11/21/2008 12:00AM

Hollywood account-wagering deal reached

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The Thoroughbred Owners of California and all four national account-wagering companies reached an agreement on Friday that restored wagering on the signal from Hollywood Park to out-of-state customers and will almost certainly give horseplayers a one-year reprieve from further blackouts of California racetracks.

The agreement allows Twinspires.com, Television Games Network, XpressBet, and Youbet.com to offer wagering on any track in California for one year, restoring the terms of an eight-month experiment conducted earlier this year in which the four companies shared the betting rights to California signals. However, the live television rights to specific racetracks are expected to be held exclusively by either TVG or HorseRacing TV, a partnership of Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment, the owners, respectively, of Twinspires and XpressBet.

For Hollywood Park – which has been unavailable to out-of-state customers of the four companies since its meet began on Oct. 29 – the agreement could not have come soon enough, according to Jack Liebau, the president of the company that owns the track and the chairman of Youbet.

“This impasse was doing exactly no one any good,” Liebau said on Friday, just prior to the first race on a card that featured a $251,000 pick six carryover.

Liebau said that Hollywood Park’s television signal would continue to be broadcast live exclusively by TVG, which has a contract with Hollywood for two more years.

Officials involved in the negotiations declined to reveal details of the agreement, other than the one-year term and the signal-rights provisions.

The TOC had withheld its approval for the account-wagering companies to offer wagering on Hollywood Park because of its dissatisfaction with the share of the revenues directed toward purses. At the same time, the TOC also registered its displeasure with the business model that many account-wagering companies use to compensate the racing industry, and it brought another negotiating partner, the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Group, into the negotiations to seek a national deal with the account-wagering companies on behalf of scattered groups across the country.

However, that national deal appears to have been set aside, at least temporarily, in favor of the California deal. Drew Couto, the president of the TOC, said on Friday that the national discussions would continue, but that the TOC was under pressure to get the California signal restored.

“We’re not quite there yet” on a national deal, said Couto, who is also the vice president of THG. “But this accord, which comes directly out of what the THG has been doing, is a great step toward attaining those objectives.”

The national account-wagering companies have not been able to take bets on the races at Churchill Downs since the spring. Account bettors outside of Florida have not been able to wager on Calder’s races since the meet began in April. Both tracks are owned by Churchill Downs Inc.

The pressure to reach a deal at Hollywood was amplified this week when the California Horse Racing Board threatened to allow the operating licenses of the account-wagering companies to expire unless an agreement was reached prior to Dec. 31. California is the largest account-wagering market in the country, and without licenses, the companies would have been prohibited from taking any wagers from anyone in the state – jeopardizing, at the same time, a critical source of revenue for tracks and horsemen in an industry that has gone from stagnation to contraction over the past several months.

“I don’t know if it’s coincidental,” said Richard Shapiro, the chairman of the CHRB, on Friday, when asked if the threat had an impact on the negotiations. “Let’s just say I’m glad that it’s done and horseplayers don’t have to suffer anymore.”

Shapiro said the agreement will “fully allow” the CHRB to re-license the companies.

Under the agreement, the live broadcast rights to Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields are expected to be held by HorseRacing TV, a competitor to TVG that is available in far fewer households. Both tracks are owned by HRTV’s co-owner Magna Entertainment.

It is unclear which network will hold the rights to Del Mar’s highly popular summer signal in 2009. Officials at Del Mar have said that they favor the widest distribution possible for their racing signal.