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The Investment Column: Ladbroke looks a sure-fire bet

WHAT a difference a few years makes. When Ladbroke warned in November 1995 that the National Lottery was hammering its betting shop business, its shares slumped to a low of 123p. Since then it has not looked back. Along with the rest of the betting industry is has mounted an impressive fightback against the Lottery, introducing successful new number games like 49s. Its Hilton hotels business has boomed on the back of a buoyant industry around the world. Last year, underlying profits jumped 39 per cent to pounds 226m.

So can Ladbroke keep up this cracking pace? A marketing agreement with Hilton International of the US to unify the brand around the world has raised speculation that the two will form a closer bond However both sides have ruled out a merger for the foreseeable future due to, among other things, tax problems. And there is still no sign of the US group keeping its promise to buy at least a 5 per cent stake in Ladbroke. That said, the existing tie-up should be a lucrative one, and should begin to pay off over the next few years. And while Ladbroke lost out on the big prize of Inter-Continental hotels to Bass, there is still scope to pick up plenty of smaller acquisitions.

An MMC enquiry into its acquisition of the Coral betting chain is on the cards, and Ladbroke may well have to give up more sites than it would like to. However the deal should still bring substantial long-term benefits.

Ladbroke's shares remained unchanged at 308p yesterday in a falling market. NatWest Securities forecasts current year profits of pounds 268m, putting the shares on a prospective PE ratio of 18. It is difficult to bet against Ladbroke given its recent track record but the shares look about right for now.