With Euro 2004 about to kick off, the Jockey Club admits it is finding it hard to compete Hong Kong's big-money gamblers are shunning the Jockey Club and betting heavily on the Euro 2004 soccer tournament with offshore and black-market bookies, it was claimed yesterday. An underground source said millions of dollars were being wagered on Portugal, Italy and France finishing in the top three. Many big punters were 'buying ahead of time', capitalising on a maximum $300,000 internet bet or $1 million phone bet being offered. The illegal bookies are predicting they will score a crushing victory over the Hong Kong Jockey Club during the three-week championship in the first major test of legalised soccer betting since it was introduced seven months ago. A Jockey Club spokesman conceded yesterday it would be 'difficult to compete' against the odds and flexibility being offered by illegal syndicates. 'Our major disadvantage is with the timing of the matches because most of the games are being played in the early hours Hong Kong time,' he said. 'Punters prefer to wait until the last minute to place their bets and we cannot compete with illegal bookies on that level.' Most of the games are being televised live to Hong Kong at around 2am, but Jockey Club outlets shut at 11.30pm. One offshore international bookmaker said the turnover from Hong Kong punters was expected to run into billions of dollars. 'We have already seen a flood of money coming in from some of the big punters and high rollers,' said the syndicate leader. 'But we expect to make most of our money during the matches on our 'running ball' odds where punters can ring in their bets as the game unfolds. 'We offer pool prize, Asian handicap, total goals, quinellas and exotic bets, and the advantage of offering a discount on loss and credit in any currency. 'The Jockey Club simply cannot compete.' He said the Jockey Club should televise the matches live on a big screen at one of the major racing venues to give punters an option to legally gamble on the event. The Jockey Club has added five new bets to its existing list, in an effort to lure more punters. But the Jockey Club's executive director of corporate development, Kim Mak, said fighting illegal gambling was an uphill battle because illegal operators did not pay tax and could offer discounts. Ng Kam-shing, 30, a faithful supporter of England, said he was prepared to gamble about $100 a match through the Jockey Club. 'I will only bet through the Jockey Club. In the end, it is safer to trust the government-authorised organisation,' Mr Ng said. Dicky Ho, 35, a chef, said illegal gambling could co-exist with the legal channel because they appealed to different customers. 'I think it is people's own choice whether whom to go to,' he said. But not all football fans want to gamble on the sport. Logistics clerk Donald Mak, 24, said: 'I will not gamble. I prefer to enjoy the game.' GAME PLAN The Jockey Club's five new bets 1. Champions. France won in 2000 and are favourites. 2. Four group winners. 3. Group forecast. Top two teams in correct order in all four groups 4. Top Scorer. Thierry Henry is favourite, followed by Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Christian Vieri. 5. 8 HaFu. Expanded version of 6 HaFu. Pick the correct combinations of half time and full time results of eight matches.