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A New Bet: You Make the Call

Horse racing: Two companies begin handling Internet and phone wagers in California.

January 26, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While the California Horse Racing Board met Thursday, one of the commissioners, John Harris, was wondering how one of his many horses did in the second race at Santa Anita.

During a break in the meeting, Harris learned that Green Team, his 3-year-old gelding, had found room on the rail to win at 20-1. Green Team, the longest shot on the board, paid $42.60 for $2, but Harris didn't have a bet down.

"Too bad," he said. "We should have approved those licenses earlier. Then I could have phoned in something."

What the racing board did by midafternoon was issue licenses to two companies--XpressBet, which is owned by Magna Entertainment, the corporation that owns Santa Anita; and the Television Games Network, a subsidiary of the company that publishes TV Guide--that will be at the forefront of telephone and Internet horse betting in California. They quickly swung into business, the Television Games Network (TVG) opening accounts Friday for Californians who want to bet quarter horses at Los Alamitos and 11 other tracks, and XpressBet launching today with a menu of 40 tracks, including Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields and Gulfstream Park, which are all Magna properties.

"We've been very busy with new accounts," said Carmelita, one of the TVG operators at its Oregon betting hub. "About 90% of the new business is coming from California."

In less than 10 minutes Friday, Carmelita signed up a reporter for a betting account, which he used later in the day to place a few bets at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and for the night card at Los Alamitos.

Mark Wilson, president of TVG, said that it was not possible to quantify how many new accounts had been added Friday. TVG has been in business since 1999 in other states, where it has thousands of betting accounts.

"We're not sure this is going to be a positive or a negative," said Rick Henson, president of Los Alamitos Race Course. "If getting the races on TV develops new fans, then it will help. It should also curb some of the offshore betting that's been going on, betting that doesn't help us at all. But we're all going into uncharted waters.

"The phone and the Internet should bring us closer to our patrons. It's not a short-term fix and it will be a while before we know how much it's helping. But if we find that all we're really doing is moving the bettor from the grandstand to the couch, then we've made the wrong move. What we'd like to do is convert our casual fan. If we can move him up a notch, from a casual to a frequent racegoer, then we will have done some good."

The reporter--no whiz at keypads and Web-surfing--had no trouble signing up, although one of the security questions made him think. He knew what high school he attended and the town where he was born, but then Carmelita asked: "What was the name of your first car?" He resisted saying it was a Tin Lizzie or a Stutz Bearcat, feeling that she wouldn't understand the humor.

A bettor is allowed to use a credit card and a debit card once each per day to increase his account balance, with a $1,000 limit per card per month. Later, the reporter was told, a subscriber kit that includes a form enabling him to increase that limit would be provided.

A little later, he dialed in to place a couple of bets at the Fair Grounds. He learned by punching in the right numbers that one of the horses he liked in a three-horse exacta box had been scratched. Settling on a two-horse box and an across-the-board bet on one of the horses, the best he could do was a second-place finish as a longshot won the race. Net for the race: a loss of $11.

Then he turned his attention to Friday night's card at Los Alamitos. He bet the first race, but the system rejected his bet for the second. That's because the second race was for Arabians.

"That's an oversight," Henson said later. "Apparently you can't bet Arabians in Maryland, which is one of the states where TVG does business. But they'll get it straightened out. You'll eventually be able to bet every race we run."

The drawback for Californians is that TVG and Magna, after failing to agree on a partnership, are forcing horseplayers to maintain separate accounts if they plan to bet all the tracks here. TVG has contracts with Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Los Alamitos and for the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. But it can't offer the three Magna tracks in California.

At least it will be getting easier in certain areas to receive TVG's telecasts of live races. Already in about 700,000 homes in California, TVG recently signed a contract with Adelphia Communications, whose digital cable service will make the races available in Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Hermosa Beach and Beverly Hills, as well as other areas. It is estimated that this deal will increase TVG's coverage by about 100,000 homes.

"This is only the beginning," Wilson said. "But it's an important step toward raising interest and awareness of horse racing in California."

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