THE TOTE is symbolic of Britain's archaic gaming laws. While rivals such as Ladbrokes and Coral have embraced the revolution that is sweeping the betting sector by opening state-of-the-art new shops, the state-controlled bookmaker has managed the odd lick of paint and a new sign.
But all that is about to change. The cosy old world of the Tote, where re-painting the shop fronts green instead of red constitutes a major image change, is about to be shaken up, courtesy of an impending Bill to deregulate the UK gaming industry.
What happens to the Tote will depend - at least in part - on pointers given by one Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, who has just been signed up by the City financial public relations firm that advises the bookmaker. Mr Cook, a fanatical racing enthusiast, will weigh into the debate on whether to sell the Tote to a racing trust or simply end its pool betting monopoly by allowing other operators to run similar services.
While the Government decides what to do with the Tote, the rest of the gaming world is busy preparing for the benefits of deregulation.
So far, the much-hyped gaming revolution has been limited to the relaxation of some of the more antiquated rules governing casinos. High and low rollers alike can now reach for an alcoholic drink to slake their thirst and steady their nerves when deciding whether to risk next month's mortgage repayments on their number coming up. If it all gets too much, they can sit back and enjoy some live singing and dancing thanks to the relaxation of the rules governing live entertainment.
But this is small beer for industry giants such as Rank and Gala. They know that the real money lies in the potential to open US- style gaming centres, where punters can flit between roulette, slot machines, bingo and placing a bet on the 3.45pm at Sandown Park - all without going outside. And it isn't just the UK operators who are alive to this licence to print money. Gaming groups have been lining up to muscle in on the UK market ahead of deregulation, with the mighty US operators at the top of the queue.
Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, Kerzner International and Isle of Capri Casinos are among the US gaming heavyweights to have swooped on the UK market in recent weeks. Last month saw Harrah's strike a deal with Gala to invest up to $1bn (pounds 600m) to open vast new gaming complexes up to eight times bigger than the casinos Gala operators. The sites will also boast 300-room hotels and a spectrum of restaurants catering to every taste.
"We don't want to wait until the starting gun is pulled," John Kelly, Gala's chief executive said yesterday, referring to the delays likely to affect the deregulation timetable. "We want to make sure we are up and running once we get a deregulated landscape. Teaming up with the largest US operator will give us a serious benefit."
UK gaming groups have been subject to stringent regulation since 1968, when the current gaming laws were enacted to clean up the industry and protect the country from gaming's less savoury side. While industry observers say there is no pre-requisite for UK operators to seek overseas partners, most agree that such partnerships are sensible.
Andrew Burnett, a gaming analyst at Merrill Lynch, said: "Although I don't think there is any requirement for UK operators to partner with any US group - I don't believe American brands carry a great deal, if any, sway in the UK - I do think the skill base of US operators is unmatched anywhere in the world."
Not all …