Horse racing holds a cherished place in Irish culture, intertwining tradition and passion on renowned tracks across the nation. At the heart of this relationship lies the iconic Irish Grand National, a symbol of prestige and competition.

BoyleSports, Ireland’s largest independent bookmaker, is entering its 10th year as the principal partner of the Irish Grand National, reaffirming its commitment to the sport.

In an exclusive interview, Vlad Kaltenieks, CEO of BoyleSports, spoke to Insider Sport, outlining the firm’s strategic vision to enhance fan engagement, potential challenges or opportunities arising from the new Irish regulatory Bill and the overall importance of horse racing in the country.

IS: This marks BoyleSports’ 13th consecutive year as Irish Grand National partner. How significant is this partnership to the company’s brand identity and visibility in Ireland?

Vlad Kaltenieks: We are very proud of our long-standing association with Fairyhouse as Principal partner of the Easter Festival with the greatest jumps race in Ireland; the Irish Grand National, the main feature race. In what is our 10th year (it would have been 11 only for COVID saw one year cancelled) this new deal will take us up to thirteen consecutive years. BoyleSports’ affiliation to what is the greatest jumps race in Ireland is one of the most long standing in the history of the sport. 

The Irish Grand National is the greatest race in the Irish NH calendar. As visibility goes it doesn’t get much better but for us, as Ireland’s largest independent bookmaker we are committed to supporting Irish racing and this new partnership is further indication of that ambition.

And with our new extended sponsorship as official betting partner to the Summer Series, we look forward to switching from a thrilling Easter Festival at Fairyhouse to a cracking summer of racing and entertainment at Leopardstown.

IS: How does BoyleSports plan to engage and interact with fans during sponsored events, both in person and through digital platforms? 

VK: Engaging with racegoers digitally and on the ground is very important and it’s something that both BoyleSports and Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) feel strongly about – enhancing the overall experience for racegoers and those not able to attend. 

For us, as a brand, it’s an opportunity to leave a real lasting impression on our core audience. We pride ourselves on being a customer centric business whether that’s across our retail outlets or through the promos and offers we run on a regular basis. BoyleSports has built its reputation on excellent customer service, so creating a pleasant experience is at the forefront of everything we do and we’re constantly looking at ways we can improve.

IS: Are there any innovative approaches to enhance fan experiences that will make this Grand National partnership stand out from previous deals?

VK: Well, as this is our 10th year, we are hoping to mark that in a special way. But it’s not just about fan experience, it’s about celebrating in the run up to and on the day itself. If you’ve ever been to Fairyhouse for the festival, you’ll know that it’s a wonderful experience already with lots going on for racegoers over the three days. 

We work closely with Peter Roe and his team at Fairyhouse and the extended HRI team on engaging customers on the ground. We might have something a little different up our sleeve for this year.  

IS: Is horse racing BoyleSports’ primary sports sponsorship focus in Ireland or does it form part of a multi-dynamic marketing strategy?  

VK: Horse racing is hugely important to us and is a key focus for us in both Ireland and the UK. Beyond our relationship with HRI and its four courses; Fairyhouse, Leopardstown, Navan and Tipperary, we also support many other regional racecourses throughout Ireland including Ballinrobe, Wexford, Killarney, Gowran Park to name a few. In the UK, we also sponsor the Grand Sefton and the Becher Chase at Aintree. 

We have a refined strategy for this year and beyond and are actively exploring new opportunities that can help us achieve our long-term retail and digital vision. The nature of our relationships with racecourses is designed to make it as positive for the racecourse and the racegoer as it is for BoyleSports. We feel this ambition is reflected in our product.

IS: Can you elaborate on how this year’s Grand National being the ‘richest race’ in the 2024 Irish National Hunt calendar will benefit the race, its participants, and the overall experience?

VK: The €500k Irish Grand National prize pot attracts top-class horses, breeders and trainers from within Ireland but also from the international racing scene. The attractiveness of the race in turn boosts revenues for local economies and further emphasises Ireland’s leading position on the global stage.

A better class of horse taking part inevitably attracts more crowds, not just from Ireland, but across the pond too so it’s absolutely crucial that the guardians of the Irish Grand National do all that we can to ensure that this is the most attractive fixture in the NH calendar.

Only the Aintree Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup have a bigger prize fund.

IS: Is horse racing still a solid commercial and marketing investment against a backdrop of declining attendances in Ireland and the UK?

VK: Absolutely. Those attending horse races and watching these great sporting occasions on TV make up our core audience. Horse racing events, like other sports, are competing with so much these days, whether it’s music festivals or other sporting occasions and that’s where industry bodies and commercial partners play a key role in attracting and retaining customers through enhanced experiences and creating a real sense of occasion.

Last year, for example, we were thrilled to see that the BoyleSports Irish Grand National on Easter Monday saw a very healthy attendance of 16,195. This was bolstered by excellent viewing figures which just shows how much loved this fixture is.

IS: How might the new Irish Gambling Regulation Bill impact the broader landscape of partnerships and sponsorships in Irish racing and sports?

VK: The nature of and the impact of the implementation of the Gambling Regulation Bill (GRB) in Ireland has yet to be fully known. While we remain confident that it should not impact BoyleSports’ sponsorship of the Irish Grand National, we will have to wait and see how things play out and we have yet to understand the impact of Minister Browne’s proposed amendments to the Bill post Committee Stage.

There is little doubt that the Gambling Regulation Bill and how it’s likely to be inserted has introduced uncertainty – and, as we all know, investment and uncertainty do not make good bedfellows. 

However, we remain steadfast in our support of Irish racing and our partners in Irish racing remain grateful for our steadfast commitment. While some in our industry are looking away from Ireland with their focus firmly set on international markets, Ireland remains our primary market. 

BoyleSports is the largest independently owned bookmaker in Ireland with 340 plus shops and we are proud of the many years we have sponsored the Irish Grand National. This renewal, along with the addition of the Leopardstown Summer Series of racing and races at Navan and Tipperary, only highlights our willingness to continue investing in the industry and we look forward to continuing our close relationship with HRI over the coming years.

IS: Does BoyleSports see any potential challenges or opportunities arising from the regulatory changes introduced by the new bill?

VK: We welcome the Gambling Regulation Bill (GRB) and its central drive to protect children, problem gamblers and the vulnerable, and to set the industry on a firm legislative footing for the future, but like many in the industry, we have highlighted the unintended consequences that may arise should certain amendments not be made to certain sections of the Bill. 

We have worked hard to highlight the operational pitfalls and we remain hopeful that Minister Browne and his team will make the necessary adjustments in order to protect the industry and those who want to enjoy it safely. 

The biggest challenge that we face if the Bill is passed in its current guise is that more and more people will be driven to the black market. While many believe that the black market is not a real threat, a casual perusal of the internet will demonstrate that it is a real threat and it is an environment where all of the staple principles of the GRB are thrown out the window.

For example, the GRB, as it is currently written, does not define “Inducements” and as it is currently worded, provides for a complete prohibition, which is an area of concern for BoyleSports, and indeed the entire sector. 

BoyleSports appreciates and welcomes the need to look at inducements when it comes to high-risk, higher-spending or vulnerable consumers, but an outright ban on inducements would seriously hamper our ability as a business to acquire and retain consumers and would invariably have the unintended consequence of driving people towards the black market, where unlicensed operators, who are paying no tax to the government and undertake no responsible gambling promotion or activities, can and will offer very attractive inducements. 

It will simply create an anti-competitive environment and potentially encourage operators to carry out unlicensed rather than licensed activities, which is totally contrary to the core regulation objectives of the bill.

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