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Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
Anyone attending the races at Santa Anita Park the first weekend of February knows about XpressBet.com, the new account wagering operation established by Magna Entertainment, the owner of Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, and several other racetracks. Signs promoting the telephone and Internet betting service were visible throughout the plant and on television monitors, and a sign-up booth occupied a heavily trafficked area of the grandstand.

XpressBet, along with the Television Games Network, was given permission recently by the California Horse Racing Board to begin accepting wagers from residents of the nation's most populous state. Magna has the early edge over TVG in signing up new customers, because Santa Anita's races are not available to TVG account holders. In other words, if a Californian wants to make a legal telephone or Internet bet on Santa Anita (or any other track owned by Magna), he or she will have to have an account with XpressBet.

However, if that same person wants to wager on a race from Aqueduct, for example, he'll need to open an account with TVG. Also, when the California racing scene shifts to Churchill Downs-owned Hollywood Park and later to Del Mar and the Oak Tree Racing Association meeting at Santa Anita, only TVG account holders will be in action.

Of course, some fans who want to simplify their lives will find one of dozens of off-shore Internet or telephone wagering outlets that gladly will accept their bets on any track. These renegade operations are, for all intents and purposes, illegal bookmakers who give nothing back to the racing industry, but the average racing fan could care less about whether or not the takeout is divided among tracks, horsemen, and the state.

Concern for the racing fan and the industry doesn't appear to be driving some of the decisions regarding account wagering in California.

PAYING TO WATCH

Daily Racing Form reported in its Feb. 3 editions that Magna is teaming up with Philadelphia Park and simulcast services company Roberts Communications Network to develop the Racetrack Television Network. RTN, similar to the Philadelphia Park-developed Racing Network that went out of business last year, will air live races from Magna tracks and other, mostly smaller circuits that do not have exclusive contracts with TVG.

Unlike TVG, which can be seen on the most basic package available on the DISH Network (and on basic cable in a few areas), the new RTN is a special satellite service for which fans will have to pay--dearly. According to Magna, equipment costs run $300, not including installation and delivery, and the monthly fee to view the races will be $99.99.

Tod Roberts, the president of Roberts Communications, was quoted in the report as saying, "This is not a product geared to mass distribution."

No kidding.

Forking out $100 per month to watch Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita from January-April may be palatable to some. But given the choice of Saratoga, Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar, among the other, higher quality tracks available on TVG after April, it's hard to imagine who will want to pay that price to RTN to watch lower quality racing for most of the year.

The RTN philosophy does not appear to be geared toward growth. "It's a specialty niche product," Roberts said. "We're not going to have mass appeal because racing does not have mass appeal."

Let's hope that Roberts either didn't really mean what he said or is wrong. Racing offers something very unique: an opportunity to make a legal wager, from the comfort of the home, on the outcome of a sporting event.

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