RON HEARN, the reigning Racing Post/SIS Betting Shop Manager of the Year, will spend his 40th Randox Health Grand National working in the JenningsBet opposite Charlton Station where, since the end of April 1996, he will have been for the past 22 years. A few fireworks are surely deserved come 4th July as that will mean he has had 41 years in the business. He turns 58 in August.
This is an ‘old-school’ operator, doesn’t miss a thing, knows his customers inside out and looks after them as is the norm in betting shops across Britain and Ireland. Politicians who worry about betting, along with the critics that regularly line up to lambast bookmakers, don’t appreciate that Hearn is typical of his breed, a man who genuinely cares and loves horse and greyhound racing.
Asked what has changed in his time, he explains many modern day customers “don’t know the difference between Fakenham and Cheltenham . . . they are machines players, but they enjoy the experience and are keeping betting shops on life support.
“Everyone appreciates the concern over FOBTs and the level of stakes - these are going to be further restricted by Parliament - but you don’t want to drive people away to the online alternative, which remains effectively unregulated. You know when someone gets out of control here - you speak to them and ask ‘are you sure you want to carry on’. That doesn’t happen if you are using a mobile or laptop.”
He says that still the best bit about working in a shop are the big meetings. “Aintree remains special, our shop will be packed for that, but of course there’s National-type days through the football season as we’re bang next to the Valley, home of Charlton FC.
“Grand National day in one sense used to be notable for shops closing at 6.30pm and then local staff all meeting up afterwards in a pub for a proper party. Some will remember when shops shut after the last dog race at 4.37pm, but now it’s 10pm every day, the hours are so much longer.
“Funnily enough on Grand National day there are still people who ask ‘to pay the tax’ on their bet. I gently remind then that was phased out in 2002 . . . and Bindaree was the winner that year.”
His shop, since his Manager of the Year triumph, has been further smartened up boasting bigger and better screens plus new stools and other touches.
As ever he looks forward to the Grand National. What is his general advice to punters?
“Check the place terms. Sometimes the win market is reduced to balance a book, but if you are betting win only, look for best price. I personally dislike to see place terms also getting reduced in say the National or a golf major. They are effectively all big field ‘handicaps’ and a shop window. You should also take an early price - the Starting Price from the course is often shorter, but some firms will offer best price guaranteed if you have asked for the company’s own odds . . . and do that before you place your bet, it otherwise slows everything up!”
He explains that the most regular mistake made on National day is to write £5 each-way, but only stake £5, rather the correct £10. “That person is then really disappointed if their horse wins but they only get £2.50 on the win. They expected more. Most shops have a floorwalker mingling with the customers, ask them to check your bet.
“If you are using a Quick Slip, make sure all the relevant boxes are ticked to take the price and for each-way. Again check with the floorwalker. On a day when speed at the counter is essential, we want to help customers beforehand.”
Hearn will also ensure various slip and pen stocks are topped up; he’s also at the ready with balloons, sashes and hats. However, his assistant, Dawn Shepherd, jokes that he will have a problem with his hat. “Ron’s always had a big head!”
She says the pre-event excitement is typical of every betting shop. “Just like Ron, staff all over the country know what they are doing and are proud of it. Of course Ron has earned special recognition . . . and he is loving it.”
His main prize is a visit, with his wife Julie, to the Singapore Derby in July. “Everything has been brilliant. With the search for the next Manager of the Year getting launched on the Monday after the National, I can only advise everyone to ‘go for it’ if you want a year doing things you’d never otherwise have.
“I’ve packed in an enormous amount already and I must thank JenningsBet for encouraging me . . . even getting me THREE new suits to look the part! I loved going to Cheltenham - it was Julie’s first time there and she was blown away by the phenomenal atmosphere.
“One Cheltenham highlight was meeting George Baker, a hero of mine and what a gentleman. Now he’s retired from the saddle, I’m looking forward to when his autobiography is published. In the meantime he’s planning TV/media work and told me to look out for Alan Munro in Singapore as he is currently riding there - and might still be in July.”
He and his team were also the guests of SIS in a box at Ascot before Christmas plus he presented the Racing Post Juvenile trophy to the connections of Bull Run Button at Sheffield greyhounds. “There’s been much, much more, including all three days at the Ice betting and gaming show in February and several TV appearances.”
Is he having a bet in this year’s National? “Gas Line Boy is on my mind, partly because we still have a number of unclaimed slips from last year’s National when he was fifth at 50-1. In my defence, if they had been hand-written, I’d have worked out who the punter was and paid them, but these were Quick Slips. People forgot we were paying five places . . . again, check those place terms. I will hope to spot those customers on the day . . . they might back him again?
“Ian Williams, the trainer of Gas Line Boy, is hopeful and this will be the horse’s third National. I like Robbie Dunne who gets the ride for the second time and we do know Gas Line Boy enjoys Aintree.”
Disputes are plainly few and far between in Hearn’s shop. If a customer deserves to be paid, he makes the case to his company, then they usually are.
“But IBAS offers an important service to the industry,” he says. “I’m really impressed by its updated website which is so easily accessible. I’m still a relative novice on the internet but if I can navigate it easily, it must be good! I found the site genuinely intriguing and like the way you register and can then follow your claim through - but you find out first what IBAS can and can’t do, plus get advice on solving a case yourself.
“It was impressive to see the quality of the panelists who adjudicate; IBAS is there for everyone.”