Ladbrokes shuts out punters on Sabbath

Bets are off: Families flock to a Sunday day at the races at the expense of off-course bookies and their clients
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Campaigners fighting to preserve the traditional British Sunday welcomed the decision by Ladbrokes to keep the doors to all its 1,900 betting shops closed yesterday after a poor response from punters to betting on the Sabbath.

But at the racecourses it was a different story with Kempton Park and Pontefract becoming the latest to open their turnstiles on a Sunday.

The Keep Sunday Special campaign admitted that Ladbrokes' decision was almost certainly only temporary. The campaign, reduced to fighting a rear- guard action as shops and pubs have been given the go-ahead for longer and unfettered opening, said it imagined that betting shops would eventually open with all other high-street shops.

The lacklustre performance of betting shops on Sunday is in marked contrast to the picture at racecourses where hoards of picnicking novices have flocked through the gates.

In an effort to find an excuse to remain shut on Sunday, the big three bookmakers - Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill - urged Satellite Information Services (SIS) not to supply pictures from meetings held yesterday and those scheduled for a fortnight's time.

But SIS refused to bow to pressure from the companies, which admitted they were suffering a poor public response and unprofitable trading, saying it would continue its service to allow customers "freedom of choice".

The irony in the bookies' request was that the issue which kept courses shuttered on the Sabbath for years was their insistence that without the Sunday opening of betting shops illegal gambling would thrive.

Yesterday, only Coral kept all its betting shops open, while William Hill opted for a halfway-house solution, opening some and closing an unspecified number of others.

The National Association of Bookmakers has backed the move. "We fully support the action being taken," Peter Watson, the chairman, said. "The turnover is very poor and I don't know of one bookmaker who isn't losing money."

By contrast Kempton Park had 4,900 punters, plus nearly 750 children, through the gates yesterday, while two weeks ago Chester had 38,000 customers.

Racecourses, though, have adopted lower expectations and a process of education, theming some of the Sunday meetings as "learn to race" days, whereas bookies had been rubbing their hands at the projected extra pounds 300m to pounds 500m annually.

However, Dr Michael Schluter, director of Keep Sunday Special, said he believed the initial reluctance of punters to enter betting shops for a flutter on Sundays was only a reflection of slowly changing habits.

"Sunday is a special day," he said. "It is quite deeply embedded in our culture. What we're going to have is a slow shift into Sunday trading. This is a stop, but in the long term it is inexorable."

Racing, page 17