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Sports Betting in Ireland

I spent last week in Ireland on a family vacation. I saw and did a lot of really interesting things, but most of them have no place on a sports blog. My visits to Ladbrokes, a sports wagering outlet, however, do.

Intrigued by these small shops that I spotted everywhere from Dublin to Kinsale, I stopped in on two occasions to place bets on a sport I’ve rarely watched: soccer. Search this blog for “soccer” and you’ll find no results. I don’t hate the sport, don’t claim it’s boring because there’s not much scoring—it’s simply not for me. I’m not even a pseudo soccer fan who pretends to care every four years during the World Cup.

Of course that didn’t stop me from placing five euro on Manchester United to beat Chelsea in their match last week.

Here is what I considered before making the wager: (1) it seemed to be the feature match of the day and I was told it would be on TV; (2) I had heard of Manchester United before; (3) Man U was an underdog; (4) the teller told me she liked Man U in this match. Now, one could argue No. 4 should have been a reason not to bet on Man U, but I figured the tellers stand nothing to gain if I were to lose.

In a cab on the way to the Kilmainham Jail (great tour, by the way), I asked the driver what he thought about my bet. “At 11 to 4? That’s a great wager. Those two clubs are about even, I’d say.” My confidence was soaring as I got validation from a second local. Later, at a pub, just before the start of the game, a fellow Guinness drinker told me he also felt the game was a toss up. “Will probably end in a draw,” he said. No, I didn’t want a draw (tie), because unlike other sports, a tie does not mean all bettors get their money back. Instead, the sportsbooks give you the option to bet that the game will end in a draw.

The game started while I was still in the pub and ended sometime during my dinner hours later. Manchester United won 1-0. It wasn’t until the next day, when I saw the newspapers, that I realized how big the victory was.

A couple of days later, I pushed my luck and bet on another underdog, though this time I took a “double chance,” meaning I’d win if my team won or tied. The team I bet on was called the Metz, and that is the only reason I bet on them. Sure enough, they played to a 0-0 draw and I won again. This was the first time in several years that the Metz have not let me down.

Obviously it’s a small sample size but I was 2-0, 100 percent, betting on a sport I know nothing about.

Contrast that to my annual performance in NCAA Tournament pools, in which I hardly ever finish near the top of the standings despite watching several college basketball games a week and studying the bracket for hours in the days leading up to the Tourney.

My older brother ran a pool this year that had nearly 100 participants. Had Kentucky beat Connecticut in the Final Four, his girlfriend, Donna, who watched maybe two games all season, would have won. Instead my good friend, Jason, won. He had Michigan, Syracuse, and Notre Dame going far simply because he knows people who attended those schools. But he somehow picked UConn to win it all and therefore claimed the top prize. I’m not knocking these people; I’m envious and a bit confused, just as soccer fans reading this must be surprised of my betting success in Ireland.

While I figured Kentucky was too inexperienced to make such a deep Tourney run and UConn was out of gas after its Big East tournament gauntlet, Jason and Donna likely didn’t consider these factors. Just as I didn’t consider—because I didn’t know—that Manchester United hadn’t won at Chelsea’s stadium since 2002.

As they say, ignorance is bliss. And sometimes rich.

The Sure Thing: Saratoga Race Course

They met during a veterinary school exam at a horse stable in California many years ago — my aunt unsure of exactly what to do, the trainer working in the stable offering words of advice.

My aunt introduced this trainer to her brother (my uncle) and they’ve spotted her at various tracks for years. The most recent encounter was surely going to be the most profitable.

“I trust her,” my uncle said of this trainer after bumping into her at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. “She told me to stay away from a horse and it came in ninth.”

OK, so she can pick losers. Big deal. I can do that, and prove it every time I go to the track. In fact, I’d estimate I pick loser at a 95 percent clip.

After warning my uncle about one horse, she gave him a tip on another — a surefire winner for a race on Thursday. None of the horses in this race had ever raced before, so there were not prior results to study. But she had told my uncle that this horse was a “monster in the morning,” meaning he had impressed in his morning workouts.

My aunt was less enthusiastic when she heard about this tip, saying, “She’s never given me a winner.” When my uncle hears this he is not discouraged. “She’s due,” he says. As if to validate her status, he also tells me she can “sit in a box whenever she wants because she knows people.”

So she knows people. But does she know horses? We’re about to find out. Or are we? The rain has forced my younger brother, uncle, and I to abandon our trip to the track and instead go to OTB (off-track betting; a place I used to associate with degenerate gambling addicts, but now view in a much better light). Will the rain affect the race, too?

