Cheltenham – paradise for some, nightmare for others

 Recovering gambling addict talks about beating the odds thanks to Cuan Mhuire

Donal O'Regan


Donal O'Regan

Cheltenham – paradise for some, nightmare for others

Paul always had the intention of studying the form and betting on or two races but once he entered a bookies that went out the window Picture: Michael Cowhey

NATIONAL hunt racing fans and casual punters can’t wait for the Cheltenham Festival to commence next Tuesday but for recovering gambling addicts it is the ultimate temptation.

On the front of every national newspaper will be “free bets”; bookmakers will spend fortunes in advertising to attract new customers and everybody you meet has a tip.

Mike Guerin, a counsellor in Bruree House, says gambling related admissions have doubled in recent years; they are seeing a younger profile and bigger losses due to online gambling.

Mike arranged for the Leader to sit down with Paul (not his real name), who has received treatment from Cuan Mhuire after gambling destroyed his life, to the point where he was on the brink of taking it.

“There is one case where we are working with a family [following a suicide]. It came to light the person, unbeknownst to the family, had borrowed half a million euros. There was a debt strung out over numerous institutions,” said Mike.

That man obviously couldn’t see a way out and Paul can understand as he came very close to dying by suicide himself.    Aged 50 now, he had lost it all, but thanks to Cuan Mhuire has turned his life around.

Ten years ago he sat in a pub with a pint in one hand and a betting slip in the other. He can vividly remember his wager.

“It was a Wednesday night and there were two matches on TV. Celtic were playing in one and Nottingham Forest in the other. I did two first goalscorers  – €100 on Shaun Maloney for Celtic, €100 on Kris Commons for Nottingham Forest and a €50 double. They were good prices – about 10/1 and 7/1. I was watching on two TV screens.

“Within 10 minutes the first fellow scored for me, two minutes later the second one scored. I was sitting at the table with about €6,500 to collect,” said Paul.

A regular punter would have been dancing on the counter and kissing barmaids but Paul was impassive. “You see I knew I was going to lose it all. If you had seen me you wouldn’t have known I had won. This was at the end of my gambling – there was no excitement, only pain. It leads to depression. You are so dead in yourself you can’t see a way out. You are getting no enjoyment whatsoever, basically you can’t stop. The €6,500 was gone within a week.”

Growing up in a pub, he played the slot machines and enjoyed a game of cards but it was betting on horses that hooked him. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I was young but once I got into the bookies and started talking about horses I had something to talk about.”

He recalls the first successful tip he gave others. “It was Star of a Gunner. It won the Lincoln in 1987 at 12/1 I think. I gave it to a good few lads in the pub, older men I looked up to and they all said I was brilliant. That made me feel important.”

He left to work on the buildings in London at 22 and became hooked. “I would go into a bookies with the Racing Post under my arm, planning to study the form and  have a bet in one or two races. The minute I went in my mind was gone. You get caught up in the hype, you’re buzzing, betting on every race. You can’t wait, you don’t even know what you have backed half the time, that was when it started to get bad. I couldn’t leave. It was just the draw. I could go through my week’s wages on a Saturday, no problem at all. I had no control once I had the first bet.”

Paul got married and his addiction got worse. “I was losing everything, even though I held down a good job. I would always have been a foreman. My wife was working but I never bothered with a mortgage because I couldn't hold one down. All I was living for was gambling at the weekend .”

Every Saturday he was convinced “this was the day when he was going to take them to cleaners. “I could feel it in my stomach, a kind of euphoric feeling. You know you have lost money, you know things have been hard on the family but it is going to be alright - I am going to win this money, I am going to be a great man again and look after everybody.”

It never happened. His wife knew what was going on but rarely mentioned it. The children never went without food and at Christmas money was borrowed.

Paul continued this cycle until 2000 when his marriage broke up and he moved to Dublin. After 13 years earning good wages all he had to show for it on his return to Ireland was one week’s pay - £600. He lost it all on his first Saturday home.

He stopped gambling – but lapsed. “I went back slowly but then it snowballed out of control.”

As the Celtic Tiger was beginning to roar money was easily available. He was earning upto €1,200 a week during the construction boom. In 2004 he applied for a loan to buy a car with no intention of purchasing one. Half an hour after he made the phone call he received €10,000. A cursory glance at his bank account would have shown that when money went in it was withdrawn immediately.

“Looking back there was a lot of depression coming into it. I didn’t really care, I was just gambling away. I blew it all. I never even paid it all back when things went belly-up in 2008.”

Bookmakers opening in the evenings didn’t help. After work on a Friday he would go in to bet on horses, greyhounds and even virtual horses and greyhounds.

Despite losing hundreds and sometimes thousands in a day not once in 20 years of gambling did a cashier say anything to him. All he got was sympathetic looks.

Being a compulsive gambler makes you a compulsive liar, says Paul. He was borrowing money left, right and centre and lying to his new partner that his wages didn’t go through.

Paul’s depression deepened. “I had half a plan in my mind. The lowest time ever I was walking on a beach with a bottle of Bacardi in my hand. I was thinking of walking into the sea. I was living in a van because I had been thrown out of another relationship.”

The following Christmas in 2007 he was living alone in a cold flat.

“I was broke. I was in a desperate state. The family member who had bailed me out before had washed their hands on me. I was eating Christmas dinner alone and was just so depressed. I walked 10 miles to go to a family relative to beg for help. I had read Oisin McConville’s book, The Gambler. That’s where I found out about Cuan Mhuire. My relative rang them and I got in the same day.”

He went through their 12-week programme and “gradually I started to see a bit of light”. He followed up with Gamblers Anonymous meetings, sometimes six days a week. Paul hasn’t had a bet since leaving Cuan Mhuire, who he credits with saving his life.

Cheltenham won’t bother him but how many more out there are silently dreading it?

If you have been affected by this article you can contact the Samaritans – 116 123;  Console – 1800 247 247 or Bruree House – 063 90555.