02/19/2004 12:00AM

Don't they want our money?


NEW YORK - In a world where electronic banking and commerce are simplifying most consumer experiences and driving the success of forward-thinking industries, racing has taken its usual place at the back of the pack.

If you buy a trinket on eBay, you can pay for it in about 10 seconds using PayPal to make a free electronic transfer from your checking account. If you want to play some online poker for real money, it takes less than a minute to fund your account with Netteller or Firepay. Drive through a tollbooth and your EZ Pass automatically charges your credit card. If it's cash you want, it takes less than a minute to make an ATM withdrawal from one of the hundreds of thousands of machines you can find within a few minutes of anywhere.

Want to bet on a horse? The racing industry can get you up and running in a week or two, and if you are lucky enough to win, it might take as long to get your money out. Oh, and if you want access to more than one narrow menu of racing, you'll need two or three such accounts.

And people wonder why account wagering is growing so slowly.

The restrictions regarding account wagering are daunting and discouraging, a combination of noncooperation within the industry, inappropriate moral reservations about gambling, and a complete disconnection from consumers. Racing is not only failing to create new customers through electronic commerce but also driving away business from existing players who eventually get fed up with all the hurdles in place.

Most players lose, and all players lose sometimes and need to put fresh money into their accounts. In a game with 20 percent takeout, it takes only 35 bets for all existing capital to be transferred from the players to the house. If you don't make it easy for players to replenish, they bet less or leave the game, and handle drops. It's that simple.

Opening an account can involve waiting 10 days for a check to clear or paying an exorbitant cash-advance fee from a credit-card company. If you lose, replenishing an account is subject to limits on the number and size of deposits you can make. If you win, cashing out is similarly restricted. It's your money, but you can't have it. At Magna's XpressBet, for example, funds deposited via credit-card are not available for withdrawal for 10 days.

The New York Racing Association's NYRA One system is one of the oldest and best account-wagering operations. Excellent telephone tellers and the convenience of using the same account for phone bets and ontrack play make it a generally positive experience. Still, if I want to put some money into an account I have had for more than a decade, my only options are to drive half an hour to Aqueduct with cash in hand, mail a check that won't be credited for at least a week, or pay a fat credit-card cash-advance fee with a maximum $500 transfer permitted.

Not to mention that I'm out of luck if I want to bet back a horse who is entered at Gulfstream on a Monday, because NYRA One is often closed when there's no live racing. It's the same situation an XpressBet customer faces trying to bet a TVG-exclusive track or vice versa any day of the week.

This shouldn't be so difficult, nor should creating a solution. First, account-wagering operators should embrace the electronic-banking revolution and offer customers the full range of free and instantaneous funding options. Second, they should abandon the discriminatory limits they only adopted as sops to anti-gambling advocates.

Finally, they should give themselves a good smack in the head and realize that there is more business to be gained by pursuing single, convenient statewide or nationwide account-wagering systems than there is in setting up competing companies with limited access. The premise that a Californian needs two accounts with different companies in order to play both Santa Anita and Hollywood is absurd. Competing companies can still try to drive players to their own signals, but they are literally costing themselves millions by not offering a common platform.

Visa, MasterCard, and your local bank all compete for your debit and credit business, but they don't ask you to go to different, exclusive ATM's to use their services.

It is difficult to believe that the people operating account-wagering systems actually use them or comprehend the chaos and inconvenience they have created. Here's an idea: Perhaps they should be required to have their paychecks direct-deposited into their own companies' wagering accounts. The first time an executive vice president finds out that he could only make one withdrawal a day or had to wait until next Thursday to get the balance of his salary, racing might quickly enter a new era of electronic ease and common sense.