04/30/2008 12:00AM

Churchill signal deal looks unlikely


Horseplayers seeking to bet on the Kentucky Oaks card at Churchill Downs on Friday will not be able to place wagers on any of the undercard races through national account-wagering companies, according to both sides in a dispute that has resulted in a blackout of the races from Churchill since the track opened on Saturday.

The ongoing dispute between Churchill's simulcast-marketing partnership, TrackNet Media, and a group representing owners and trainers, the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, is one of a handful of disagreements affecting signal availability nationwide. The other disputes have resulted in the blackout of the signal from New York's Belmont Park in 16 states - but not on most major account-wagering platforms - and the blackout of the signal from Calder Race Course at nearly every wagering site outside of Florida. In addition, the signal from Lone Star Park in Texas has been unavailable on account-wagering platforms since the track opened on April 12.

The situation regarding Churchill has the potential to upset the plans of the most horseplayers, considering the popularity of the Oaks card and the Derby card on Saturday. Like the Oaks itself, the Derby and the preceding race on the Saturday card, the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, are excepted from the blackout, and will be available for wagering on Churchill's Twinspires.com and Magna Entertainment Corp.'s XpressBet - but not on TVG or Youbet.com, the two national account-wagering companies with the largest market share.

If it all sounds confusing, that's because it is. Last year, Churchill and Magna formed TrackNet with the goal of getting a higher price for the combined simulcast signals from tracks owned and operated by both companies, while simultaneously putting pressure on the independent account-wagering companies that had acted as middlemen between tracks and horseplayers. As a result, TrackNet has failed to reach agreements with its competitors in the account-wagering marketplace - principally, TVG and Youbet.com. In addition, TrackNet's formation has spurred horsemen to seek a larger share from the revenues on the two companies' account-wagering platforms, leading to the present problems with Churchill and Magna's Lone Star.

Scott Daruty, the chief executive of TrackNet, said on Wednesday that it was unlikely the company would reach a resolution with horsemen that would result in the lifting of the blackout for the Oaks and Derby cards.

"Still, anything's possible," Daruty said. "Discussions are ongoing, but for now, there's no movement."

Daruty said that any wager offered on the Oaks or Derby or any linked wager ending with the Oaks or Derby would be available on Twinspires.com and XpressBet.

The blackout has not affected account-wagering platforms that restrict betting to in-state customers. As a result, the full cards from Churchill have been available on the platforms run by New York OTB companies, the New York Racing Association, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, and services in Virginia and Louisiana. In addition, the signal has been authorized for several major offshore rebate shops.

The full cards will also be available at all bricks-and-mortar simulcast sites around the country.

In New York, NYRA has failed to reach agreements with two cooperatives representing tracks in 16 states on the wagering rights to the signal from Belmont Park. The blackout has so far affected the track's opening-day card, though NYRA officials said they believed that a deal might be reached in the near future.

"We're optimistic that we will come to a resolution," said Hal Handel, the chief operating officer of NYRA. "Anytime you are dealing with economic issues there's resistance."

The cooperatives have said that they are unwilling to pay a rate increase for the Belmont signal. The cooperatives represent tracks in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

NYRA has reached broad carriage agreements for the Belmont signal with all major national account-wagering companies.