The New York Racing Association, through its contract with United Tote, linked with VeCommerce Inc., of Littleton, Mass., on March 7 to provide automated telephone account management and wagering functions to its current NYRA One account holders and any new subscribers from New York and Connecticut.
The new system uses two ports. Through natural voice and touch-tone functions, it will initially allow 72 calls to be answered simultaneously, thus increasing handle and customer satisfaction, according to NYRA and company officials.
Further expansion of ports is probable. In Queenesland Tab, for instance, 900 people can talk to the computer at once, with no wait. NYRA envisions similar scenarios on big-event days, such as the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Travers, or the opening day of Saratoga.
VeCommerce, overseen by President Paul Hallett, a Canadian, and director of professional services James Wood, from New Zealand, has promised NYRA that the new system will be operational by April 1.
However, according to NYRA Senior Vice President Bill Nader, portions of the program, such as NYRA's new rewards program - a rebate system to NYRA One account holders - must first be ratified by the New York State and Wagering Board. Nader said both sides have been talking throughout 2005.
"Everybody agrees that account wagering should allow rewards," said Nader. "Also, and this may be down the road, but we and the legislature have also looked at the future of Internet wagering."
Nader envisions the rewards program, which will have eight tiers based upon individual monthly wagering, to be approved and in place by the opening of Belmont Park May 3.
For the moment, the VeCommerce system will allow NYRA to expand its simulcasting hours of operation to seven days a week and accept wagers later in the evenings, rather than the traditional 6:30 p.m. closings, without a significant increase in manpower.
"What makes VeCommerce different," said Hallett, "is that, if you look at the way normal natural language is deployed, the developers think in terms of recognition rate. We, however, think in terms of a completed transaction.
"Eighty-five percent of the code that we deploy," continued Hallett, "is not understanding the voices but figuring out what to do if you don't understand the voices. The other thing we do is continuously tune."
VeCommerce took 20,000 recordings of transactions from Capital OTB, shipped them to New Zealand and analyzed them for speech patterns and grammatical errors. Then they tweaked the Capital OTB system until they reached a success rate for completed transactions without incident of more than nine out of 10, Hallett said.
VeCommerce works on a payment rate per transaction rather than a flat fee basis.
Under the proposed NYRA's rebate program, which still must be approved, current NYRA One account holders will be automatically included. Only current residents of New York and Connecticut will be allowed to become new account holders on the advice of the NYRA legal department.
"We don't want to poach anybody else's customers," said Nader.
The plan will be based on amount of money wagered per calendar month, with a point being awarded for each dollar wagered on a NYRA race and one-half point credited for races run at non-NYRA tracks.
For those in the lowest of the eight tiers, having been credited with a minimum of 2,000 points through wagers in a given month, 1% of the amount bet will be returned to the account holder. There will be seven further gradations, to the top level of $500,000 wagered, where 3% would be rebated on win, place, and show bets, 4% on exacta, daily double, and quinella bets, and 7% on all other type of wagers.
Hallett believes the VeCommerce services will benefit NYRA in four basic ways: reducing manpower and space requirement costs to operate, expanding off-track hours and menu offerings, redirecting non-revenue calls, and increasing the value of NYRA's franchise through additional revenue and efficiency.
The NYRA franchise is due to run out with the State of New York at the end of 2007, with several groups currently lobbying for future consideration, including NYRA.
"My contract isn't actually with NYRA, it's with United Tote," said Hallett. "And so, however United Tote gets treated, we are a subset of that. We expect to have an up-and-running system in place until the end of the franchise."
"We also think that whomever gets that franchise at the end of NYRA's term also needs a telephone wagering system," continued Hallett. "So, for us, we think we are of such value to whoever operates that capability that we fully expect it to continue.
"Having said that, I truly hope that the NYRA franchise, and the people that are in place, continue. They are people who are passionate and very capable. They have, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, found themselves in the position they are in. But I don't think there's anything they can't fix."