01/29/2003 12:00AM

HBPA wants to get its share of revenue pie


PHOENIX - Members of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association wrapped up their semiannual convention Wednesday vowing to take a more active role in simulcasting and account wagering to try to get a bigger revenue share for purses.

In a series of committee meetings held over four days, horsemen's officials said that they are often left out of negotiations over simulcast revenues, have little detailed knowledge about the distribution of some simulcast signals to off-shore sites and Native American casinos, and are increasingly concerned that account-wagering services are returning an inadequate amount of money to horsemen. The concerns were outlined in a document the horsemen's board approved Wednesday as one of its last items of business.

Citing legal concerns, the horsemen's president, John Roark, declined to make the document public but said it would be released within the next two weeks. He did say that horsemen "need to have a seat at the table when these things are discussed."

Roark said the document states that horsemen support rebates - the sometimes controversial practice of rewarding high rollers - as long as horsemen "get a fair share of the revenue." If the document receives approval from the horsemen's legal counsel, their association will become the first racing organization to issue an official position on rebates.

Account wagering and off-shore betting have become big business in the past three years, with many account-betting operators moving aggressively to sign up customers. Some estimates have put the amount of money bet through the new services at $2 billion a year, or about 15 percent of the national handle.

Horsemen complained that they had little understanding of account wagering and were concerned that the new businesses were siphoning purse dollars by moving handle away from racetracks, where purse money is protected by contract or state regulation.

Hub in Oregon under scrutiny

Michael Ballezzi, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen's Association, which represents trainers and owners at Philadelphia Park, said his association had only just recently learned of an account-wagering service opened by Philadelphia's owners that handled $34 million in one quarter last year through a hub in Oregon. Ballezzi said that he had no idea if the service, oneclickbetting.com, was returning money to horsemen.

"I've asked to see the contracts, and they've refused," Ballezzi said. "Now I have to hire attorneys, at the expense of the horsemen, to try to get the documents, to look over the statute in Oregon, to see if we have any recourse."

Bill Hogwood, a Philadelphia Park official who is in charge of oneclickbetting.com, has said that oneclickbetting.com takes bets from British bettors on some U.S. signals. The bets are commingled into U.S. pools through the Oregon hub, according to Hogwood.

International betting on U.S. signals has become a priority for many racetracks and account-wagering services eager to capture a share of what is estimated to be a $90 billion worldwide market for parimutuel bets on horse racing. U.S. horse racing lobbyists are currently attempting to get tax exemptions for international racing bets in federal legislation, the primary impediment in taking commingled bets from many locations, including Canada.

Several international simulcasting representatives conducted an informal workshop on Tuesday morning, in part to answer direct questions about their business. Panelists included several representatives of Stevenson and Associates, a company that sells U.S. racing signals and past-performance information in the Caribbean and Latin America, and Kirk Brooks, the president of Racing and Gaming Services, a rebate shop in St. Kitts that handled $564 million last year.

Under a three-year contract, Stevenson and Associates has been hired by the horsemen to provide information about international simulcasting to the HBPA's affiliates. Already, the consulting firm has been instrumental in identifying sites that are pirating U.S. racing signals.

Roark said that Brooks, who has described RGS as the "single biggest OTB in the world," held several private meetings with horsemen's officials to address concerns about rebates, which sometime return as much as 10 percent of handle to big bettors. Some racetracks have complained that rebate shops siphon away existing customers using unfair business practices. In addition, other racing officials and some racing fans have begun to criticize the shops for reducing the takeout for a select group of horseplayers.

Roark said the horsemen had decided to support rebates because Brooks "had opened our eyes" to the business, but said that horsemen needed to be certain that purses were receiving a fair share of the money. Brooks has said that his company supports racing purses by paying the highest simulcast rates in the U.S.