Ladbrokes aims for big overseas push as World Cup lifts profits

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The Independent Online

The bookmaker Ladbrokes is moving into Italy after raking in a record £17.5m in profits from the World Cup in its first results since splitting from the hotels group Hilton.

Ladbrokes said the World Cup lured more than 220,000 new telephone and internet customers in the first half.

Its chief executive Chris Bell said: "The World Cup turned out to be the biggest betting event in our history. It beat our expectations by a long way."

The company benefited from the early departure of several favourites from the tournament and the high number of draws later on. Personally, Mr Bell was lucky too - he bet on Italy's victory which "paid for [his] airfare".

Operating profits climbed 12 per cent to £151.3m. Another boost came from good results in horse racing, including Cheltenham, Ascot and Aintree, which made up for a run of poor results in January and February.

Ladbrokes has struck a deal to team up with the Italian betting firm Pianeta Scommesse to set up a chain of betting shops in the country. It plans to invest €100m (£67.6m) to open at least 100 outlets in the next couple of years as Italy prepares to relax gambling regulations.

The City was impressed with the quick recovery of Ladbrokes' telephone betting operations yet disappointed at the slowdown in internet growth. Telephone profits doubled, though analysts cautioned that this is a volatile business. Online profits rose only 13 per cent after a 95 per cent growth last year. The group highlighted rising competition for internet poker.

Concerns over slowing growth drove the shares down by 13.75p to 382p, as there is no major sporting event next year and Ladbrokes will take an £11m hit from higher machine taxes. Yet the group expects to benefit from the next round of gaming deregulation, which will allow its 2,200-strong estate to stay open in the evenings from September to April and to bring in £500 machine jackpots.

The company continues to cast its eye abroad, with new ventures in China, Vietnam, Turkey and Russia, but postponed a decision on whether to enter the lucrative US market where the legality of online and telephone gambling is uncertain. The former BetonSports chief executive, David Carruthers, was recently arrested and indicted along with 10 others on charges of racketeering and fraud.

Mr Bell said: "We'd be crackers to make a decision now. We might as well wait for better transparency and make a decision with better knowledge." He said he would probably decide after Christmas when it will be clear whether a new anti-gambling bill will become US law.

Ladbrokes advises on the running of 300 betting shops in China. In Vietnam, it has made a shortlist of three to run the sports lottery on its own, and it has formed a consortium with Greece's Intralot to bid for the Turkish national lottery. It has also signed a deal with Cyberview to provide standalone sportsbetting facilities to casinos in Russia.

The company said it would consider being part of a consortium to run the British lottery if it was approached by others, but would not want to lead it.