During the second race, I’m not thinking about the rain. Scrolling across the bottom of one of the televisions mounted on the wall are the scratches for the upcoming races. “Fourth race…Scratched: 1A China…6 Moon Ala Mode…Gelding: 7 Gentlemansapproval.” The phrasing makes me think our horse, Gentlemansapproval, is being scratched. It turns out it is much worse.

When I bring the sad news to my brother and uncle — the “retirement horse,” as my uncle calls him, won’t be racing — I am quickly informed that “gelding” means our horse will simply be without something in the upcoming race. Apparently he was a bit too amped for the race, so his trainers — perhaps my aunt’s friend — decided to castrate him. “This is a good thing,” my uncle assures me.

However, we are worried about the rain moving the race off the grass and onto the dirt. Races are often “taken off the turf” if it gets so wet as to be dangerous. We ask one of the OTB employees and he is confident the race will remain on grass. “It’s only light,” he says, referring to the rain. “It’s clearing up anyway.” My uncle thinks this guy knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t.

Not as bad as you might think.

Fifteen minutes to post, the race is moved to the mud. My brother has already bet (our horse is 16:1), but asks the employee if he can be refunded. His bet is relatively small, so a refund shouldn’t be a problem. “But you’d be pretty mad if you took back your bet and that horse won,” he reminds my brother. “That’s true,” my brother says, and decides to keep his bet.

My uncle and I haven’t bet yet. I decide I’m going to follow him. I don’t know the difference between grass and dirt as it pertains to horseracing, but I trust my uncle’s judgment. He seems skeptical — the trainer’s tip was given with the assumption that the race would take place on grass. This horse — and the rest of the field — has never raced competitively on dirt; they might hate it.

I could sense my uncle’s doubt, but perhaps using the same logic as my brother, he pulled the trigger. I followed suit. After all, this horse was a lock. He was a monster: grass, dirt, concrete — it didn’t matter.

Except that it did matter. The gentleman got out of the gate OK, but after the horses started kicking up mud, he fell back farther and farther. My uncle noticed it right away. “He doesn’t like the mud,” he said before any of the horses had even separated from the pack. “He doesn’t like it at all.”

As the first two horses finished, the TV switched to the finish line camera. After all the horses had crossed — coming into view for a second before disappearing off the screen to the right — the camera held steady. Why? Because all the horses had not finished. Our horse still hadn’t crossed. It seemed like a full minute before it finally did, though it was probably about 10 seconds after the winner. One horse even finished after it did. So it was 7/8.

The post-race write-up says our horse “broke a bit awkwardly, was urged along near the back, raced off the rail on the turn and faltered then was not urged in the final furlong.” That makes it sound better than it was. As I noted, his start wasn’t terrible. He wasn’t “urged” down the stretch because he was already out of contention.

When I told my dad about how the horse didn’t like the mud on his face, he made a good point. “If it were in first, it wouldn’t have gotten any mud on his face.”

Well at least Gentlemansapproval wasn’t alone. All the bettors who backed him had plenty of mud on their faces as well.

Mothers Day

It takes a special kind of mom to live in a house with four males and no females, as my mom does — especially when the men are obsessed with sports.

When the television is on, it’s usually showing a game. In the winter it’s college basketball. In the spring and summer it’s baseball. These sports are on virtually every night. Fall is the easiest for her, because college football is pretty much relegated to Saturdays.

I suppose a mom in this situation has two choices: rebel or accept. Now, don’t get me wrong — my mom is a big sports fan. But even for her I think it’s a bit much to have nearly every dinner conversation touch on a sports topic.

For the most part, though, she joins in. She really enjoys College GameDay, ESPN’s Saturday morning football pre-game show, and clearly she pays attention: This past bowl season, my family competed in a bowl pick ’em competition with 20 people. My mom won the whole thing.

Come March, my friend Lee and I always discuss the NCAA Tournament bracket. Lee loves college hoops as much as I do. He can tell you who’s the best foul shooter on Louisville and whether Arizona’s point guard prefers to drive to his left or his right. Yet when he calls me after Selection Sunday, the first thing he asks is, “Who does your mom like coming out of the West?”

My mom earned her reputation as a guru of the Dance by picking Cinderellas like Gonzaga, before people knew Gonzaga existed, and Kent State. She often beats the rest of our family in the bracket contest, though some have said she’s been slipping the past few years. Perhaps she is watching too much football in December.

My mom is the most knowledgeable sports fan of any mother I know. I’m pretty sure she could tell you what a 6-4-3 double play is. She knows how many fouls before a player fouls out. And although we laugh when she asks us to remind her, I’m confident she knows how overtime works in college football.

Sure, she sometimes gets frustrated when the Mets are on the television for the twelfth straight night, but watching the Mets and frustration go hand in hand. Putting up with four guys isn’t easy, and my mom does a great job.

So to my mom and mothers everywhere, whether they like sports or not, happy Mother’s Day!