12/12/2002 1:00AM

Account bets a bone of contention

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Racing officials sparred on the issue of bettor-poaching by account wagering companies during a panel Thursday morning at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort here.

Jim Hannon, the director of simulcast operations at Balmoral Park in Illinois, accused Mike Weiss, the general manager of Beulah Park in Ohio, of stealing Balmoral's customers in Illinois for Beulah's account-wagering operation. Weiss responded by saying that Hannon's track was being compensated through the so-called source-market fees that have become the norm for account-wagering operations.

The exchange illustrated a larger issue that continues to concern many racing officials. As account wagering has grown in popularity and reach, many racetracks have complained that growth has come at the expense of live racing operations, which lose their relatively more profitable ontrack business to account wagering companies that return far less in fees to the host track.

Hannon said that account wagering is illegal in Illinois, prohibiting him from offering a competing service to Beulah's AmericaTab Internet and phone service. Balmoral will begin to insert clauses into its simulcast contracts prohibiting the tracks from allowing Illinois bettors to open accounts, Hannon said, as a defensive measure.

Weiss, said Hannon, "wants to go into my state without putting up any of the money for the brick and mortar. He wants to become a 50-50 partner in my operation. The problem is that account wagering isn't legal in Illinois. We can't compete."

Weiss said that the racing industry has to embrace account wagering as a way of offsetting the declines in business that many racetracks have experienced over the past decade. He said account wagering allows the casual player to bet more often, increasing business overall.

"They're staying more involved," Weiss said. "They're watching the sport more closely."

The panel, scheduled on a light day in the symposium program, was set up to examine the issues that affect small and midsize racing operations. The panelists said they had to be more creative than large racing companies like Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment in order to drum up business in what are sometimes difficult markets.

"We are kicking pretty hard to keep our heads above water and keep ourselves visible," said Jeff True, the director of marketing and simulcasting at Los Alamitos, a multi-breed facility near Los Angeles.

The panel, moderated by Tom Dawson, a producer for WinnerComm and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, moved rapidly from topic to topic, with discussions on promotions, simulcasting, and marketing. Overall, the panelists spoke about constant struggles to find new ways to promote racing and get players to bet on their signals, with techniques, that span the spectrum of taste.

Beulah, for example, uses two buxom blonde women called the Beulah Twins as handicappers to attract attention to its simulcast signal. The Beulah Twins have made promotional appearances at tracks around the country because of their popularity.

"I think of our signal as a silent movie," Weiss said. "You walk into any racetrack and there's no sound from the televisions. That was the idea behind the Beulah Twins. Get people to realize that we have full fields and that there might be some value there."

Since the Beulah Twins debuted, simulcast handle on Beulah's signal has increased 400 percent, Weiss said.