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Tote and Stanley lead race for Coral

THE TOTE and Stanley Leisure, the bookmaker, are neck-and-neck in the race for the Coral betting shops chain being sold off by the leisure group Ladbroke, having tabled rival bids of around pounds 340m each.

The two bidders are expected to be included in a shortlist to be drawn up this weekend by Ladbroke alongside a number of venture capitalists. The hotels-to-casinos group has also received a number of offers from financial buyers, tipped to include Nikko, Charterhouse, CVC and Prudential, for the 891 Coral shops.

Industry sources said the venture capitalists were likely to have offered considerably more than the Tote, which is state-owned, and Stanley Leisure - with bids of up to pounds 400m - in the hope of getting a seat at the negotiating table.

It is thought that if Stanley Leisure, the UK's fourth largest betting chain, wins the auction then it would change the name of most of its shops to Coral. The company believes that the Coral brand name is more attractive to punters.

Ladbroke bought the Coral chain from the brewing giant Bass for pounds 363m last December. However, the sale was blocked by the Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson on competition grounds two months ago.

Mr Mandelson ruled the Coral purchase would have given Ladbroke a dominant position in the pounds 6bn-a-year UK betting market. Ladbroke is already the country's largest bookmaker with 1,900 shops, and a takeover of Coral would have given it 30 per cent of the market. Mr Mandelson ordered Ladbroke to sell the shops within six months, preferably to a single buyer to create a sizeable "third force" behind Ladbroke and William Hill.

The Tote and Stanley Leisure are expected to argue that a sale to a trade buyer would be the best way to comply with the minister's wishes.