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Blue Square swoop for Heathorns rails pitches; Firm outbids three rivals in estimated pounds 1.3m purchase.

Byline: Graham Green

GRAHAM GREEN

BLUE SQUARE, the internet and telephone betting business, is set to become a force on the racecourse after buying the pitches belonging to Britain's oldest established bookmaking firm, Heathorns.

Neither party was yesterday willing to disclose how much is being paid for the 24 rails slots, all in prime positions, but it is thought to be in the region of the

pounds 1.3 million asking price.

The deal represents a significant move into new territory and will inevitably raise the profile of Blue Square, a relative fledgling in the betting market which was bought by Rank for pounds 65m earlier in the year.

It beat off three rival bidders, including Chronicle Bookmakers, the Irish-based on- and off-course firm in which financier Dermot Desmond is a partner.

Blue Square spokesman Ed Pownall said yesterday: "This is not something we set out to do. We weren't looking for pitches as such, but to be given an opportunity to have a presence, as well as eyes and ears, on the rails at all the major

meetings was something we had to grab because they just virtually never come up. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we took it with both hands."

Revenue from the sales will fund further expansion of Heathorns' international call centre in Malta, where its telephone credit and internet operations are now dominated by sports betting.

Despite Heathorns dating back to 1890 and numbering among its account-holders a strong representation from racing's establishment, Helen Simmonds, who took over the business following the death of her husband Matthew almost two years ago, decided earlier this month to end its racecourse association.

Included among the package of rails pitches are those at Ascot, Cheltenham, Chester, Epsom, Goodwood, Kempton, Newbury, Newmarket (July course and Rowley Mile), Sandown and York. They feature several No.1 positions and none is lower than No.4.

It is too early for Blue Square, which is employing the four Heathorns staff involved in racecourse operations, to identify the meeting that will mark its first appearance on the rails, but with the branding process under way it is expected to be in the near future.

Simmonds said: "This is a fantastic deal and I feel Blue Square are the right

people to take over the pitches. It means we can now concentrate on the continuing expansion of our international call

centre."

In another new development, Blue Square hopes to open its first betting shop, next door to the Grosvenor

Casino in London's Edgware Road, in time for the Cheltenham Festival in March.

CAPTION(S):

Dermot Desmond Partner in Chronicle Racing
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Oct 31, 2003
Words:437
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