Tote Protocol Progresses; Companies Push Product

As the in-development Wagering Transmission Protocol continues to take shape, the major tote companies in the pari-mutuel industry are heralding upgrades they're making in technology and customer service.

Three companies--AmTote, Scientific Games, and United Tote--outlined their plans Oct. 18 during the International Simulcast Conference in Philadelphia. Representatives indicated a commitment to the pari-mutuel industry during a one-hour meeting that allowed the companies to explain, or perhaps sell, their products and vision.

The backdrop to the future of the tote business is the WTP, which is designed to provide a model for tote transactions, efficiencies, and related security. Created by a consortium of racing associations and industry trade groups, the WTP is based on the premise that the host is in control of the wagering pool.

By January 2007, odds for win bets should be finalized no later than 10 seconds after "off" time. The idea is to eliminate late odds changes when races are in progress. But that's just the beginning in what J. Curtis Linnell, director of wagering analysis for the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau, said will be a "long process."

A WTO committee made up of 17 voting members of the consortium met for the first time Oct. 16 and formed a technology working group of representatives from tote companies, racetracks, trade associations, and off-track betting entities. Linnell said the group would meet "extensively" with each tote vendor in the next two to three months to "formulate implementation and integration" of the protocol.

"The building blocks are coming together to be able to piece (together) an operational and business plan," Linnell said. "This is getting extremely good traction internationally. There can be several commercial growth opportunities."

Linnell said the group hopes to have a draft plan by March 2007.

Wagering Transaction Protocol has been a prominent topic since the 2002 Breeders' Cup Pick 6 fraud in which individuals accessed wagering pools via computer. Since then, there have been calls for tighter security, better technology, a monitored centralized data base for all wagers, and even elimination of multiple betting hubs. Upgrades, however, have moved at a crawling pace, much to the dismay of some industry officials.

Similarly, tote companies have taken heat over the years for allegedly investing little in research and development. Recently, they've taken a more proactive approach, as the Oct. 18 presentations suggest. The tote business is changing as well, with AmTote now owned by racetrack conglomerate Magna Entertainment Corp., and United Tote owned by, the account wagering company.

"We at Scientific Games believe there is still a heyday for racing," said Bill Huntley, president of racing, sports, and gaming technology for the company. "It's our intention to be more to the racing industry than just a technology provider."

Huntley said Scientific Games spent $16 million on research and development in 2005, $22.4 million this year, and may spend up to $25 million next year. He said the company is placing a focus on Internet-based products, communication with product users, and developing products that can increase "spend" and be used on multiple platforms.

Huntley used a few European countries to point out how the United States offers a growth opportunity. In regard to "distribution points" for pari-mutuel wagering, there are 146 per one million people in Great Britain, 141 per one million in France, and only two per million in the U.S.

"We need to look at how they're doing in those other countries," he said.

United Tote president Jeff True said the company is working on "achieving personalization"--using technology to deliver messages to specific users much like other industries. Though details aren't yet available, True described a scenario whereby personalized messages--even a "Happy Birthday"--would pop up on wagering screens.

Such a system has the potential to open the door to advertising interest from outside the pari-mutuel industry.

"We're communicating with our customers in ways that look a little better but are inherently the same," True said. "What I want you to think about is personalization."

True, responding to what he called "whispers," also made a point to say United Tote and don't share data. "We're sharing technology and ideas," he said. "There is a clear dividing line between and United Tote."

AmTote president Steve Keech also noted AmTote operates independently from MEC and its XpressBet account wagering arm. He said AmTote supports the WTP and is looking for companies and customers to collaborate on projects.

AmTote has a focus similar to those of the other tote companies, though Keech noted one of the "hottest growing areas" of the company is technology related to fixed-odds sports betting. Keech also said AmTote isn't in the content business like racetrack owner MEC to avoid competing with its customers.