03/03/2004 1:00AM

Handle from Californians falls sharply at XpressBet

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Handle by California residents through Magna Entertainment Corp.'s account-wagering platform has declined sharply in 2004 compared with the same period last year despite efforts by the company to drive business to its site.

According to figures provided by several California racing officials, handle through Magna's XpressBet in January and February has dropped 22 percent compared with the same period last year. At the same time, handle from California residents is up markedly at XpressBet's two competitors, Television Games Network and Youbet.com.

In addition, handle from California residents through XpressBet is significantly lower than the handle at the other two services. According to the figures, XpressBet had handle of $9.2 million in January and February compared with $13.8 million at Youbet and $12.3 million through TVG. For TVG, it was an 82 percent increase over the same period last year.

The results have run counter to several Magna efforts to drive handle to XpressBet. Late last year, Magna pulled its signals from nearly every account-wagering company in the country in an effort to stimulate business at XpressBet and its struggling television network, HorseRacing TV.

The results have renewed the possibility that the California Horse Racing Board will take action against Magna this year, according to several California racing officials. Some CHRB members have been critical of Magna's policy to restrict access to its signals, contending that the policy has hurt revenues to horsemen and the state.

Roger Licht, the vice chairman of the CHRB, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the figures because a discussion of Magna's handle for the first two months has been put on the agenda for the board's next meeting, on March 25.

Magna officials did not return phone calls on Wednesday.

The new results are in many ways hard to analyze because of the contingencies underlying the statistics. Though Magna has enforced its new restrictions despite criticism from many quarters of the industry, Youbet was allowed to take bets on Magna's California signals. Magna granted the concession under pressure from the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the CHRB.

Wagering on Santa Anita, Gulfstream, and all of Magna's other tracks is offered on XpressBet. Among Magna's tracks, only Santa Anita and Golden Gate are offered on Youbet, which also offers all of the signals available through TVG. TVG does not carry any Magna tracks, but it is the only account-wagering company to have a broadcast network available nationwide.

Because TVG's handle increased 82 percent in January and February, the results indicate that many horseplayers would rather bet on televised racing signals - any televised racing signals - than go out of their way to bet on the local product.

The decline for XpressBet may also in some part be related to a boycott of Magna's signals organized by a California horseplayer, Richard Bauer, early this year. More than 540 people have signed a boycott roster at Bauer's site, www.boycottmagna.com, in response to the account-wagering restrictions.

Chuck Champion, the chief executive of Youbet, said that the results in California validate the idea that "customers will not tolerate not having their needs serviced."

Drew Couto, a representative of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said on Wednesday that he had reviewed the handle figures but that the TOC had not yet been able to perform an analysis on the impact on revenue to horsemen.