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Ladbrokes eyes Manchester supercasino 22/02/2007
Peter Walker

Betting firm Ladbrokes said today it was eyeing bids to run new casinos around the UK, including the Manchester supercasino..

The company saw profits rise more than 7% last year, thanks to the World Cup. Operating profit reached £268.1m for the calendar year, against £249m in 2005, helped by a healthy £17.5m in gross winnings during the tournament in Germany last summer.

Ladbrokes said that the early departure of some heavily tipped teams - the Czech Republic exited in the first round, Spain and the Netherlands in the second - encouraged punters, making it the biggest event in the company's history. England's defeat in the quarter finals also spared the group some potentially heavy payouts.

Last month, Manchester was announced as the surprise winner from a series of places bidding to host the UK's first so-called "supercasino".

Under the expansion of gambling, 16 other towns and cities will also get new, smaller casinos.

The company said: "Ladbrokes will bid for the regional casino licence in Manchester and is interested in operating several of the 16 new small and large casinos to be awarded under the 2005 Gambling Act." .

Chief executive Chris Bell: "We will look at all of them - we would be crackers not to but you have to accept you are not going to win all 17," he told reporters.

Investors gave minimal reaction to the results, with Ladbroke's shares unchanged at 441.5p in early trading.

It was a pivotal year for the company, which ended 2005 as the Hilton Group, becoming Ladbrokes after the sale of the UK Hilton hotel chain to the then-separate US-based Hilton Hotels Corporation. The sale, completed in February last year, saw more than £4bn returned to shareholders, and was followed by the announcement that the group was acting as a consultant in the creation of China's first betting shops.

"We can look back on a year of achievement, both at home and internationally and we are pleased to post a record profit performance," said chief executive, Christopher Bell. "We began the year by selling the hotel division, delivering one of the biggest returns to shareholders on record and announcing our consultancy in China."

The start of this year had been "satisfactory", he added, although warning that the cancellation of a series of horse racing meetings could affect takings.

Ladbrokes has been swiftly expanding its overseas operations, unveiling plans in 2006 to expand into Italy and Russia. Already this year it has bought Scandinavian online betting firm Sponsio and announced a joint venture with a Spanish group.

Planned expansion in the US, however, through a mooted takeover of leading web-based gambling site 888, remain on hold following a crackdown by American authorities on internet betting, most notably the arrest of the head of the Betonsports site on racketeering and fraud charges.

"As you are aware, we commenced discussions with 888 last November," Ladbrokes chairman Sir Ian Robinson said.

"These discussions continue and are complex because of the current conditions in the US. We will update the market as and when appropriate."