Ladbroke's swift and stunning acquisition of Coral for pounds 375.5m yesterday surprised many within the racing industy, but it was the firm's claim that this was good news for punters that really astonished.
The deal with Bass, owners of Coral, wipes out at a stroke the third biggest bookmaking chain in Britain and tightens Ladbroke's grip on the industry. The 833 Coral shops brings Ladbroke's estate to 2,600 shops out of a UK total of 8,500. William Hill, its only serious rival now, has 1,530 shops with the Tote up to 340 after acquiring 128 shops from Ladbrokes for pounds 41m as part of the deal.
The sell-off to the Tote is particularly important for Ladbroke as a means of persuading the Office of Fair Trading that customer choice will be preserved and that a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would be unnecessary.
Ladbroke's managing director, Chris Bell, audaciously claimed that the buy-out will benefit punters and that job losses would be kept to a minimum: "Punters can now look forward to improved standards of service and facilities in all shops," he said. "I would be the first to admit that there is a downside in that there will be less choice for early prices. But there are still plenty of options when all the independent bookmakers are taken into account."
The British Betting Offices' Association, which represents the independent bookmakers, holds a rather different view: "Fewer brand shops make less competition," its spokesman, Will Roseff, said. "It's bad news for our customers - it's bad news for punters generally. They are going to have fewer offers from their bookmakers and less choice as to where to bet."
The deal also includes 50 betting shops in Ireland and eight in Jersey and the Romford and Hove greyhound tracks.
"Obviously, this all needs official approval," Bell added. "We are hopeful that there won't be a problem."
The problem is more likely to be one for punters. Already in recent weeks they have been hit by the announcement that they will no longer benefit from two trade papers, the Racing Post having been taken over by the owners of The Sporting Life. And when they have cause for complaint there is no organization to back them, the National Association for the Protection of Punters having ceased operations on New Year's Eve.