01/13/2004 1:00AM

AmericaTab cites backlash benefit

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Losing the signals from Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita may have been the best thing to happen to AmericaTab.

Ohio-based AmericaTab, a collection of online wagering sites, reports that its handle has skyrocketed 50.5 percent since Magna Entertainment Corp., the parent company of Gulfstream and Santa Anita, pulled the tracks' signals from the account-wagering company on Dec. 26. In the first 12 days of the year, AmericaTab's sites took in $3,172,564 in bets, compared with $2,106,872 for the same time period last year, according to Charlie Ruma, the president of the service.

AmericaTab's growth appears to be the result of several factors, Ruma said. Horseplayers, some of whom have organized a boycott of Magna, are voting with their betting dollars. Spurred in part by rebates offered by AmericaTab on selected signals, they have, in many cases, abandoned Gulfstream and Santa Anita for other less popular signals.

"There's a huge backlash against Magna right now," Ruma said. "I've talked to players in the Beulah grandstand who love to play Santa Anita and Gulfstream, and they are saying, 'To hell with Magna.' "

Magna's position has become a point of contention for many disgruntled horseplayers across the United States. A roster of players who said they will honor a boycott of Magna, collected at a new web site, boycottmagna.com, rose to 139 on Tuesday afternoon, gaining 59 players since Monday morning.

Magna, the largest racetrack company in the U.S., pulled its signals from AmericaTab and other account-wagering sites Dec. 26, just as Santa Anita began its winter meet, shutting out thousands of home-based horseplayers from that track and Golden Gate Fields, which is also owned by Magna. When the Gulfstream meet opened Jan. 3, Magna also withheld that signal from account-wagering sites.

Offtrack business at both Gulfstream and Santa Anita have been down by double digits since the meets started.

Although Magna officials have not publicly commented on the company's new position, other officials speculate that Magna pulled the signals to generate business for its struggling Internet betting platform, XpressBet. Bulk e-mail communications from Magna to racing customers have urged horseplayers to open accounts with XpressBet to wager on Magna's tracks and receive free live streaming video of its races over the Internet.

At the urging of California horsemen, Magna reached an alternate agreement with one account-wagering operator, Youbet.com, that allows Youbet to offer the signals from Santa Anita and Golden Gate - a Magna track near San Francisco - but no Magna tracks outside of California. Chuck Champion, the chief executive of Youbet, said Tuesday that handle on Santa Anita is up nearly 20 percent over last year.

Citing extensive research on customer betting patterns, Champion said he believed Youbet customers were not opening new accounts with XpressBet to wager on Gulfstream.

"They are playing other signals on our system," he said. "They are not leaving to play something else."

One account-wagering operator said Magna's action has not only generated ill will among horseplayers but also among account-wagering operators. The operator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, cited complaints from himself and other operators that Magna had communicated its new restrictions rudely and failed to negotiate with account-wagering operators on the new policy.

Magna officials did not return phone calls Tuesday.

AmericaTab has been the most aggressive of all account-wagering operators in fighting Magna's decision. Earlier, Ruma publicly urged customers to boycott the company. Then, AmericaTab began straying into more controversy by awarding rebates to its players when they played certain signals on specific nights. For example, this week, if AmericaTab players bet Fair Grounds on Friday, Beulah on Saturday, or Tampa Bay Downs on Sunday, they will receive a 7-percent rebate on handle.

Rebates are controversial for several reasons. For one, rebates create inequities in parimutuel pools by allowing players to play against an effective takeout that is lower than those who do not receive rebates. Rebates also illustrate a skewed relationship between buyers and sellers of racing signals, because buyers can afford to give their customers cash out of the revenue they make on simulcasts.

Ruma said he talked to officials at every track that is being promoted with rebates and received no negative feedback.

"It's working, it's absolutely working," Ruma said. "I think everyone realizes that someone out there has to do something to help the horseplayers. They've been abused enough."