahead to the week — anxious, excited?
>> I am excited more than anxious, there is plenty of action, you are on your toes from the time you arrive at the racecourse — it is very much a case of all work and no play for the week.
We fly early this (Monday) morning, bringing over bookmaker’s gear — computers, laptops, keypads — and all the stuff you will need to make sure everything flows without a hitch. I will head off early on Monday morning along with Spike (Murphy) and Barney (McMahon) and we are joined by racing photographer Pat Healy who is also from Listowel. We fly from Cork to Heathrow and then it is up the Cheltenham. We have a house booked for the week and then we get the last flight out of there on Friday night.
What is an average day like?
>> We start setting up at 10am and we’d be betting at 11.30am. You would be then be going full whack until the white flag of the final race. Yes, it is intense work for those couple of hours but where else would you want to be for the week? Gold Cup Day is on a different scale again. The crowds are so big that punters actually struggle to get a bet on given the sheer numbers there. There are three days in the year that I love — the All-Ireland football final, the last day of the National Coursing meeting in Clonmel and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
What’s the nightmare scenario?
>> Getting results like we got about four or five years ago, when the favourites starts rolling in one after another. It starts getting serious over there then.
You must be one of the few Irish men not cheering on an Irish horse during the week?
>> It all depends on their place in the market. If it is an Irish favourite I wouldn’t be cheering but if it is a 20/1 outside I’ll be loving it!
Have you a network of advisers or do you trust your own judgement?
>> There is a bit of both but ultimately I make the final call.
Are the punters coming to you primarily Irish?
>> It is hard to say, as the betting is pre- dominantly in sterling. You would be looking at 80/20 sterling to euro. People are talking about the impact of Brexit but we haven’t seen anything yet and I’m not overly worried about it.
How is life as a bookmaker in 2017 compared to when you started out?
>> It is like chalk and cheese. Even the on course has changed. Back when I started all the bets used to be written into the big book, now everything is computerised. There is a lot more information available for the punters now via specialised companies, social media and price comparison websites. Yeah, that technology helps us but it also makes our work more challenging.
How have betting exchanges affected business?
>> It has changed the landscape but the exchangesaretheresincewe started going to Cheltenham so it is part and parcel of life, you just deal with and get on with it. But it has certainly made betting more competitive.
How do you compete with the big boys?
>> We do our best to be competitive and offer an alternative. The coursing side of things has been huge for us. We literally just finished the coursing season last month. We had a very successful Clonmel meeting, the crowds were up again for a third of fourth year. The track game is in the news for all the negative and wrong reasons but coursing is in a very good place.
You mentioned coursing earlier, it must be some contrast with Cheltenham.
>> You aren’t wrong there! There are about three or four bookmakers at most regular coursing meetings and more often than not you are at the side of a field in bad weather conditions. It is very, very different to Cheltenham. But we love it. We go coursing every weekend from the start of November right through to the Irish Cup at the end of February. Being from North Kerry, which is a stronghold of coursing, there is phenomenal interest, and business in it. Everything is built up around the National Meeting in Clonmel, we make a big ante-post book in both the the Derby and the Oaks through our coursing website (betbrowne.com) which is very popular.
Do you enjoy it?
>> I do, I do. When you stop enjoying it you are in trouble, thankfully it hasn’t happened yet.
What’s your one tip for the Festival
>> It is very difficult for the layers to get a result in the Mares’ races and Limini will be very hard to beat.
And one to steer clear of?
>> I don’t fancy Cue Card in the Gold Cup, 11-year-olds don’t win the race.
One word to describe Cheltenham?
Do you have a preference for working in the shop or on course?
>> “It is nice to have a bit of both but there is nothing to match the buzz and adrenalin of being on a course for a big festival or meeting.
How much of business is on horse racing compared to 10 years ago as betting on soccer continues to grow
>> Horse racing is still the mainstay but it not as dominant as it was 15 years ago.
In terms of our business the top four would be (in this order): horseracing, soccer, greyhounds and GAA.
What do you do when it is all over? Take a nice relaxing break?
>> I will be back at work in the office in Listowel on the Saturday morning and I will be in Austin Stack Park, Tralee that evening watching Kerry beat the Dubs and bring their streak without a defeat to an end. I could offer you some odds on that...
Final question — where did the name Berkie come from?
>> I’m called after my grandfather. The priest here in Listowel at the time initially refused to christen me Berkie but after further negotiations my parents got their way and I’ve been Berkie ever since — it is on my birth cert and my passport.