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Racing: Bookies in fear of the Rock

IT IS less than a month since Victor Chandler won the right to advertise his off-shore betting business on teletext, but a definite shift in the betting habits of Britain's credit punters is already emerging. Chris Bell, the managing director of Ladbrokes, said yesterday that "hundreds" of previously regular customers are now "off the radar" as far as his firm is concerned, and more are disappearing by the week.

You do not need the razor-sharp business brain of either man to work out where they, or rather their bets, have gone.

This is a serious and growing problem, not only for Ladbrokes and their major competitors, but for racing too. The sort of punters who are most tempted to dial Chandler's call centre in Gibraltar, where the deductions are three per cent, rather than the usual nine, are the ones who bet in three figures rather than the occasional tenner.

It is these customers who apply the serious dollops of oil to the industry's machinery, and as a result account for a significant part of the Levy which is returned to racing from betting turnover. If their money heads for the Mediterranean, all those gears and pistons could suddenly seize up.

"I can't prove where these people have gone," Bell said yesterday, "but when they are disappearing in fairly significant quantities, it would be logical to assume that they've gone to a competitor offering better terms, and it defies logic for us to allow that to continue. If someone is stealing your customers, no responsible company can allow that to go on ad infinitum.''

Ladbrokes, as it happens, already has a presence on Gibraltar, but the firm goes to great lengths to ensure that it takes no bets originating in the UK.

The Rock has been alive with rumours ever since Chandler's arrival that either Ladbrokes or another leading British bookie, or perhaps all of them, will soon take up residence and start offering low- or no-tax bets to British punters.

Some of the talk is probably started by Gibraltar's landlords, since Chandler's 300-strong operation - it is already the Rock's largest private- sector employer - is struggling to find accommodation for its staff.

Logistically, in fact, it may even be questionable whether Gibraltar would have the space for several major credit bookies. This may in itself concentrate the minds of companies deciding whether to emigrate, since there are no alternative locations this side of the Caribbean for bookies hoping to operate in a tax-friendly environment.

It must be very frustrating for a company as big as Ladbrokes to have to watch as a relatively small player carves out a share of an important market. Its executives know only too well that Ladbrokes itself was a minor bookmaker catering for the gentry until it appreciated and grabbed the opportunity offered by the legalisation of betting shops in the early 1960s.

The global communications revolution, and the betting boom that will surely follow, is arguably an even greater chance to expand and prosper.

Bell, however, insists that at present, his company has "no plans to change from a group perspective what we do, although obviously we are considering all options and it is a very dynamic situation."

But that thinking will doubtless change very rapidly if the Government does not move quickly to make a significant reduction in the rate of betting duty. He and his fellow bookies are lobbying for a cut to three per cent, and are not in a mood to compromise. And as Bell concedes, an odds-compiler putting a price on a reduction in duty would make it a shade of odds-against.

The predictions of some senior figures in the betting industry, that a major player will decamp to Gibraltar in "weeks rather than months", may be a little exaggerated, but not by much, and a full- scale rush to southern Spain could be underway well before Christmas.

For punters, of course, this should be good news, in the short term at least, as the amount they pay for the privilege of being able to bet shrinks overnight.

Whether it will seem like quite such a bonus if the finances and quality of British racing go into freefall is another matter.