11/11/2002 12:00AM

All eyes on Churchill's new betting restriction

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NEW YORK - When Churchill Downs Inc. begins its new policy on Wednesday to close betting approximately one minute before horses enter the gates, other track operators will be watching carefully to see if they should follow suit.

Churchill officials are hoping that the change will dampen fears that parimutuel pools are being manipulated and quell speculation that some bets are being made after the horses leave the gate. The policy was announced last Friday in response to the Breeders' Cup pick six investigation, in which authorities suspect that the only winning tickets were altered after several races were run.

Churchill's new policy does not come without risks. Approximately two-thirds of all bets are placed within two minutes of the starting bell, and many players could be shut out until they adjust to the new restrictions.

Officials at other racetracks, including the tracks operated by the New York Racing Association, said on Monday that they were considering similar policies, although no other tracks were prepared to take that step yet.

Churchill operates six tracks, and four are currently conducting live meets: Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, Calder Race Course in Miami, and Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind. All except Churchill Downs are closed on Wednesday. Churchill's other two tracks, Arlington Park outside Chicago and Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., do not run live meets until next year.

Under the new policy, betting will stop when the "minutes to post" countdown reaches zero, which will be approximately a minute before the first horse enters the starting gate. Previously, betting was allowed until the starting gates opened. The time until betting closes will be displayed continuously on Churchill's simulcast feed, company officials said.

Churchill officials said that the policy will allow the track to calculate final odds on all bets before the horses leave the starting gate. Many bettors have complained over the past two years about dramatic odds fluctuations during races. Racing officials have said that the fluctuations are because of the delay in receiving data from out-of-state sites, merging the data into the host site's pools, and calculating the payouts.

Tom Meeker, the chief executive officer of Churchill, acknowledged during a news conference on Friday that Churchill's handle could suffer temporarily because of bettors being shut out. But he said that he believed the long-term benefits would outweigh those short-term losses as players adjust.

"I'm pretty confident in our players," Meeker said. "They are pretty adaptable."

At the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, officials are considering a dual-pronged stop-betting plan that would affect simulcast players and ontrack bettors differently. Under the plan, betting at every offtrack site would close as soon as the first horse went in the gate, the officials said. Ontrack, betting would be allowed until the race started, which is the current system.

NYRA officials were waiting to hear from totalizator companies about the viability of the strategy before making any change, officials said.

The plan would have an advantage for ontrack bettors, who - unlike offtrack bettors - would be able to see major odds changes and react to any late odds moves as the horses are being loaded into the gate.

NYRA officials said that ontrack money moves odds in real time, meaning the bets can be included in calculations to determine payoffs nearly instantaneously because the information does not have to be transmitted over long distances or merged with bets from other sites. That justifies treating ontrack patrons differently than offtrack customers, the officials said.

Up until 1995, NYRA stopped all offtrack betting two minutes before post time. The policy was criticized by bettors at many simulcast sites, in part because NYRA was the only company in the country that closed its betting early.

Officials at other racetracks said they were waiting to see how Churchill's policy affected handle before making a decision. The officials said that their betting policies would also be affected by whatever changes were eventually put in place by totalizator companies to create better security controls on the computer systems that process bets.

Nick Nicholson, the president of Keeneland Racecourse, said on Monday that Keeneland would shut betting early for its spring meet next year if reforms in the tote system were slow in coming.

"If things stand as they stand now, I would do as Churchill is doing," Nicholson said.

Officials at Magna Entertainment, which owns 11 tracks and is the largest racetrack operator in the country, did not respond to a request for comment on whether its policies would be affected by Churchill's decision.

But Jack Liebau, Magna's vice president of operations in California, where the company owns Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields, and Bay Meadows, said in an e-mail message on Sunday that the company was not prepared to change its policy at Golden Gate Fields, which is the only Magna-owned California track currently holding a live meeting. Liebau cited California racing rules that stipulate betting stops at the start of the race.

"It goes without saying, all aspects of the industry are anxious to maintain the confidence of the public in parimutuel pools," Liebau said. "Racing in California is under the auspices of the California Horse Racing Board. Golden Gate Fields is unable to make unilateral rules."

Churchill has put in a request to the board to allow Hollywood to close its betting early.