06/07/2001 11:00PM

Home is where the betting is: A guide to getting hooked up

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It's possible to open a home wagering account in a matter of minutes. But it's advisable to invest a bit more of your time.

Horseplayers interested in making wagers from home can pick and choose from about a dozen similar services that promise to make betting easier. But the degree of convenience - or frustration - that a horseplayer receives will depend largely on how well he matches one of those services with his needs. This takes work and time.

It's no different than buying a car or a stereo system. It's always best to shop around, and a bettor should ask himself and the provider the right questions before making a decision. Some of those questions include:

o How often will I use the service?

o Do I need to watch the races live to enjoy myself?

o What is the typical size of my wagers, and how long can I ride a losing streak?

o Am I comfortable with computers, and if so, do I have the equipment and patience to bet online?

o What tracks do I typically play?

Answering those questions will put you well on your way to finding the right account-wagering service. The better the fit, the more you will enjoy yourself.

The answer to a question not listed above will determine whether you can bet through an account at all: What state do I live in? If you answered Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Utah, you are probably out of luck. Nearly every account-wagering provider in the U.S. has declared those states off-limits because of restrictions on telephone betting or parimutuel wagering. (It can be done, however, if the person also has a legal residence in another state.)

Additionally, residents of Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas will likely face restrictions, if not prohibitions, on wagering by telephone or the Internet, depending on the provider. Regulatory officials in several of those states have recently cracked down on account wagering for a variety of reasons.

You'll also need to be at least 18, because all of the services strictly verify the age of the applicant (one service, Television Games Network [TVG], restricts wagering to those of drinking age: 21, or older). So if you're reading this because the mutuel boss at your local track has already carded you three times, you're probably out of luck as well.

All services offer a wide variety of racetracks to their subscribers, and many times the wagering menu will vary from state to state because of contractual conditions between the providers and racetracks. For example, a resident of Kentucky who subscribes to any service other than TVG will likely be unable to bet on Churchill Downs or Saratoga Race Course, while someone in Connecticut would be able to wager on nearly every track in the country.

A number of restrictions exist in other states as well, so the best strategy is to call the provider and ask specific questions about the tracks you like to play. Be prepared, though, because in some states it may be impossible to place a bet on your favorite track or tracks. This is probably the most frustrating aspect of account wagering today.

However, some good news recently emerged on this front. On May 21, TVG and Youbet.com, an online account-wagering service, announ-ced an agreement in which Youbet will be able to offer wagering on TVG-exclusive tracks, including the Churchill family of tracks and those operated by the New York Racing Association. If expanded to other services, the license agreement has the potential to substantially alter the playing field for account-wagering operations. Already, the agreement makes Youbet a leading contender in most states.

Funding your account

To make deposits, most providers offer a wide range of options. All will accept checks and money orders, which can be processed in a matter of days. Instant deposits normally can be made by charging a credit card - usually for a substantial fee.

TVG allows users to make withdrawals directly from their checking accounts into their betting accounts, although the user has to provide TVG with banking and account information first. Nevertheless, the initial paperwork is a small price to pay for the convenience and efficiency of the service, especially in light of credit-card fees.

First-time deposits are not normally restricted, although there is usually a minimum. After that, however, some providers will limit how much a bettor can deposit in one day or prohibit the user from wagering against the additional deposit for 24 hours. Those restrictions have been implemented to counter concerns about problem gamblers. Other providers only limit the amount of money a subscriber can deposit off a credit card in a certain time period.

To withdraw money, most operations require the user to make a request via mail. Some services will deposit a withdrawal immediately into a checking account, but, as with direct deposits, the user first needs to provide the service with checking account information. Cash withdrawals can usually only be made at branch offices of the account-wagering provider or affiliated banks, so geographic proximity to the service can sometimes be a big plus.

