12/21/2005 1:00AM

Helping bettors cash uncashed tickets


WASHINGTON - Tim Schneider is an experienced horseplayer, but at Turfway Park he made the mistake that costs America's bettors millions of dollars per year. He bought a winning parimutuel ticket - and never cashed it.

Schneider recalled a day last winter when he went to the Florence, Ky., track. Before leaving for home, he played a few trifectas on an upcoming race and stuck the tickets in his back pocket. He thought he would check the results the next time he went to Turfway. But his wife took the pants to the dry cleaner, the tickets disappeared, and Schneider forgot about them. "I was never aware that I was a winner," he said.

Under Kentucky law, which is similar to that in most jurisdictions, money from an uncashed winning ticket becomes the property of the state one year after the ticket is sold. The year on Schneider's ticket was almost up when he went to Turfway on Sunday. To his surprise, a track employee named Matt Ketron approached him and handed him two tickets that were reissues of the trifectas he bought and lost in December 2004. They were worth $340. Other Turfway customers received similar early Christmas presents; one grateful bettor recouped the money from a long-lost ticket worth $8,700. The payouts are the result of an idea of Ketron's that is turning out to be good business and great public relations for the track.

When Harrah's Entertainment, bought a part interest in Turfway in 1999, it decided to employ marketing techniques commonly used in casinos. Players are issued a card that they present whenever they make a wager; their action is "tracked" so that they can be rewarded for being good customers.

"We don't have the resources to flood the Cincinnati market with advertising, so this is the cornerstone of our marketing program," said Bob Elliston, Turfway's president.

Schneider signed up for the FasTrack program when it was first offered; his rewards have included a junket on a private jet to the Harrah's casino in Lake Tahoe.

Ketron, who administers FasTrack, recently saw a lengthy report from Turfway's tote department that listed outstanding uncashed parimutuel tickets. Many of them included a FasTrack code number from the person who made the wager. (More than 40 percent of the Turfway's ontrack wagers come from FasTrack cardholders.) Ketron took this information to Elliston, who agreed that Turfway ought to try to locate the owners of the tickets.

When a ticket is about to expire, Turfway flags the FasTrack number associated with that ticket. And when the holder of the FasTrack card uses it at the track, Ketron finds him and issues a replacement ticket.

Paying off these lost tickets is a win-win-win proposition for Turfway. It creates goodwill among customers. It puts money into circulation at the track instead of letting it go into the state's coffers. And it gives all of Turfway's customers (including ones who may have previously preferred anonymity) an incentive to sign up for the FasTrack program.

It is also one way to address the inefficiency of the traditional form of racetrack betting. In a bygone era, when a day at the track consisted of nine live races, horseplayers had little difficulty keeping their finances straight. When the result was official, they cashed their winning tickets, and there was still plenty of time to wait for the next race.

But in the simulcasting era, when horseplayers may be watching television signals from a dozen tracks at once, it is dauntingly difficult for anyone to manage his money. I try to be meticulous about my gambling transactions, but at the end of a day at Laurel Park my pockets are stuffed with tickets - flimsy three-inch square pieces of paper. I can't guess how many times I've neglected to cash a winner or accidentally thrown away a cash voucher mixed with my losing tickets or failed to hear that a horse was scratched in a race in which I assumed I bet on a loser.

Such mistakes add up to significant numbers. In Maryland, more than $1.5 million in winning tickets go uncashed during a year. This total includes $300,000 in refunds from scratches and nearly $100,000 in vouchers.

Tracks could rectify most of these problems by instituting a system such as the one offered by the New York Racing Association, which lets bettors deposit money into an account and use a plastic NYRA One card for all of their transactions. All bets at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga can be cashless and paperless. Tracks everywhere should offer such a convenience, but if they can't, they should at least emulate Turfway and help bettors recoup winnings that have wound up in the trash.

(c) 2005 The Washington Post