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Betting fever flourishes against the odds

Tim McGirk reports on the ingenuity shown by punters to circumvent Sri Lanka's ban on the `evil' of horse racing
The narrow little betting shop on a lane behind the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was crowded with Sri Lankans who probably could not find England on the map, but who knew nevertheless that 15-2 on The Frog Prince in the 2:50 at Newbury w as a tempting bet.

"See these punters?" said the shop manager, Chan Lin, pointing to a cluster of men studying an island racing sheet, the Sporting Times. "Many can't read English, but they've taught themselves to recognise the names of British horses and jockeys."

For a Sri Lankan to learn enough English to find his way around a betting sheet is an extraordinary endeavour; they are as alien to the language as to Swahili. Yet, on this former British colony in the Indian Ocean, the urge to gamble is so great they have no choice. Horse racing was banned as immoral on the island in the 1970s and, ever since, Sri Lankans have been avid followers of British racing. Lingfield, Epsom and Worcester are as familiar to many of these gambling-crazy islanders as their own SriLankan place names.

Rohan Balasuriya, whose family owns the Sporting Times and a large chain of betting shops bearing the same name as the tip sheet, said: "Sri Lankans will bet on anything. If there wasn't horse racing, they'd bet on two dogs crossing the road."

Sri Lanka is more than five hours ahead of Britain so most punters place their bets in the afternoon and then sprint to the betting shops in the morning to check the results. "This sustains them with hope. They all go to bed thinking they could wake up as millionaires," said Mr Balasuriya. Even for losers, the morning trip is not a total waste: they can at least get a shave and haircut because in many villages the betting shop is in the barber's back room.

The recent elections in Sri Lanka have sent a ripple of fear through many turf accountants. Although betting is illegal, previous governments have looked the other way because turf accountants are among the biggest taxpayers. However, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who outlawed racing when she was president, has reappeared as a Cabinet minister. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is now president and resents many betting shop owners for backing the conservative opposition party with funds. It was a

foolish wager. Mrs Kumaratunga's leftist party won with a large majority.

Aside from the tea gardens, public school uniforms and three race tracks - one has been taken over by the late president Ranasinghe Premadasa's son-in-law, who grows carnations on the home stretch - few traces of British colonialism linger in Sri Lanka, which was given independence in 1948. But a sentimental attachment remains. In Australia's Melbourne Cup, according to Mr Balasuriya, "the punters here always go for an English horse even though I don't think any have won for over 70 races".

When the Queen paid a royal visit to Sri Lanka before the race courses were closed down, it so happened that a horse named British Crown was running in Nuwara Eliya, a hill station. This coincidence was thought to be so auspicious that many Sri Lankans placed a bet. When the horse won, the betting shops had to pay out huge sums. One manager at the Sporting Times wrote to Buckingham Palace and, as a joke, complainedto the Queen. "She sent back a note saying we should accept our losses philosophically," Mr Balasuriya recalled.

Nearly all of the Sporting Times' hundreds of betting shops are hooked up to live television broadcasts of the English races, using the same system that turf accountants have in the UK, only the Sri Lankans must beam it in by satellite. The Balasuriya family grew wealthy off the Sri Lankans' fondness for English racing. Rohan's father, who entered the business in the 1950s to pay off a bad wager on a horse, can now afford to race his own thoroughbreds abroad.

The Balasuriyas profitable network of shops and televised races caught the interest recently of gangsters from a Central Asian republic. "They said you must come visit us - we have private airplanes, Mercedes cars and everything. Finally, one of them asked: `How do you do it? You know - cheat. Fix the system'?" When Mr Balasuriya replied that there was no time lag when the shops could tamper with the odds because the races were beamed in live, the mobsters left in disgust.