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COMMENTARY : National Bet Breaks Slowly From the Gate


For anybody who loves to play the horses, the concept of the National Best Seven is irresistible. The wager consists of seven stakes races run at tracks across the country, and picking all the winners could produce a potential bonanza. With the races scheduled a few minutes apart, so that they fit within the format of a one-hour television program, the action is breathtakingly fast.

But when the Best Seven made its debut Monday, its problems were more conspicuous than its virtues. The introduction of the wager had been beset by various legal and political difficulties, and it hadn't been well-publicized. Offered at 25 tracks, plus many off-track betting outlets, wagering on the Best Seven totaled a mere $371,075.

The results were anticlimactic too. The Best Seven had too many uncompetitive races and formful winners, and instead of yielding a windfall it paid a paltry $190.75 to the many people who held perfect tickets.

The Best Seven is the creation of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, the organization of the nation's tracks, which is seeking new ways to promote the sport.

Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the TRA, said, "Whenever we talk to television people, they complain that racing is two minutes of action in a 60-minute show. We hope that the Best Seven becomes the basis of a TV program that will reach beyond the track into the home." The TRA wants the Best Seven to have the widespread appeal and availability of a lottery, one whose results would unfold in a weekly hour-long network television show. To appeal to the lottery crowd, the unit price of the new wager was set at 50 cents.

The TRA's goal sounded laudable and uncontroversial, and it ought to have generated enthusiastic support from all parties with an interest in horse racing. But the months of preparation for the Best Seven underscored just how difficult it is for the industry to act in concert on a national level. Different state regulations on wagering kept getting in the way. Technicalities prevented New York from taking part in the Best Seven. Texas doesn't have a law applying to such a wager, so it couldn't participate. Nevada's race books wouldn't offer the bet because they thought the fee was too expensive.

But the major obstructions came from horsemen's groups, who jockeyed for bigger slices of the Best Seven revenue or who simply feared the wager because it was something different. Horsemen in Kentucky worried that the Best Seven might occasionally take away from betting on their local pick six, which might cost them money, and this minor concern kept their state out of the Best Seven too.

Racing fans in Maryland did get the chance to watch and wager on the Best Seven, but they bet less than $33,000, and to anybody at Laurel or Pimlico it was obvious what was wrong with the presentation. Yes, the rapid-fire action of the Best Seven was potentially a terrific show. But Pimlico's "live" program was still the main offering on the track's in-house television, and its coverage of the 11th race--a rock-bottom event for maiden fillies--got top billing over this national extravaganza. For the Best Seven to capture racegoers' attention, it shouldn't run concurrently with live races. But horseplayers don't want to sit with no action for the balance of an hour if they don't play the Best Seven or get knocked out of it early. They have to be given the chance to bet individually on the races that comprise the Best Seven--and that is not possible now.

There is another logistical problem involving the Best Seven that was evident yesterday: scratches. The industry may envision a wager that can be bet almost as easily as a lottery, but the Maryland Lottery never has to scratch No. 24. People who had handicapped the Best Seven and planned their strategy had to make plenty of revisions when they learned, at 1:20 p.m., that six horses had been scratched from the races.

The Best Seven is not going to generate big business if bettors have to wait till three or four hours before the races to make their decisions. Late changes ought to be kept to an absolute minimum, but the needs of the Best Seven conflict with racing rules that allow scratches in stakes races up to 45 minutes before post time.

Various other problems afflicted the Best Seven in various locations. Some tracks didn't have betting slips; some didn't have past performances for the horses. In Maryland, there was no sound on the telecast for part of the afternoon--which was not much of a loss, because the closed-circuit TV show, broadcast to all participating tracks, was pretty uninformative.

From the TRA's standpoint, the good news was that the mechanics of wagering went smoothly. "Operationally," said Scherf, "this was a lot better than the other national wagers."

Just about everybody in racing would love to see the Best Seven succeed. It would be a source of excitement and revenue but, perhaps most important, it would show that the industry can develop innovative ideas and make them work. The early results of the Best Seven have not inspired much confidence in that proposition.

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