Another Setback for British Tote

Britain's only pari-mutuel operator, the tote, has had its future thrown into doubt once again, this time by the European Commission which looks set to rule that the proposed sale of the organization to a racing trust for a discounted price breaches state aid rules.

The tote, a strange hybrid, has a monopoly on pari-mutuel betting in Britain and also acts as a bookmaker through its offshoot totesport, while coming under the jurisdiction of the government which created it early in the 20th century to benefit British racing.

It generally contributes over £10 million a year to the sport. However, the tote has been shackled until recently by its government connection, though it re-branded last year when the sale to a racing trust was given the formal go-ahead.

The racing trust, representing the sport's various interests, was prepared to pay £200 million or so for the tote which has always operated as an independent body and has never received government money, thus muddying who exactly owns it.

However, bookmakers' valuations have shot up in recent years, following a boom in gambling and the tote, whose pari-mutuel side generates only a seventh of its business, could be worth in excess of £600 million if sold to the highest bidder.

The government still intends to try and sell the tote to British racing but needs to find another formulae to satisfy the European Commission which is on the other hand quite happy to allow tote monopolies, with no bookmaker competition, in other European countries. This may mean racing has to pay more than expected for the tote.

Also the tote's market share of overall betting in Britain is low, for example its turnover only comes to a sixth of the market leader Ladbrokes, with William Hill and Coral also having a much greater market position.

Roger Easterby, the tote executive responsible for dealing with the government, said on March 27: "We hope to go back to government with plan B or a secondary option. There will still be a closed sale to racing. It may well be at a market price but it would not be right if the tote was sold to anybody else because the money we generate would then not go to racing."