One word to de­scribe Cheltenham? Olympics

The Cheltenham Fes­ti­val through the eyes of on course book­maker Berkie Browne

Irish Examiner - Racing - - CHELTENHAM PREVIEW 2017 - In­ter­view by Colm O’Con­nor

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 (bet­ 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?

>> Olympics.

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.

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