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Casino king Stanley Ho gives most of Macau stake to relatives

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HONG KONG >>Asian casino king Stanley Ho has handed most of his stake in his Macau gambling empire over to relatives to settle an inheritance dispute over control of the main player in the world’s most lucrative gambling market.

Hong Kong-listed casino operator SJM Holdings Ltd. said Thursday that Ho’s controlling stake, worth about $1.6 billion, has been divided up among family members.

The drama offered a glimpse into the private life of one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest men and highlighted the ugly power struggle within his family, including 16 living children by four women he calls his wives.

Angela Leong, Ho’s fourth “wife,” will get a 6 percent share of a holding company, Lanceford, that owns roughly 32 percent of SJM’s controlling shareholder, Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau. Other family members who were not named will receive 25.54 percent of Lanceford. The 89-year-old Ho is left with a tiny fraction of his original 32 percent stake.

The statement follows an announcement earlier this month by Ho and his family that the ailing tycoon had dropped a lawsuit against some family members in an attempt to get back the stake. It said the dispute had been resolved and a settlement reached, although no details were released at the time.

The lawsuit was the second that Ho filed in the dispute.

He made headlines earlier this year after he disputed the transfer of the stake to the families of his second and third wives. His lawyer had said Ho, who was hospitalized for seven months after reportedly undergoing brain surgery in August 2009, was misled into signing over the shares.

Ho said he wanted to divide his assets equally among the families.

SJM operates 17 casinos, four slot machine lounges and two hotels in Macau. Forbes early this year estimated Ho’s fortune at $3.1 billion but he fell off the magazine’s more recent billionaire list, replaced by Leong, whose wealth is estimated at $1.1 billion. She is the mother of Ho’s five youngest children.

Ho married his second wife while still married to his first under a Qing dynasty code that allowed men to take multiple wives. Hong Kong outlawed the practice in 1971. He is not legally married to his third or fourth “wives.”

Macau’s economy has boomed since it broke up its gambling monopoly eight years ago. Ho’s casinos, which now compete against the likes of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and MGM Resorts, are still the market leaders, accounting for about 30 percent of the city’s gambling revenue, which surged to a record $23.5 billion last year.

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