11/16/2001 12:00AM

Confused new world in California

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NEW YORK - There are just 37 days until Christmas and another seven until what many in the racing industry are hoping will be a second Christmas for California horse racing: the long-sought gift of legal account wagering, scheduled to begin Jan. 1.

We all pretty much know how Christmas works, but how California account wagering will unfold is about as clear as a muddy track at Santa Anita.

Some vague and ambiguous proposed regulations have been floating around since enabling legislation was passed this summer, and those rules will be amended and approved by the California Horse Racing Board at the end of this month for final review by other state agencies. Assuming those are rubber-stamp jobs, 15 million Californians will be entitled to bet the races over the telephone and Internet when the calendar turns to 2002.

That about covers it, with the minor exceptions of who, what, where, when, and how.

Santa Anita will be starting its second week of racing on Jan. 1 and Magna Entertainment, its owner, says it will have online and telephone wagering available by then. Magna, however, has no deal in place to televise the races via broadcast, cable or satellite. So how will people see the product?

Bettors will be able to open accounts not only with Magna, but also with the Television Games Network, Youbet, or plenty of other providers operating just above or below the radar. If they open a TVG account and install a satellite with Dish Network service, they can watch races on TVG, but TVG is not expected to be showing any major California racing until Hollywood Park opens in April because Magna owns all the big first-quarter signals.

So what's a California bettor to do - open a Magna account to play Santa Anita and Gulfstream from January to April, then open a TVG account for Hollywood and Del Mar? Open an Internet account with Youbet or an offshore rebate house and only bet when there's a personal computer nearby? Go to the corner bar and try to find a bookmaker who still takes horse bets?

There is also a question of whether Californians who really want to bet horses over the phone haven't already found a way to do so in the absence of state sanctions. Horseplayers are a resourceful species and there already are plenty of out-of-state options out there to serve what may well be a relatively small market. A prime motive for the California legislation was an attempt to bring some of that money back into the state, but if there is not a simple, one-stop solution for bettors, their love of the state flag is unlikely to make them open up a series of new accounts.

This is not to say that California should not have legalized account wagering or that it will not ultimately do some good. The benefits, however, are likelier to come from retention of existing customers through convenient access, and from a long-term gain in the game's visibility, than from a sudden explosion in betting handle.

New York has had account wagering for a generation, and for the last half-dozen years it has had something California will not offer: up to eight hours a day of live racing broadcast for free to millions of homes via basic cable on public-access channels. This unprecedented exposure has not spurred spectacular statewide handle gains, but the overall telephone handle has grown and it has kept people active and in action when their horseplaying is threatened by weather, travel, or employment. Perhaps most important, it has put racing back into the public's consciousness by offering a legitimizing glimpse to channel surfers.

Realizing even these modest goals, though, required both convenient account systems and broadcast access. Bettors need to be able to use a single account to play year-round, and need to be able to access and replenish those accounts at the track and/or simulcast sites. They also need to be able to see what they're betting on.

In a perfect world, the California signal owners would work together to make this as easy as possible for customers to embrace. In the real world, we will instead have competition and fractured systems and several companies continuing to burn through millions trying to capture shares of a confused market while offering incomplete products.

In the long run, legalized account wagering can only help California racing, but it's unlikely to be a Christmas in July, much less Jan. 1.