Going to the dogs: Channel 4 chief takes £50m punt on tracks

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The Independent Online

The Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson appears an unlikely saviour of British greyhound racing. The businessman behind The Ivy and Le Caprice restaurants may have included a chapter on betting on greyhounds in his book Gambling to Win, but is seldom seen trackside. And for a man whose advice includes never betting on an extreme long shot, the £50.3m purchase yesterday of six tracks from the former England stadium operator Wembley, offers an intriguing pairing.

Mr Johnson, 43, earned plaudits for his work at Channel 4 alongside Kevin Lygo, the director of programming. As perhaps London's best-known restaurateur in the Nineties he became synonymous with the Pizza Express success story.

Greyhound racing by contrast has struggled to shake off its male-dominated, pie-and-a-pint image. It once commanded vast crowds, but tracks have closed and support has dwindled. The sport has also been the subject of a persistent campaign by animal rights activists.

For his money, said to be at the higher end of Wembley's expectations, Mr Johnson will acquire six stadiums, including Wimbledon, home of the Greyhound Derby. He will also control tracks at Belle Vue in Manchester, Perry Barr and Hall Green in Birmingham, Oxford and Portsmouth. The acquisition is being seen as pivotal for the future of dog racing in Britain. Some believe the sites offer potential for redevelopment. They could also benefit from the plans in the Government's modified Gambling Bill, offering possible locations for British super casinos.

Neil Bennett, a company spokesman for Mr Johnson's investment vehicle Risk Capital Partners, said Mr Johnson was attracted to the sport's "loyal client base". In 2003, the UK greyhound tracks generated operating profits of £3.6m on a turnover of £25.5m. Enthusiasts say the sport is the second most popular spectator activity in Britain. On the development potential of the sites, Mr Bennett said it was too early to disclose the long-term plan. Nothing was being ruled in or out at this stage, he said. "If you look at the portfolio we have assembled, the common theme is that they are all very reliable leisure businesses with loyal client bases," he said.

Mr Johnson, the son of the right-wing commentator Paul Johnson, owns Signature Restaurants, the chain behind The Ivy and Le Caprice in central London, the Belgo chain, and Strada, a collection of 22 pizza restaurants. He will be remembered by viewers of the BBC's Back to the Floor television series when he took a job as a waiter at Belgo's. The experiment in workplace democracy went spectacularly wrong when he stormed off the set after he was challenged by an employee over working conditions.

Risk Capital Partners also recently acquired Mayfair Bingo, the operator of six clubs under the Riva brand. Mr Johnson said of his latest deal: "We faced strong competition to acquire this business but it was our ability to move quickly and decisively that gave us the edge."

The British Greyhound Racing Board welcomed the move. Lord Lipsey of Tooting Bec, the chairman, said: "We are delighted that the long standing uncertainty has been resolved and that the tracks have been sold as a whole. This seems a good omen for the future of greyhound racing.

He has been seeking to attract investment into the sport.

The deal however leaves Wembley one step closer to becoming a shell company. Three weeks ago the company announced it was negotiating to sell its US operations in Rhode Island and Colorado to the gaming consortium, BLB Investors, for about £182.5m.