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Bookmakers on track to give market boost

Trading updates from publisher Pearson and bookmaker William Hill helped boost their faltering share prices and buck a fall in the wider FTSE 100 Index.

The pair made headway in an otherwise disappointing day for London's top flight, which fell 17.3 points to 6685.7 following gains in the previous session.

Sentiment was hit by the ­ongoing crisis in Ukraine, after its government launched an ­operation to drive out pro-Russian insurgents occupying buildings in the east of the ­country and the Kremlin responded with military exercises near the border.

Germany's reliance on trade with Russia meant that Frankfurt's Dax was under ­pressure, plunging by 1.5%, while in Paris the Cac 40 also fell sharply.

US corporate updates also weighed on markets, with ­disappointing results from retail giant Amazon and car maker Ford. New York's Dow Jones Industrial Average was in the red at the time of the close in London.

On currency markets, the pound was flat at 1.68 US dollars and 1.21 euros.

In London, AstraZeneca was 2% lower as a week-long surge for shares in the drug maker amid speculation that it is in the sights of US rival Pfizer came to an end. The stock slipped 95p to 4080p.

William Hill was 6.9p higher at 340p as it reported continued strong trading from its online business, leading to a 7% rise in net revenues for the first 13 weeks of the year.

The stock has been under pressure in recent weeks after the Chancellor imposed a surprise hike in gaming machine duty from 20% to 25%. The company said the tax raid would force it to close 109 loss-making shops this year.

Chief executive Ralph Topping said the shop closures were particularly disappointing and said there had been two substantial loss-making weeks in the first quarter with major wins for football punters.

But he sought to focus on the "underlying strength of the ­business" and said it was very well-placed to take advantage of the World Cup, with an ­"unrivalled football product range".

Investec analyst James Hollins retained a buy stance on the shares, saying: "We do not expect the shop closures to make a big change to earnings."

FTSE 250 rival Ladbrokes was also up, climbing 2.3p to 138.7p.

Pearson, whose shares like William Hill's have also struggled in recent weeks, topped the FTSE 100 risers' board climbing nearly 4% or 40p to 1090p after its latest update, coinciding with its annual general meeting, came in slightly better than City forecasts.

Chief executive John Fallon said a major programme of restructuring and investment was on track and would drive a "leaner, more cash generative, faster-growing business".

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