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Punters find ways to satisfy gambling hunger

BRITAIN'S appetite for gambling seems insatiable. Yesterday's white-out saw punters focus instead on races beamed live into betting shops from France and South Africa.

Closer to home, punters at William Hill grappled with the odds at Sprint Valley and Portman Park -- a pair of virtual tracks where 'winners' are determined by a computer-generated draw of totally random numbers.

Virtual racing is evidently becoming increasingly popular, especially on blank racing days. "Betting shops are reporting a ten-fold increase in the number of bets," David Hood, William Hill's public relations director, said. "In the last week alone we have taken more than 300,000 individual bets."

In contrast to racing's finances, bookmakers have achieved partial insulation against white-outs through their range of virtual games and fixed-odds betting terminals that offer casino-style games.

"On a normal midweek day punters could be expected to bet the best part of £80m," Hood said. "The freeze means that turnover is likely to drop to around a quarter of that."

None of the estimated £20m bet yesterday generated one penny for racing's coffers, however. Bookmakers only pay levy on bets placed in Britain on British horse racing. The Levy Board, effectively racing's chancellor, warned that further white-outs would impact seriously on racing's finances.

"In real numbers, the levy loss today is the thick end of £200,000," Alan Delmonte, the Levy Board's operations director, explained. "The damage would be obvious if there was a sustained spell without racing."

By contrast, the William Hill tills are ringing with bets on when jumps racing will resume -- and the outlook is bleak. They offer odds of 4/6 that turf racing will not resume before Saturday week. Those bets are not subject to levy payments either.

©The Times, London