Only a handful of companies offer live video and audio of races as a complement to the service, and all of those providers are available over the Internet. If you don't already have access to live racing signals and are familiar and comfortable with computers, then an Internet provider may be the best fit.

Remember, however, that computers have a knack for crashing at the worst time. And the live audio and video feeds won't be comparable to television feeds without an extremely fast hook-up. While Internet providers may recommend a 56K modem connection at a minimum, a T1, DSL or cable-modem connection is best suited for the data-heavy audio and video streams.

Reprinted from DRF Simulcast Weekly. To subscribe, call 1-877-514-4220.

AutoTote On-The-Wire

Website: www.ctotb.com/wire.asp

Fees: None

Internet wagering: No

Audio/visual feed: No

Deposit Restrictions: None

Minimum balance: None

Headquartered in Connecticut, Autotote's On-The-Wire service offers betting on just about any track from just about anywhere where betting is legal, with no fees, through a toll-free number, with no minimum balance or restrictions on wagering.

So where can I sign up? Well, hold on a second - or a couple of hours. On-The-Wire doesn't take creditcard deposits right now, and few of the deposit options available - money order, cash, wire transfer, or personal check - are instantaneous. That is probably the only drawback to this bare-bones but efficient service.

Fair Grounds Phone Bet and Net Bet

Website: www.fgno.com/racing/phonebet.html

Fees: None

Internet wagering: Yes

Audio/visual feed: Most tracks

Deposit restrictions: $1,000 per credit card per day

Minimum balance: None

One of the newest players is also the most comprehensive, and it's free. Autotote designed this system for Fair Grounds, which launched its phone betting operation late last year and its Internet platform several months ago.

In design and services, Fair Grounds took the best from the best and is hoping for the best. For the phone service, bets are placed through a toll-free number. The Internet system offers live video and audio of racing, as well as real-time odds and updates. The service also ties into Fair Grounds's track-based player reward program, and account wagers earn 50 percent more points than wagers at the track. Points can be redeemed for cash or Fair Grounds merchandise. Just off the ground, Fair Grounds could become a major player.

Horseplayer Interactive

Website: www.675bets.com

Fees: None

Internet wagering: No

Audio/visual feed: From Woodbine and Mohawk Raceway

Deposit restrictions: None

Minimum balance: None

This north-of-the-border provider, owned and operated by the Ontario Jockey Club, requires that "cheques" be sent to the betting "centre." If you're not confused by the spelling, then Horseplayer may be a viable option, especially if you live in Canada. The service is free, and a supporting website offers virtual tote boards plus live video from Woodbine Race Course and Mohawk Raceway. The simulcast menu, however, is somewhat limited, with only about 10 racetracks a day.

Ladbrokes Call-A-Bet

Website: www.ladbrokes.com

Fees: 35 cents per call

Internet wagering: No (Although Ladbrokes does process wagers placed on Youbet.com)

Audio/visual fee: No

Deposit restrictions: $1,000 maximum deposit per day

Minimum balance: None

Ladbrokes operates out of Pennsylvania, and it is similar to most account-wagering operations. It offers a lengthy menu of tracks, but residency will determine restrictions on certain tracks.

Ladbroke charges 35 cents per call to the system, but that fee is waived if you are a member of Youbet.com, which charges $5.95 a month.

Magna Entertainment purchased Ladbrokes several months ago and says it has big designs for the service. However, Magna officials still haven't said what those plans are, and for now, it's business as usual.

New York's Regional Off-Track betting corporations

n Websites: www.westernotb.com (Western OTB); www.bigwinsatotb.com (Suffolk OTB);

www.capitalotb.com (Capitol OTB); www.interbets.com (Catskill OTB); no website for Nassau OTB

Fees: 5-6 percent surcharge on winning bets (surcharge varies by company)

Internet wagering: No

Audio/visual fee: None

Deposit restrictions: $500 per day on credit card deposits

Minimum balance: Subscriber can avoid applicable surcharges by maintaining $300 balance

The account-wagering operations run by New York's regional off-track betting companies - Nassau, Suffolk, Western, Capital, and Catskill - are as vanilla as it gets: Fill out an application, deposit some funds, and dial a toll-free number to bet on races shown at the local OTB.

