The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Brian O’Con­nor

‘‘ There is a po­ten­tial time-bomb tick­ing. Yet Ire­land’s leg­is­la­tion still re­flects an old fash­ioned gambling cul­ture of race­course book­ies hold­ing chalk

Who gets their sport­ing jol­lies watch­ing grey­hound rac­ing at half-eight in the morn­ing? Pre­sum­ably not a sec­tion of so­ci­ety pre­oc­cu­pied with their five-a-day, al­though that could be just lazy stereo­typ­ing. But who­ever they are, they’re out there, and they’re gambling.

If they weren’t Ire­land’s first early morn­ing grey­hound meet­ings wouldn’t be tak­ing place. They’re start­ing this month, in Kilkenny on Wed­nes­days and Water­ford on Thurs­days. The first races will be at 8.18 in the morn­ing.

It’s prob­a­bly good news for a few lo­cal en­thu­si­asts. There is, af­ter all, a big dog­gie hin­ter­land in the south east. Mas­ter McGrath, the leg­endary cours­ing dog, came from Water­ford. Sport­ing his­tory though is un­likely to have them flood­ing into Kil­co­han Park be­fore go­ing to work.

None of which mat­ters be­cause this isn’t about sport. It’s about bet­ting. And if it in­volves grey­hounds in the early morn­ing it clearly doesn’t mat­ter much to a lot of peo­ple what they’re bet­ting on or where it’s tak­ing place.

Bet­ting shops in Ire­land don’t open un­til 10am. But the traps open at 7.30am in Bri­tain and of course on­line’s inces­sant ap­petite for at­ten­tion never sleeps. All of which makes bet­ting fod­der a valu­able com­mod­ity.

It’s why early morn­ing dogs from Kilkenny and Water­ford is an earner for the grey­hound game here. Pic­tures will be pumped into more than 4,000 UK bet­ting shops and they will also be avail­able to stream on­line. So, in­con­gru­ous as it is to most of us, there is an au­di­ence there, ei­ther in the cu­ri­ous com­mu­nity of those stand­ing in bet­ting shops be­fore the sun’s up, or in­di­vid­u­als sit­ting in Hong Kong high-rises do­ing their on­line dough at a dog track in a coun­try they might strug­gle to find on a map.

It’s a God-aw­fully dispir­it­ing idea. Not par­tic­u­larly be­cause it con­jures up old-fash­ioned images of lonely des­per­ate in­di­vid­u­als, al­though it does. But be­cause of how for many of them what they’re ac­tu­ally bet­ting on must be so com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant.

This is a sports bet­ting in­dus­try cater­ing to a market that most likely doesn’t give a damn what the sport is. The thrill is in the bet, which means the bet can be on any­thing, even dogs pound­ing around a patch of sand in Water­ford.

Mind you, at least bet­ting on a grey­hound means in­vest­ing 30 sec­onds of hope in a liv­ing, breath­ing crea­ture. So does stick­ing a ten­ner on some horse and jockey you’ve never heard of at some gaff in Mau­ri­tius.

If you re­ally want the win­ter blues then stand in a bet­ting shop some­time and watch pun­ters shout­ing en­cour­age­ment at a bank of screens show­ing vir­tual rac­ing.

Com­puter horses

Peo­ple are bet­ting on com­puter horses in com­puter games where the bookie can’t lose. There are even sup­posed form guides and lists of made-up run­ners and rid­ers. It’s as pa­thet­i­cally di­vorced from any sort of sport­ing judge­ment as the con­tro­ver­sial FOBTs that cre­ated such a re­cent po­lit­i­cal stink in Bri­tain.

It could be bingo, the lot­tery, or two flies go­ing up a wall. It could be any­thing, at any time in any place. The bet’s the thing, which is why dogs in Kilkenny can be a market in Kolkata.

Of course the bet has al­ways been the thing. It’s as pri­mal an im­pulse as the species has. The old line about pro­cre­ation and spec­u­la­tion be­ing the two rawest in­stincts we have is a cliché but rep­e­ti­tion doesn’t di­lute its rel­e­vance. What has changed is the ex­tent of op­por­tu­nity.

The gambling land­scape has trans­formed in less than two decades. The in­ter­net, glob­al­i­sa­tion and smart-phones have al­lowed gambling con­glom­er­ates to ex­tend and nor­malise the bet­ting in­stinct to an ex­tent unimag­in­able be­fore.

Given a more or less free reg­u­la­tory run, the colos­sal prof­itabil­ity of th­ese busi­ness was high­lighted re­cently by the multi-bil­lion­aire boss of the Bet365 on­line com­pany, Denise Coates, pay­ing her­self al­most ¤300 mil­lion last year.

Tech­nol­ogy can present any punter any­where with a myr­iad of bet­ting an­gles in an end­less 24/7 market cy­cle ac­ces­si­ble with a swipe of a fin­ger. Backed up by vast ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets, gambling firms flex their hard-sell by push­ing how it mat­ters more when there’s money on it.

Any­one who’s ever had a bet knows how true that can be. There’s also the re­al­ity that a bet for most of us is sim­ply an en­joy­able and ex­cit­ing test of judge­ment. And, un­less it in­volves the un­hap­pi­ness of some­one else, free-market hap­pi­ness and ex­cite­ment is hard to ar­gue with.

Dig­i­tal gen­er­a­tion

Per­haps just as hard to dis­pute though is how we are only start­ing to get a glimpse of the wider so­cial ram­i­fi­ca­tions be­ing stored up by how an un­der-reg­u­lated in­dus­try can ser­vice an au­di­ence which thinks bet­ting on dogs at half -eight in the morn­ing isn’t more than a lit­tle pa­thetic.

Gambling firms, and in­deed the sports gen­er­at­ing rev­enue for them­selves by sell­ing pic­ture rights to them, can ar­gue it is sim­ply a ques­tion of sup­ply and de­mand. And there are big-pic­ture con­sid­er­a­tions around ideas of curb­ing any in­di­vid­ual’s right to spend their morn­ings and money do­ing any­thing they damn well like.

How­ever, we are see­ing the im­pact of ram­pant op­por­tu­nity avail­able to a dig­i­tal gen­er­a­tion that can in­dulge whims at a swipe. And the fear with gambling is it may be just the tip of an ice­berg rapidly ex­pand­ing all the time from fail­ure to recog­nise how so­ci­ety can’t be just a market.

There is a po­ten­tial time-bomb tick­ing. Yet Ire­land’s leg­is­la­tion still re­flects an old fash­ioned gambling cul­ture of race­course book­ies hold­ing chalk. The 2013 Gambling Con­trol Bill re­mains in limbo and there ap­pears to be no ur­gency about chang­ing that. That’s not good enough.

Of course spe­cific na­tional leg­is­la­tion is no sil­ver bul­let to a global so­cial prob­lem. But this is a Gov­ern­ment that sup­pos­edly ap­pre­ci­ates peo­ple who get up early in the morn­ing. It needs to start fac­ing up to what some of them are do­ing.

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