Mobile Ontrack Wagering Begins to Take Root

The pari-mutuel industry, however, is dealing with many questions along the way.

Racetracks are beginning to implement mobile wagering at their facilities with positive results, but officials said Oct. 3 they don't expect it to chase away tote machines and advance deposit wagering systems.

Wagering through racetrack Wi-Fi networks was the focal point on the final day of the International Simulcast Conference in Clearwater, Fla. The technology is being used at several tracks in the United States, but it's not without it kinks.

There are regulatory issues, cost factors, and questions about how such wagers are treated when it comes to revenue splits for tracks and horsemen. Still, it's a no-brainer given the growth of mobile cellular subscriptions, officials said.

"AmTote looks at the mobile part of tote as an obligation," said Jeff True, vice president of sales for AmTote International, which is part of The Stronach Group. "Mobile is not a substitute for an (online wagering site); they go hand in hand.

"It's an augmentation. We'll still have to have betting terminals at racetracks. We'll still have to have that human touch."

Michele Fisher, director of sales for Sportech Racing, another tote and technology company, said Del Mar recorded a 9% increase in "tickets sold" through ontrack mobile wagering during live meets from 2011 to 2012. Mobile handle at the facility held steady at about $500,000 for each meet, she said.

Canterbury Park in Minnesota, however, increased its mobile-device handle 33% this year from 2011 figures. And when Santa Anita Park opened in late September, the amount bet per session was up to $79 from $11 last winter, Fisher said.

"The tracks are seeing some growth, and I think they'll continue to see it," she said.

Ben Murr, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Churchill Downs Inc., said marketing of the service is mandatory given customer habits.

"The fan base requires some encouragement to change its methodology (of wagering)," Murr said. "But once patrons start using the technology, they are very sticky on it."

Murr said that in the case of Churchill Downs, mobile wagering can be especially useful on major racing days such as Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) day because it can help reduce lines at mututel windows. The drawback, he said, is an overloaded Wi-Fi network.

Ideally, an entire facility, including its grounds in the case of Keeneland, for instance, would have Wi-Fi access to accommodate mobile wagering. The track's Wi-Fi network is the conduit for the bets.

Mark Brown, assistant director of mutuels at Keeneland, which opens Oct. 5, said the track will have employees walking around the facility promoting mobile wagering and educating people on how to use the service. That includes tailgating areas well-removed from the grandstand.

"Interacting with the public will be our key to growing it," Brown said.

Fisher said part of the appeal of the service is that it's designed to preserve ontrack wagering even though bets aren't made through tote machines. It's not uncommon for customers at tracks to wager online through advance deposit wagering services, thereby potentially reducing the amount of revenue returned to horsemen and track operators.

"You don't want them going to a competitor," Fisher said. "The big challenge is you have to have a Wi-Fi network, and you have to get your customers to use it."

At Arlington Park, mobile wagering through Wi-Fi led to about 2,000 accounts for the 2012 meet, said Jack Lisowski, director of mutuels for the Illinois track. Many people used the accounts for only a few days, but Arlington was targeting new customers rather than existing account bettors.

"They learned the interface quickly," Lisowski said. "The hard part of was explaining to them how to get to the right Wi-Fi website. People still like getting (pari-mutuel tickets from tellers or self-serve machines), but the more options you give the fan, the better it is."