Betfair take over Ascot highlight

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Bookmakers falling on hard times? Well, some are. But certainly not the betting exchange Betfair who yesterday became the new sponsors of Ascot's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Next July the race will carry a prize of £1m for the first time – up from this year's £850,000.

The Hammersmith-based firm are buying not just into a summer highlight of British racing – but into aristocratic circles. Ascot is owned by the Crown, and until 2006 the July race had been sponsored for more than 20 years by the diamond company De Beers. Queen Elizabeth II gave her consent in 1975 for "Diamond" to be included in the race's name.

After two sponsorless years, it can be assumed that the Queen gave her approval this time for the words "sponsored by Betfair" to follow the race title, in brackets.

Ascot and the Queen could not be accused of roughing it, however. Betfair are not the kind of rough diamonds who traditionally inhabited the bookmaking trade. In the space of just 10 years they have become a leading global brand. And, unlike Shergar – who won the King George in 1981 in his last season on a racecourse – Betfair are in for the long haul. Their sponsorship will run initially for five years.

The course's Royal Enclosure will remain sacrosanct however, with no Betfair terminals present. But it will be flanked by Betfair outlets, and the firm will be ubiquitous in the common enclosures.

The course's chief executive, Charles Barnett, said yesterday: "The King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes is the headline agreement in a substantial seven-figure deal over five years that Ascot and Betfair believe will develop into a wider commercial relationship."

The contest will be the centrepiece of what will now be "Betfair Weekend at Ascot" while Betfair will also be sponsoring the Ascot Chase next February, the race run this year as the Commercial First Ascot Chase and won by Kauto Star.

Stephen Burn, Betfair's director of horseracing, said: "We are very pleased that Ascot understand our business and are keen to work with us in a way that we have been hoping to work with racing for a such a long time – the Ascot executive has been very forward thinking."

Burn added: "It had never been our intention to try to slap our name in front of the King George. This is a ground-breaking agreement, especially as it take us up to and beyond the course's historic tercentenary in 2011."

While punters always used to bet either at odds offered by bookmakers or on the Tote, customers of Betfair – and other internet exchanges – bet against other users of the sites. The exchanges deduct a commission from winnings.

*Hannah Walker, a Channel 4 spokesperson, last night emphatically denied a report yesterday that the TV company was threatening to pull the rug on its extensive racing coverage. She said: "Channel 4 is committed to racing. We are already committed through 2009 and are currently in discussions for coverage in 2010 and onwards."

*Paul Blockley has withdrawn his appeal against the British Horseracing Authority's decision to disqualify him from racing for two and a half years. The Lambourn trainer was banned in October as part of an investigation in connection with the alleged laying of horses to lose in 11 races that took place between March 2004 and December 2005.