Bookmaker Ladbrokes yesterday celebrated a jump in winnings after declaring the World Cup the biggest betting event in the company's history.
The gambling firm - reporting its first results since splitting from Hilton hotels in February - enjoyed a gross win of £17.5 million during the tournament.
It helped boost overall winnings by 12 per cent to £523.1 million as the firm cheered good results at the Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot race meetings.
It also boosted first-half operating profit by 12 per cent. Shares closeddown 13.75p at 382.
It came as the group laid out plans to expand in Italy but deferred a decision over entering the lucrative US market.
Ladbrokes said the World Cup brought more than 220,000 new inter-net and telephone customers in the first half, but the City took a dim view after it predicted slow growth for its betting shops over the coming year.
"The World Cup turned out to be the biggest betting event in our history," said Chris Bell, chief executive of the 120-year-old company, which split from its hotelier parent Hilton in February.
Operating profit reached £151.3 million in the six months to June 30, slighly ahead of estimates.
One-off items meant pretax profits increased to £552 million from £201.9 million during the same period in 2005.
"They talk about consolidation in the retail business, and basically that means very modest growth rates until the fourth quarter of 2007," said one analyst who declined be named.
The company announced new ventures in Italy, Turkey and Vietnam, but deferred a decision on whether to enter the US market, where the legality of gambling over the internet remains uncertain and the authorities have been clamping down.
"In view of ongoing uncertainties within the US legislative environment, the decision on whether to take business from US customers on our gaming sites remains under review," it said.
Analysts said telephone betting had recovered far ahead of their expectations, but growth of the internet business was disappointing.
ABN Amro analysts said the internet division's 13 per cent growth in operating profit to £19.8 million was disappointing compared with 95 per cent growth in 2005.
Ladbrokes said: "Growth in poker has been less buoyant than last year, with competition challenges emerging, particularly in our important Swedish market."
Mr Bell said the Ladbrokes estate of 2,200 betting shops in Britain would benefit from a further round of gaming deregulation in 2007, including changes to opening hours and the prospect of electronic gaming machines with prizes of up to £500.
"Under existing law, we're prohibited from opening our shops in the evening from September through to April, but from next autumn we've got seven months of evening opening we've not had before," he noted.
Ladbrokes has 58 shops in the Birmingham area with 386 employees.
The bookmaker said it had signed a joint-venture agreement with Italian betting company Pianeta Scommesse establishing it as a governmentaccredited bookmaker in Italy.
"We plan to invest around 100 million euros (£67.6 million) to develop retail, internet and telephone betting propositions in Italy over the next five years," Mr Bell said.