Racing: Ladbrokes jump into the big pool

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The Independent Online
As either Guinevere or Lancelot prepares to turn the mechanical separation of Britons from their cash into a bi-weekly event this evening, there may just be hope that another ball has finally started to roll. Ladbrokes, the country's largest bookmaker, yesterday announced that it is to install Tote Direct betting terminals in every one of its 1,900 outlets, and the possibility of a Lottery-style Superbet on racing suddenly became a great deal more credible.

Until now, three of the four biggest betting-shop chains - Ladbrokes, William Hill and Stanley Racing - had held out against the innovative Tote terminals, which send bets directly into all of the Tote's pools and thus make pool betting in general, and on the small-stake, big-payout bets such as the Placepot and Jackpot in particular, much more attractive to punters.

With Ladbrokes finally on board, however, the remaining waverers will surely follow, and betting terminals operating on very similar lines to Camelot's should soon be a fixture in all but a handful of Britain's 8,700 betting offices.

This has important implications. The idea of a Superbet has been bouncing around for years, to such an extent that familiarity has bred deep contempt. With terminals nationwide, not to mention a general public now used to picking numbers on a computer ticket, the foundations are now in place for a Jackpot-type bet on one race a week, or perhaps for an all-out marketing push behind the existing Jackpot.

"Initial discussions with Channel 4, the BBC, the Horserace Betting Levy Board and British Horseracing Board suggest a willingness to launch a TV bet with "small-stake, big win" potential," Chris Bell, Ladbrokes' managing director, said yesterday. "All parties wish to take maximum advantage of this opportunity to boost turnover."

Whatever becomes of the Superbet, Ladbrokes are not in the deal simply to bring a smile to the face of Lord Wyatt, whose long - very, very long - tenure as the Tote's chairman is drawing to a close.

For example, of the 29 pence deduction from every pound staked on the Jackpot, 23 pence is retained by the bookmaker as the commission for accepting the bet, with the remaining six pence split between the Tote and Tote Direct, a separate company owned by the Tote, Coral and, following yesterday's deal, Ladbrokes too.

The bookies will pay pounds 7 per shop, per week, to rent their terminals, an arrangement which will also be open to any other chains wishing to join. This too seems fairly generous, since it would cost pounds 1,500 to purchase a terminal outright (just try and persuade Radio Rentals to do a similar deal on your telly). Yet the feeling at the Tote is that there is little choice if pool betting is ever to offer serious competition to fixed odds.

"You don't get a piece of Ladbrokes' turnover for nothing," Tom Phillips, the Tote's finance director, pointed out. "We are still trying to make up the ground that was lost in the 10 years after off-course betting was legalised, when the Tote was not allowed to own betting shops."

In the face of stiff - and thoroughly unfair - competition from the National Lottery, many bookmakers have introduced innovations (Lucky Numbers and 49s for instance) which offer no direct benefit to racing. The Tote's profits go straight back into the sport, so a development which seems sure to boost them must be welcomed.

It must also be noted, however, that yesterday's press release includes the news that deductions from the Placepot are to rise by 1 per cent, from 26 to 27 per cent, which implies that punters are being asked to make a contribution of their own to yesterday's groundbreaking deal. Even so, the Placepot still offers much better value, and far more fun, than Camelot's alternative, something to bear in mind when deciding what to do with your loose change this afternoon.

n Betting on Saturday's Tote Gold Trophy yesterday centred on Edelweis Du Moulin, who is now 11-4 from 7-2 with Coral.