Bookmakers will shut due to public pressure

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The Independent Online

Britain's leading bookmakers decided yesterday that their period of Saturday mourning will, after all, last all day.

Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill - the last-named typified the Big Three's response when they initially argued that they owed it to customers to bet on Irish racing and British dogs just after Diana, Princess of Wales is buried - have bowed to their god of market forces and will now shut up shop. The canine meetings at Crayford and Romford have been abandoned.

"We have carefully considered customer and staff feedback throughout the week on whether or not to close our shops this Saturday," Christopher Bell, the Ladbrokes managing director, said yesterday.

"Our decision has been strongly influenced by the feelings of both customers and staff at this time of national mourning." There was no mention though of the strong influence that had prompted the decision to open the shops in the first place.

William Hill will pay their staff despite a rare Saturday off, but there will be no chance for their workers to spend the money on a trade newspaper. Both The Sporting Life and Post will not be published on the day of the funeral.

Looking further ahead, there is continuity for the future of the Grand National, following yesterday's announcement that Martell, the Cognac house, is to extend its sponsorship of the Aintree event until 2004. The French company, whose contract runs out next year, has signed a new, six- year deal, which will lead to a minimum pounds 4.5m being donated, the largest gross agreement in the history of British racing.

Aintree, which is not one of the poshest suburbs of Liverpool, and Martell, with its image of after-dinner relaxation at the chateau fireside, have always seemed unlikely bedfellows.

Martell, however, sells virtually a pipette-full of its product at home and needs a vehicle into the world market. In addition, there is no sign that the firm has become distrustful of either the fortuity or organisation of the National following the calamities of the 1993 void race and the postponed running this year in the wake of an IRA bomb threat. Indeed, it may be that the truism of bad publicity being non-existent applies.

Security planning is well advanced in an effort to improve on last year's arrangements, as is upgrading of racecourse facilities following Martell's commitment.

The new Aintree stand is scheduled to be completed by next April, and should afford high-level viewing for over 5,000 spectators. A panoramic view is essential for Liverpool, where those on the ground get little more than an audio service of thundering hooves coming round twice.

In addition, work has started on a visitors' centre, which will be open throughout the calendar and give those who come to Aintree out of season a little more flavour of the occasion than the sterile surroundings that are on offer at the moment. Included in this new area will be memorabilia and a Grand National ride, a virtual-reality escapade that was announced on the same day that the big bookmakers exhibited virtual decency.