Arena Leisure reveals rise in punters as it bids to attracts buyers

Racecourse operator Arena Leisure yesterday sought to woo potential bidders by revealing an 11.3 per cent rise in attendances as it battles to replace revenue lost from a fall in bookmaker funding.

Reduced earnings from the levy on bookmakers' profits was responsible for first half pre-tax profits of only £500,000, just over half the £900,000 posted the previous year.

Levy income has fallen steeply thanks to bookmakers moving their online and telephone operations to low-tax offshore territories such as Gibraltar, although ministers are looking at ways to recoup this lost revenue.

Talks are also ongoing about how to fund racing in future.

In the meantime, the increase in paying punters at Arena's nine tracks, including Doncaster and Royal Windsor, compares with nearly flat attendance figures across the rest of the industry. Arena recently announced a "strategic review" to "increase value for shareholders", which could lead to a possible bid.

The Reuben Brothers, who own Northern Racing and are major shareholders in Arena, are known to be interested. However, over the weekend it emerged that SIS, the bookmaker-owned broadcaster, could also be a potential buyer.

Bookmakers already own several greyhound tracks and Arena operates hundreds of all-weather flat racing meetings during the winter that attract few paying punters through the gates but are highly valued by bookies.

Chief executive Mark Elliott yesterday said some of these could be under threat if a mechanism for improving funding is not found.

"We don't think a decrease in the number of fixtures would be in anyone's interests," he said.

"We have a good relationship with the bookmakers. It is a symbiotic relationship. We need them and they need us. But we need to find a method of funding that keeps these fixtures financially viable."

Arena put the rise in numbers down to initiatives such as a free royal wedding fixture at Doncaster that almost doubled the attendance on the day.