LONDON British and Irish bookmakers ranked Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze, Peter Turkson of Ghana and Canadian Marc Ouellet on Monday as favourites to lead the Roman Catholic Church, setting odds swiftly after Pope Benedict's shock resignation.
William Hill, Britain's largest bookmaker, offered odds of 3/1 against for Arinze, or a probability of 25 percent, while Ouellet and Turkson were priced at 7/2 against, meaning successful punters would win seven pounds for every two staked.
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power had the same three cardinals as leading contenders but placed Ouellet as favourite ahead of the two Africans. Britain's Ladbrokes narrowly made Turkson its initial frontrunner.
"I have been taking bets on the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury for as long as I care to remember," said William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe, denying that gambling on the papal succession was blasphemous.
"It's fair to say that this is the first papal punt to be decided in the full Internet betting era," he added, noting the growth of online gambling could make for a more lively market.
"It's not going to rival the Champions League (soccer) but it will produce enough turnover to make it worth doing."
Arinze and Benedict, who was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, were both among the bookmakers' favourites in 2005 when the German was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II, Sharpe said.
Two outsiders on the Paddy Power list of contenders showed the Irish bookmaker's customary eye for a publicity stunt.
Dark horses included the British scientist and atheism campaigner Richard Dawkins on 666/1 and the fictional Father Dougal McGuire, a hapless priest from the 1990s Irish TV comedy show 'Father Ted' on 1000/1, the same odds as the Irish U2 singer Bono.
(Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Kevin Liffey)