10/01/2003 11:00PM

In-home bettors shortchanged

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Housebound racing fans will be showered with riches this weekend, when no fewer than 17 national and international events will be telecast on a variety of commercial networks.

Saturday, NBC will carry the Goodwood Handicap and Oak Tree Derby from Santa Anita, along with the Kelso, the Beldame, and the Frizette from Belmont Park. As a bonus, there will also be tape of last Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes from England's Ascot Race Course.

Sunday, ESPN2 will take the TV stage with the Ancient Title Handicap and the Oak Tree Mile from Santa Anita; the Spinster, the Galaxy, and the Shadwell Mile (which was run Saturday) from Keeneland, and tape of Sunday's Arc de Triomphe from Longchamp in Paris.

CNBC's narrowly targeted coverage of 2-year-olds begins on Saturday with the Champagne from Belmont and the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity from Keeneland, then continues on Sunday with a live telecast of the Norfolk Stakes from Santa Anita, as well as tape delay of the Grey Stakes at Woodbine and the Grand Criterium from Longchamp.

So enjoy the feast, and give thanks to the ravenous appetite of all those cable channels and their many hours of programming. Never before has racing had such commercial television exposure, affording both mainstream sports fans and casual racing fans many choices and every opportunity to enjoy the aesthetics of the game.

The gambling fan, on the other hand, is getting a much different kind of treatment. Those who choose to follow the rules and play the ponies through legal avenues are confronted by an exclusive cartel of in-home betting companies, a veritable OPEC of parimutuel trade.

In order to participate fully in the account wagering experience, selecting from the best quality of racing, a player must hold at least two accounts: TVG, basically a subsidized creation of NTRA member tracks, and Xpressbet, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp.

As a result, in-home horseplayers do not have the luxury of free market choice. Even worse, their limited choices are not even full service. Imagine dealing with two gas companies just to warm the whole house.

The absurdity of the situation was highlighted last month at the regular meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, when commissioner Alan Landsburg turned up the heat on the issue. The board is inviting public discussion regarding the proposition that a racetrack, to be licensed, must make its signal available to all advance depositing wagering (in-home) companies. What an all-American idea.

"People who are utilizing ADW complain they have to restructure their betting accounts each time we change racing venues in this state," Landsburg said. "We must ask ourselves whether the current practice of signal exclusivity interferes with the betting process."

These are strong and welcome words, although there was a voice raised in caution, when CHRB chairman Roger Licht wondered if the board should get so deeply involved in such policies of commerce. In this case, the answer is an unequivocal yes, since it was the CHRB that helped create the current situation by approving the exclusive contracts linking the state's parimutuel product with the delivery system. This is no time for commissioners to wash their hands of the entire affair.

"I think the very restrictive nature of exclusive agreements now in effect does not provide openings for other potential ADW operators around the country to come to California," Landsburg added. "If we were to get additional ADW operators, wouldn't we realize more betting revenue?"

Probably, but it might be time to let the free market decide. It is an historically amusing fact of life that large corporations are true believers in the free enterprise system as long as it works for them. When it does not, they become passionate adherents of everything from price-fixing to non-competitive bidding.

Do not look for Hollywood Park (a TVG track) or Santa Anita (Magna) to support Landsburg's call for a wide-open in-home betting market. They have too much at stake.

But the tracks might be wise to glance at a chapter in California business history before entrenching themselves too deeply. The case was U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures, et al, and the issue has a familiar ring.

In the 1930's, there were five major Hollywood studios that created most of the movies and owned most of America's movie theaters. The studios used block-booking to keep their products in those theaters, to the near total exclusion of any independent movie producers. Basically, moviegoers watched the big studio product, or they stayed home.

Independent producers brought suit, and finally, in 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against the studio monopoly. As a result, the big studios had to sell off their theater chains. Instead of millions and millions and millions of dollars, they had to settle for millions and millions.

The same thing could happen in horse racing, since the tracks that currently produce the show own the theaters of distribution as well, to the disadvantage of both consumers and any independent in-home wagering companies. Good for the CHRB if they pursue the issue and for the horseplayers who may finally be heard.