Later this month, Billy Crystal takes time off from slapstick comedy to once more preside over the slapstick ceremony that is the Oscars. All Hollywood's thoroughbreds and a few old nags will be present to witness the occasion, but for all those punters whose invitation got lost in the post, there's always the thrill of laying a bet and sitting in front of the box to see just who gets in first past the finishing post. Last week's nominations mean that we know who's in the running, but just who's going to come a cropper at the last hurdle?

Graham Sharp of William Hill has been taking bets on the big three - Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Film - since the New Year, and keeping a weather-eye on the form. For the first category, Geoffrey Rush is now favourite at odds of 8-13 for Shine. "He's looking like a pretty safe bet since he won the award from the Screen Actors Guild," says Sharp, so it looks as though Hollywood's infatuation with mental illness will win through again (Dustin Hoffman's autistic Rain Man went down well in 1988). Second favourite is Tom Cruise for his sports-agent role in Jerry Maguire, with Ralph Fiennes and Woody Harrelson neck-and-neck outsiders at 5-1 for The English Patient and The People vs Larry Flynt respectively. If you want to have a really dangerous flutter, then why not put the week's wages on Billy Bob Thornton (who?), up for a gong for Sling Blade?

For best picture, Sharp says "[the] tide has been slowly moving towards The English Patient from the first. It started off a favourite and has becomng more and more popular, with its odds settled now at 4-9. Fargo is at 3-1, Shine 5-1, Jerry Maguire 12-1 and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies bringing up the rear at an unlikely 16-1."

As far as female contenders go, "the big upset was Madonna for Evita". William Hill opened with odds of 20-1 and picked up a lot of business from punters convinced she'd last the course. "It was a nasty surprise for fans," says Sharp, "but a relief to us, as we were looking at a rather heavy pay." As it is, Frances McDormand is romping home with 10-11 for her pregnant cop in Fargo. One nominee who won't be raising cheers at the bookies, however, is Roderick Jaynes, editor of the same film, since he doesn't exist - he's the name the Coen brothers call themselves when they're splicing together their own pictures.

Liese Spencer