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El Gordo spills lottery millions on Valencia

Madrid - Christmas came early for more than 100 residents of the southern Spanish town of Valencia yesterday when the lottery that bills itself as the world's richest showered its grand prize of 33bn pesetas (pounds 154m) on them.

The jackpot, which Spaniards dub "El Gordo", (The Fat One) was split among the holders of the 120 tickets bearing the number 56169 .

The Christmas draw dished out a total of 166bn pesetas in tax-free winnings.

The winning number was picked yesterday morning by one of the pupils of Saint Ildefonso School, Madrid, who are the stars each year of the traditional ticket draw ceremony, which is televised across the country. Student Raquel Villaescusa beamed as she sang out the coveted number.

Millions of other lottery players waited to see if they had won one of the hundreds of smaller prizes.

Spaniards spent an estimated 213bn pesetas in recent weeks to take part in the country's favourite yuletide tradition, an increase of 7.6 per cent over last year.

No one knows just how many Spaniards play, because the 30,000-peseta tickets for each number are usually split among family, friends, work colleagues and club mates. Most people buy one or several of the ten 3,000-peseta shares issued for each number, though stakes can be divided down to as little as 100 pesetas.

The national lottery system was originally established as a charity during the reign of King Carlos III in 1763. But its objective gradually evolved into filling state coffers.

The Christmas lottery, easily as popular as Santa Claus, was begun in 1818. The Spanish treasury now takes a 30-per-cent cut of the takings before the draw.

Spaniards, who spend more per head on gambling than any nationality except Filipinos, have steadily bought more tickets for El Gordo every year since 1978.