Tote sale field includes Dubai wealth fund

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Sale of the Tote, the government-owned bookmaker and pools operator, has attracted more than 40 expressions of interest, including one from Dubai.

Ministers have been told by sale advisers that about half are considered serious, giving confidence a meaningful auction is possible.

Interest has come from a mixture of potential trade buyers, private equity and “wild cards” – those who are based abroad and whose finances are considered opaque.

But the interest by a sovereign wealth fund in Dubai and by private equity adds weight to ministers’ hopes the auction will generate competition and yield a price in the range of the £400m price tag set last year by PwC.

Ministers have told Goldman Sachs, its advisers, it wants the proceeds from the sale on its books by the end of the financial year and to see the auction completed by the close of 2008. The sale is being overseen by ministers and officials from Treasury, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The depth of interest also dispels government fears the auction would be dominated by Gala Coral, the private equity-owned bookmaker and casino and bingo operator regarded by the betting industry as the frontrunner after last year tabling a £405m bid.

A person close to the situation said: “The interest provides some comfort to the government that it’s not just a Gala Coral game.”

Bookmakers expressing interest in the Tote’s 540 betting shops are Ladbrokes, Paddy Power and Boylesports.

Ladbrokes would probably face regulatory hurdles if it were to bid and to win all or most of the Tote’s shops, but will be hoping Goldman Sachs recommends splitting up the auction into portions.

Sportech, which operates football pools betting, is interested in the pools betting operation.

In the House of Commons, Gerry Sutcliffe, the sports minister whose responsibilities include betting, said: “There has been a great deal of interest in the sale of the Tote . . . and there are some wonderful options coming forward.”

Mr Sutcliffe expects to receive a report from Goldman Sachs about its options by the month’s end.

The decision to sell the Tote followed a failed attempt by the government to offload the Wigan-based business to a consortium that represented the horse-racing industry.

The auction process is likely to prompt demands by the racing industry that it ought to have a say in regard to the destiny of the Tote.

But ministers reckon they are under no obligation to take such views into account.

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