by Jack Shinar
One could hardly blame California racing fans for being confused, as well as a little annoyed.
The much-anticipated arrival of account, or advanced deposit, wagering has the potential to be the biggest bonanza in the country for in-home betting. Officials estimate it could mean an additional $300 million to racing in California, the amount they claim is being lost to illegal overseas bookmakers and other states that have account wagering.
New revenue is expected to swell purses in California, contribute to improved working and living conditions on the backstretch for thousands of employees, and help provide the industry with its best opportunity since Secretariat to attract new devotees to a struggling sport.
Yet, with the California Horse Racing Board only days from ruling on four applications for license to conduct advance deposit wagering, it isn't clear where three of the state's major tracks -- Santa Anita Park, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate Fields -- are going to have their races televised.
The same issues clouding television signals may also force California bettors to hold more than one account in order to be able to bet on races across the nation.
What's a bettor going to do? On Jan. 24, the CHRB will attempt to answer the question. Assuming the California Office of Administrative Law certifies board-approved regulations for account wagering in time for the meeting (as of Jan. 17, it had not, according to the CHRB), applications will be reviewed from four potential licensees:
- ODS Technologies, doing business as The TV Games Network, which holds exclusive television signal rights for most major tracks in the nation.
- 20014 Delaware Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns Santa Anita, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, as well as Florida's Gulfstream Park and four other tracks.
- Youbet.com, an online and direct telephone betting service that holds agreements with an extensive list of tracks in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, including those owned by Magna.
- Autotote Enterprises Inc., a subsidiary of the corporation that handles pari-mutuel ticketing throughout the U.S. It operates off-track betting in Connecticut, as well as Greyhound racing and jai-alai, with live video from North America and Australia.
Prolonged discussions between TVG and Magna have not resulted in an agreement over television signals. TVG, which has an extensive distribution system throughout the nation over the satellite DISH Network, wants to purchase the right to air races from the Magna-owned tracks. Magna, with plans to develop its own satellite distribution system, is only interested in a "reciprocal rights" deal.
TVG hopes to enhance its distribution system by expanding to digital cable through the connections of its parent company, Gemstar-TV Guide International. But other than a deal in Los Angeles County, expected to be available within a couple of months, it has no cable television presence in the state.
Magna, other than a local cable TV show that airs Santa Anita races on FOX Sports most afternoons, has no distribution system in California. However, Magna chief executive officer James McAlpine predicts there will be Santa Anita races available by satellite by the end of the current meet in April.
In a press release Jan. 18, McAlpine announced the introduction of XpressBet, its new online wagering service. In addition, he said: "Shortly we will announce further details of MEC's national account wagering strategy, including plans for television distribution of MEC races and policies respecting host track fees and related territorial access fees."
The lack of availability might be enough to force many home bettors to abandon any hope of viewing races on television, at least for the time being, and instead turn to the Internet, even with its inconsistent image quality. But that has its problems, too. Youbet.com, the best known of the computer/telephone betting services, has all of the tracks, including those owned by Magna. But potential viewers who own Macintosh computers are out of luck. Youbet.com doesn't offer a platform that supports it.
CHRB members, in approving regulations at their Nov. 30 meeting, made it clear they are excited about the potential of account wagering to recapture lost betting revenue and lapsed fans, as well as the opportunity to attract a new audience.
"This has potential to really confuse the public right off the bat," board member John Harris said. "Without TV, there is no way to attract people to the track. We need something to get their attention."
Board members also indicated they expected those who stand to benefit from ADW to set aside differences for the common good of the sport, and that failure to do so would be met by strong resistance.
Said CHRB chairman Alan Landsburg: "Greed will not be greeted with a friendly shake. We will take severe action if greed outweighs business priorities."
Board members are also hearing from groups inside the industry. The most influential of them, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, claims "proprietary rights to the image of horse racing." In its pronouncements, TOC has demanded a first-rate delivery system, broadest possible distribution of live signals, and full access for fans to the state's year-round racing schedule, without the necessity of holding multiple accounts.