Cheltenham doesn’t get underway until Tuesday, but we already have a false start. It’s traditional for UK bookies to don sackcloth and ashes, tear out their hair and wail to the skies about how badly punters beat them up each year. Problem is, they usually wait until after the racing before starting the show. Not this year. Ladbrokes spokesman David Williams claims his company has “only just removed the bandages from last year. It was horrific … We’re desperate for a change of luck.” William Hill spokesperson Kate Miller says her bosses stand to lose £6m if all four reigning champions repeat their 2011 success. “It would be like Armageddon, we would be dead on the battlefield.” Yes, not in the least bit hyperbolic.
Another battle is looming on Hills’ horizon, one much more grounded in reality. Last last week, Hills boss Ralph Topping told the Evening Standard there were no issues between his outfit and Playtech, Hills’ partner in joint venture William Hill Online (WHO). Topping dismissed the donnybrook that went down between Hills and WHO staff in Tel Aviv and Bulgaria as the actions of a few “rogue employees.” But on Sunday, the Financial Times reported that Hills will open talks with Playtech this month about either scuttling the partnership or finding what a source referred to as “a third way.”
Hills has an option coming due in 2013 to buy out Playtech’s 29% stake in WHO, and last month, Topping stated that the existing relationship “can’t continue in its current form.” A particular bone of contention was Playtech’s strategic veto, which Topping said needed to “disappear.” Playtech’s public flirtation with Hills’ rivals like Ladbrokes was also a sore point. The FT quoted Playtech chief Mor Weizer as saying it was “imperative that all options are explored, including structural changes to the joint venture, something we are not opposed to.”