Tote sale splits racing industry

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THE GOVERNMENT is set to announce that it is selling the Tote as a single entity, but exactly how horse-racing's pool betting business will be sold, and to whom, is still subject to tensions both in Whitehall and the City.

What is certain is that the Home Office is set to announce either this week or next its intention to sell the Tote, valuing the organisation at around pounds 120m.

The Government has decided not to split the race track and off-track operations. The sell-off could be by a trade sale, a float or a management buy out.

The announcement will end years of speculation. Previous Conservative governments wanted to privatise the Tote but preferred to shelve the matter due to the opposition of the late Lord Wyatt, the Tote chairman.

How the Tote should be sold is the subject of sharp disagreement. The horse racing industry, in the shape of the British Horseracing Board (BHB), last year urged the Government to sell the Tote to it for a nominal sum, in order to run it as a fundraising vehicle for racing. The Government turned this idea down.

The bookies, in the shape of large betting shop chains like Ladbrokes, oppose a sale to the BHB, because they fear it would give the new combine a stranglehold on pool betting and the industry in general. This is a view shared within the Treasury and has led to clashes with the Home Office, which wants to see part of the Tote's profits returned to the racing industry.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, is a keen racing supporter and has argued within government that racing should have a stake in the Tote.

Much will depend on Peter Jones, chairman of the Tote, who is known to be close toLabour. A compromise favoured by the BHB and by some within the Tote is the creation of a racing trust. Trustees would include Tote members, the BHB, the Jockey Club and the Racehorse Owners Association. A set proportion of trust profits would be ploughed back into the industry.

Insiders said that a major problem with any sale is the ambiguous legal position of the Tote's ownership. Technically, it is a "body corporate", with its assets vested with the Tote board. One insider said yesterday, "the problem with privatising it is that you have to nationalise it first".

So any deal will need its own legislation. And if the Government fails to balance the interests of the bookies and the BHB, it could face a damaging row.

A BHB spokesman said yesterday: "We think it is in the best interests of racing if the BHB takes control of the Tote, and runs the Tote as a force for good in racing.

"We take this matter extremely seriously."

The spokesman pointed out that pool betting in the United States (or "Off Track Betting") is run on behalf of the industry, as it is in France.

Pool betting differs from betting through the bookies in that a certain percentage of all the money - the "pool" - bet on a race is paid out to punters.