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Betting is a way of life

Britain's Chris Bailey is a 500-1 long shot to win the Wimbledon men's title, which puts his chances somewhere between the odds of the Loch Ness Monster being caught (1,000-1) and Elvis being alive (250-1).

You see, in England, and only in England, you can get odds on virtually anything _ including the capture of "Nellie."

With apologies to the Queen, the Brits' fanaticism for their cricket, soccer and tennis is perhaps surpassed only by their passion for betting on them. The art of the wager, not some sport, is the unofficial national pastime here.

Boy, would Michael Jordan love this place.

"Betting is really part of the British culture," said Paul Austin of Ladbrokes, one of England's largest bookmakers. "Even at school ages, people talk about favorites and odds. It's part of the everyday language here."

And he means everyday. Since betting was legalized in England in 1961, British bettors, or "punters," have wagered on everything from what TV show and song will be No.

1 this week to whether it'll rain tomorrow to the name, sex and date of birth of the next royal baby.

The betting topics, though, aren't confined to British culture. Recently, Ladbrokes took a 50-pound bet (about $80) on whether the movie Jurassic Park

would gross more money in its opening weekend than Batman Returns.

American politics is another popular wager. About $1.6-million (1-million pounds) was bet on the past presidential election, one bookmaker estimated. Austin remembers a guy who flew from San Diego to London to put $5,000 on Ross Perot at 100-1.

This week, believe it or not, London bookmakers have dropped their odds from 200-1 to 50-1 that Clinton _ Hillary Clinton, that is _ will be the next U.S. president in 1996.

While the betting sometimes can seem ridiculous (Ladbrokes took a bet on whether some rare flower would blossom this year for the first time in 135 years), British bookmakers say they do have standards. They won't take money on events such as earthquakes or assassination attempts, anything that might result in loss of life.

"Everything else is fair game," said Graham Sharpe of William Hill bookmakers, which is taking bets on whether the British monarchy system will be abolished by the end of the century. "There's no legal restrictions on what we can take bets on."

Sometimes, the incomprehensible wager pays off. British bookmakers gave 1,000-1 odds against man walking on the moon by the end of the 1960s. (It happened July

20, 1969.)

"Cost us about 1-million pounds, it did," Sharpe said.

Hill and Ladbrokes are two of the "Big Three" bookmakers in England (Corals is the other). Around town, their betting shops are as prevalent as convenience stores in Florida; they're everywhere, two and three of the city's 9,400 along every major London street.

Inside, they're like small smoked-filled lounges. There are chairs around the room with good views of the TV monitors that cover the walls, and soda and candy are sold at counters. A voice over a loudspeaker keeps you updated on the events going on simultaneously. Unlike Las Vegas, these spots are only open during normal business hours, unless there are evening horse races.

Each bookmaking company has a team of "experts" who set the odds on the various betting topics. In the case of the unusual non-sports bets, a neutral third party is established to verify any claims for payoffs.

"If some bloke drags in a green, slimy-looking beast and says it's "Nellie,' then we've got to have a guy who can tell us for sure or not," Sharpe said.

Don't laugh _ this is big business. An estimated $6.4-billion was wagered by Brits last year, with the British government pocketing $350-million in taxes. (Some reports put U.S. betting on sports at $40-billion, about half of it illegal and untaxed.)

Most sports bettors put their money on horse racing, greyhound racing and soccer, with less than $1.6-million a year (1-million pounds) on non-sports wagers. A sizable chunk of the sports action takes place in April, when the Brits plunk down some $24-million (15-million pounds) on the Grand National, their equivalent of the Kentucky Derby.

"It's a way of life," said a cab driver (they're notorious punters) who wouldn't give his name. "When you go into a pub, everyone's got an opinion about sports, about politics, about the television shows they watch _ and betting is a way to back it up."

This week, everyone has an opinion on who will win Wimbledon. At the start of the two-week tournament, Stefan Edberg (at 3-1) and Steffi Graf (at 4-7) were the favorites; about $3.2-million (2-million pounds) will be wagered during the fortnight. The biggest long-shot winner at Wimbledon? Michael Stich, who was 100-1 when he won the title in 1991.

The Wimbledon odds are displayed prominently in the daily London newspapers and posted at the Wimbledon media center. Brits use them as a barometer of a player's or team's ability, like Americans use a team's record.

Even British athletes themselves have been known to make a small wager _ or "flutter," as the British say _ on a sporting event.

It shouldn't surprise anyone then that the Brits, who've had only a few sports gambling scandals, are puzzled over the flap Michael Jordan's gambling has caused in the States.

"What's the big deal?" Sharpe said. "If (heavyweight champion boxer) Lennox Lewis wanted to bet on a horse race, I can't for the life of me see what's wrong with that."

By the way, you can get the odds on Lewis' next title defense. Of course, you also can get a line on whether he'll become the next pope.