‘‘ 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.
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.
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.