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Racing's Online Bet

The chairman of the state horse racing board worries that online wagering will lead to the sport's demise


If horse racing is indeed the sport of kings, everyone in California who has a home computer now lives in a castle.

Internet betting on horse races became legal for California adults in January. All types of track bets--including exacta, pick 6 and daily double, as well as the traditional win, place and show--can be placed online. The races also can be watched live on streaming video.

Bets are placed and paid off through credit card accounts.

As chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, veteran TV and film producer Alan Landsburg has overseen the leap of the sport into the digital world. A longtime horse owner, he was appointed to the board by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000.

But Landsburg, 69, whose TV credits include the "Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," "That's Incredible" and "In Search Of..." series, did not willingly jump on the bandwagon. He was one of two board commissioners to vote against the granting of Internet betting licenses.

Question: What were your reservations about the move onto the Internet?

Answer: I was not sure we were ready to take such an important step. If it goes wrong and we end up lessening the on-site audience for racing, it could threaten the very existence of the sport.

We are already facing difficult times. Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a definite graying of the audience, and no one has figured out yet how to get around this. Millions have been spent on all kinds of surveys and marketing. But on Sunday [June 2]--a perfectly pleasant day to be out at the track--the attendance at Hollywood Park was about 9,000. In the old days, that might have been 30,000 or 35,000.

We don't want to cannibalize that number further by having some of those people who came out just go onto the Internet. We have to do this carefully.

Q: What's the difference? The track and the horse owners still get a cut, and it might increase the amount bet.

A: Then you are in danger of eliminating the audience completely and running the race in what is essentially a television studio with the sound of hoofs and a simulated audience roaring as background. That would be terrible.

Q: With your long history in production, you would be the man for the job.

A: I would definitely not come out of retirement for that.

The problem with sitting at home, alone, and making a bet is that when you win there is no one to poke in the ribs and say, "I did it!" Don't go thinking that is not the most important part of being at the racetrack. It is a social thing.

Q: Could Internet betting boost interest in the sport and thus track attendance?

A: That is the hope. And I think it could work if we go after two extremely important classes of potential customers: the lapsed bettor and the new bettor. It should be a carefully conceived campaign by hard-nosed marketers.

Q: Where do you find a new audience for the sport?

A: If we are to have a future, we will have to start to pay attention to the 15-and-younger crowd.

Q: But they can't bet.

A: If you ask most people my age how they got involved in horse racing, they will tell you, "My dad took me" or "We used to go as a family." This is not something that you just get interested in all of a sudden. Horse racing is more complicated than the stock market--no one should go into it casually.

Q: What are the upsides of betting online for the serious bettor, besides not having to get dressed and go to the track?

A: There is so much information available for quick reference by computer. It should be like the fantasy sports leagues that got such a boost from being online.

Q: What is it going to take to re-energize horse racing if online betting does not work out?

A: Wagering is the lifeblood, but it's not enough anymore. Vegas realized that and they overcame it with gaudy shows. You have to try and make it more entertaining. If you just rely on wagering, horse racing will go the way of the street craps game.

We have to find a way to give people another reason to come out to the track for a fun afternoon. Racetracks, themselves, have done little or nothing about this because they can't see beyond today's $2 wager.

Q: Does online wagering provide a dangerous opportunity for problem gamblers?

A: The number of people addicted to gambling and involved in horse racing is a lot smaller than those who go to Vegas and go bust on emotional betting. But to the addict, gambling in any form is a lure.

As part of the regulations set by the board, no one is allowed to make more than one deposit, per day, into the account they use for racing.

Q: There is no limit on how much they can deposit, however.

A: Yes, but they can't go higher than their credit card limit.

Q: Have you made online bets?

A: Just three times to try it out.

Q: Was it fun?

A: Not really. I didn't have any trouble because I have been using computers for 15 years and I know my way around the Internet.

But for me, simply making a bet is not what it's about. I have to see the whole panorama of the race--I want to see the horses walk by on parade, warm up and get into the gate. I want to see if they are showing pride or fear, how their legs look, their ankles.

You can't really see all that on a computer screen.

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