Wiggins in Sky talks to fund racecourse

THE BRITISH horseracing business received a boost yesterday after it emerged BSkyB and Channel 4 have held talks with Wiggins, the property group, to fund the construction of a new racecourse in London in exchange for television rights. The news came as Arena Leisure, the UK's largest racecourse owner after the Jockey Club, agreed the purchase of Windsor Group, owner of Royal Windsor Racecourse.

Wiggins needs pounds 40m to convert a golf course at Fairlop Waters, east London, into a horse racing venue with a hotel. It would be the first new racecourse in England since 1927 and is scheduled to open in September 2002.

Geoffrey Lansbury, finance director, said BSkyB and Channel 4 were among several domestic and overseas broadcasters Wiggins had talked to. Wiggins would sell a stake in the venture to a broadcaster, in return for the rights to televise the races around the world, he said. The deal could raise well above pounds 40m. Wiggins is seeking an agreement that would also provide revenue for each race broadcast, with up to 31 planned. "The numbers being talked about are very significant, far ahead of our initial expectations," he said.

Wiggins' ambitions face stiff local opposition. The proposal is to go before Redbridge council in the new year, and is expected to become the subject of a public inquiry. The plan also requires the consent of the British Horseracing Board.

Meanwhile, Arena Leisure, which owns five racecourses, agreed to acquire Windsor for pounds 10m cash and 2.78 million shares, worth pounds 3.35m. Windsor made pounds 588,000 profit before tax last year.

Graham Parr, Arena's chief executive, said: "Royal Windsor's a very high profile course, which is useful to have when you're doing deals with television and Internet companies."

Arena owns about 20 per cent of the race fixture list and is looking to provide racing on the Internet. It posted half-year sales up 22 per cent at pounds 5.11m. Pre-tax profits fell to pounds 36,000, from pounds 302,000, following a loss-making acquisition. The shares fell 8.25p yesterday to 119.75p.