By John Martin
TLC Correspondent, London
Betting on papal elections has a 500-year history but for Paddy Power, Europe’s biggest off-course bookmakers, “Pope betting” is more buoyant than ever. The 2013 election looks set to become the largest-ever non-sporting market since Paddy Power began trading. Its London office told TLC that in the last two weeks it had accepted bets worth a “heavenly” (Paddy Power’s word) £300,000 and the odds are that takings will get much higher. Several other U.K. bookmakers, including Ladbrokes and William Hill, are in the market.
Find “novelty betting” on the Paddy Power website and alongside the chance to punt on the sex of the royal baby of Prince William and Princess Kate, there is a menu of 10 betting options surrounding the next pope: his identity, the papal name he will choose, his country of origin, length of the conclave and the number of ballots held ahead of white smoke heralding a successful election.
“Congregation” meetings of cardinals are scheduled in Rome early this week, and more than half of the 115 electing cardinals have arrived. Retired Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor told the BBC: “When you go into the conclave it's very strange: you're cut off, you can't bring a telephone and you are guarded. During those days you have secret meetings with other cardinals to discuss names of possible popes — what challenges there are for the Church and who might be most suitable to face them. I remember looking around at all of the other 114 cardinals and thinking: ‘One of us will be going out with a white cassock on.’”
Advance planning includes having a tailor standing by with a white cassock selection: one small, one medium and one large.
Paddy Power is so enthusiastic about promoting its stake in the papal race that the London headquarters even sent Rory Scott, its senior press officer, to Rome to cover Benedict XVI’s final hours in office. He seems to have fared better than the firm’s founder, David Power, who was evicted from St. Peter’s Square by security staff before the start of the 2005 conclave for displaying his betting prices.
“Now that Benedict XVI has officially given up being pope for Lent, punters the world over will be praying for their fancied cardinal to make a last-gasp dash up the home straight to clinch it by a nose,” Scott told TLC.
Paddy Power, founded in Ireland in 1988 and possessed of a quintessentially Irish-Catholic name, has built its brand not least through its flair for publicity. It once ruffled feathers when it offered bets that President Barak Obama would not complete his first term in office. It paid out two days ahead of when the results of the presidential election were known, after Obama’s odds had fallen to a low 2/9 with 75 percent of bets staked on the incumbent President.
This same flair is apparent as the conclave approaches. The odds on “Saint” Silvio Berlusconi have shortened from 1000/1 to 500/1. “Given that more than a quarter of the cardinals eligible to vote are Italian, punters might well be onto something here,” says Scott, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
The market has taken in its stride two late “scratchings” from the conclave. Julius Cardinal Darmaatmadja of Indonesia recently withdrew on grounds that his impaired vision makes it impossible to read important texts at the event. Then Scotland’s outspoken Keith Cardinal O’Brien had his impending retirement accelerated after allegations about improper sexual conduct towards some of his priests.
Paddy Power has Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana and Angelo Cardinal Scola of Italy as 3/1 current co-favourites. Turkson has attracted the largest number of bets, just over 15 percent of the market.
“He’s proudly shouldering the biggest single bet of £5000 placed at 3/1, reaping a divine return of £20,000,” says Scott. “Scola has been a big mover and has seen a lot of money after starting life as 10/1. Cardinal Bertone (Italy) and Cardinal Marc Ouellet (Canada) are currently commanding the highest average stakes — around £25, with the pair of them each picking up several four figure individual bets.”
The market continues to move. Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria set a “blistering” early pace “but looks to have run out of puff slipping down the pecking order and now trundling along at 25/1.”
Scott says that American names have attracted an unusually high proportion of bets at long prices. “This means two things. Either our transatlantic friends haven’t quite grasped what the odds mean, or they know something we don’t. In recent days, Cardinal Sean O’Malley has stormed through the pack from 125/1 to a relatively skimpy 40/1 following hundreds of bets, while Cardinal Dolan has tumbled from 80/1 to 33/1 and is now the best-placed American.”
No one candidate from South America has broken clear of the field, with Odilo Cardinal Scherer of Brazil and Leonardo Cardinal Sandri of Argentina backed at 20/1 and 12/1 respectively. Languishing somewhat is Cláudio Cardinal Hummes of Brazil, a 50/1 shot. He attracted nine fewer bets than Father Dougal Maguire — the fictional, simpleminded priest from the highly popular Channel Four television series Father Ted.
The rank outsider at theologically symbolic odds of 666/1 is the militant atheist Professor Richard Dawkins.
Image: Screenshot of papal-conclave markets on Paddy Power.