Racing: Stakes high in the high street betting contest

Richard Edmondson on how merger talk is worrying a punters' organisatio n
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The Independent Online
While Bass announced increased profits yesterday, many in racing were wondering what would be happening to their own funds. The brewers, owners of Coral, were widely reported this week to be considering making a take-over bid for Ladbrokes to create a bookmaking supergiant.

Any merger of the two betting organisations would mean a single company in control of almost a third of the nation's shops. It would also lead to twitches among those on racing's shop floor.

Bass has refused to comment on the rumours, and there were some indications yesterday that the City speculation has been wide of the mark. But if a takeover were to go ahead the 1,900 outlets of Ladbrokes and 930 of Coral would combine, and then, immediately, some of them would drop away. There will be no room for two shops of the same hue in the high streets, and where the two firms clash, uniforms would have soon been requested for return.

Even on a general level, the reduction of competition appears no great boon to the regular backer and, specifically, the National Association for the Protection of Punters believes there are boiling waters ahead. "We've been worried for a while about the dominance of the Big Three in the market, and if that was in effect the Big One, as this new entity would be so much bigger than Hills, that would be very serious," Steve High, NAPP's chairman, said yesterday.

"The bookmakers already control the on-course market as much as they can to minimise liabilities, and it could be that soon they would effectively choose their own starting price.''

NAPP's committee meeting next week will also discuss what effect any takeover would have on Satellite Information Services (SIS), in which bookmaker pressure is already viewed with some suspicion. A pooling of the Coral and Ladbrokes stake in SIS would create a single, strong sphere of influence.

Recent movements have also confirmed a NAPP suggestion that the act of betting would soon be witnessed in a different location. "We have been speculating how long it would be before betting terminals were allowed in pubs and clubs," High said. "And with Bass's connections in that area it is bound to be sooner rather than later.

"That would require quite a switch but if that legislation comes in, as we believe it will, it would put Bass in an almost unassailable position. In general, this wouldn't be healthy for competition at all. It will be a restriction of choice and only those bets that Coral feel are appropriate would be offered.''

In general, it would also be bad for racing's coffers. While a closure of certain shops should mean punters relocating themselves in the nearest alternative, it may not be as simple as that.

The advent of Camelot has shown that horse players need only the slightest excuse to have their attention switched to a load of jiggling balls. The removal of a favourite corner in a favourite shop could also mean the removal of punters from the sport. Those who monitor turnover and levy would soon let us know of such an eventuality.

If there is a winner in all this (outside the boardroom and heavy share investors) it may be among the embittered Rorke's Drift ranks of the shop owner who has seen the lottery take over from the Big Three as the bete noire. Fewer players may mean better results.

"If they reduce the number of shops I think that might have a positive spin-of for the smaller bookmakers," Mark Dean, the owner of Derby's The Small Bookmaker (which is smaller than he would like), said yesterday. "We would hope to attract some of that custom. We need it.''

Bass profits, page 25