Betfred wins £265m Tote auction

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The Independent Online

Veteran bookmaker Fred Done secured horseracing's ultimate prize today by agreeing a £265 million deal to buy the Tote from the Government.

His Betfred business, which he founded from a single shop in Salford in 1967, beat off competition from a consortium led by British Airways chairman Sir Martin Broughton to land the on-course and betting shop chain.

The taxpayer and the racing industry will each get £90 million from the sale proceeds, with the Government finally ridding itself of a business that it has wanted to privatise for more than a decade.

Gambling and racing minister John Penrose said the Government had "bent over backwards to deliver a good deal for racing", but Betfred could yet face a hostile reception from racecourse owners who favoured the rival bidder.

Some owners are said to be unhappy at allowing a private owner of the Tote automatic access to their facilities.

Wigan-based Tote has 517 shops, an online business and an on-course pool betting business which operates at all UK racetracks and was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1928. It employs more than 4,000 people and last year injected around half its profits back into the industry.

Taking on the Tote shops, which are to rebranded, will make Betfred a sizeable player in the UK bookmaking industry. The deal will increase the size of its estate to more than 1,350 shops and make it a "fourth force" in the bookmaking industry behind Gala Coral, William Hill and Ladbrokes.

Mr Done, who is 68 and is Betfred's executive chairman, said buying the Tote had been an ambition of his for many years and an opportunity he could not miss.

He said: "I love racing and I believe we have the greatest in the world. Over the coming months I will develop the Tote's relationship with the sport into a highly successful commercial partnership."

In an apparent battle between old and new money in the closely knit racing world, it is thought Warrington-based Betfred got the nod from ministers because its offer was less likely to breach state aid rules.

Betfred also claimed its deal was worth £45 million more to the industry than the rival consortium and said it had signed an undertaking that there will be no more than 150 staff cuts in the first year following completion.

However, a spokesman said the deal was not about cost-cutting but awakening a "sleeping giant".

The bookmaker also committed to the establishment of a Tote Racing Development Board, which will involve the course owners and others in the industry and develop the pool betting operation.

That could help ease some concerns that Betfred is more interested in the 500 betting shops than the on-course side. It has also agreed to pay a minimum of £65 million to the industry over the next seven years.

Rival bidder SIP, which was backed by leading players in the racing industry, expressed disappointment at losing a battle that became increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks.

Sir Martin Broughton of SIP said: "We are extremely disappointed that the Government has rejected our proposal and will be carefully reviewing the details of the decision."

Paul Roy, chairman of industry regulator the British Horse Racing Authority, said the decision was "not our preferred outcome", but added it would "now work with Betfred and the Government to ensure their commitments are delivered, both in relation to the Tote and other areas of industry reform."

The Racecourse Association, the owners' lobby group and opponent of the Tote sale, added: "The racecourses are businesses, run by business people, and the task for them now is to sit down with Betfred with a view to negotiating acceptable commercial terms both for racing and for the individual courses."