Like all things in New York racing though, there's a catch. You pay OTB prices on your OTB phone account, meaning you get hit with the onerous 5 or 6 percent surcharge on winning wagers. However, the OTBs counter the surcharge by allowing users to open "premium" accounts in which the minimum balance is $300. If the player stays above that floor, no surcharge.

Also, you can only play the signals that are imported by the OTBs, and the OTBs have an extremely limited simulcast menu, a result of racing law in the state.

If you live in New York and are a regular New York horseplayer, the ease with which you can deposit and withdraw money at local outlets makes the OTB option viable. But those surcharges add up, and no one wants $300 tied up somewhere useless.

New York City Off-Track Betting Company

Website: www.nycotb.com

Fees: None

Internet wagering: No

Audio/visual feed: None

Deposit restrictions: $500 per day on credit card deposits

Minimum balance: None

New York City OTB's phone betting operation is nearly identical to those of the the regional OTB companies, with one critical difference: you don't pay the surcharge, no matter what the account balance.

New York Racing Association's NYRA One Telebet

Website: www.nyra.com

Fees: None

Internet wagering: No

Audio/visual feed: No (local access cable in New York broadcasts races)

Deposit restrictions: $500 per day on credit card deposits

Minimum balance: $450 a day for residents of NY, NJ, CT, PA, MA, and VT. All others, $100.

The New York Racing Association has always been at a distinct disadvantage compared to New York's off-track betting companies, and that has limited growth and play through NYRA One Telebet. For reasons too complex and ridiculous to outline here, "local" users of NYRA's account-wagering service - those within a one-state radius - are required by state law to maintain a $450 balance in their accounts to keep playing. Residents of farther-flung states have to maintain a $100 balance. Of course, you don't have to deal with any surcharges on winnings like at the regional OTBs.

So if you have problems saving those last four Franklins and a Ulysses S. Grant of your rent check, consider a NYRA One account as a temporary piggy bank (although some whisper that the $450 minimum is not closely policed). If not, open an account elsewhere - inflation alone loses you $22 a year on that money, not to mention the opportunity cost.

Of course, maintaining a $1,000 balance gives you "exclusive amenities" from NYRA.

Ohio's TAB and winticket.com

Website: www.winticket.com

Fees: 25 cents per call for TAB; none for winticket.com

Internet wagering: Yes

Audio/visual feed: No

Deposit restrictions: $400 maximum to open; $1,000 max per day; $3,000 max per week; $5,000 max per month

Minimum balance: None

Winticket.com is the new Internet portal developed by the Ohio Thoroughbred tracks that own Ohio Thoroughbred Account Betting. This is a vanilla Internet service much like eBet, although with deposit restrictions. One advantage winticket.com has over eBet, however, is instantaneous action, because winticket.com will take credit-card deposits - but beware the 5.95 percent charge.

The phone service offers wagering on just about every track in operation. But wagering through the Internet is restricted on many tracks, including those in New Jersey, NYRA's tracks, and the Churchill family.

Penn National's Telebet and eBet

Websites: www.ebetusa.com (Internet platform); www.pnrc.com/telebet.shtml (telephone platform)

Fees: Telebet charges $1 per day of service; no fees on eBet

Internet wagering: Yes

Audio/visual feed: Only for certain tracks

Deposit restrictions: None

Minimum balance: None

Penn National launched an Internet platform to complement its long-running telephone wagering system, and the result is the eBet portal. Users can use eBet to view live odds and get updates as well as place wagers, with the bets processed through Penn's Telebet system.

The big benefit to the eBet system is the ability to "build and batch" wagers, meaning players can put a multitude of bets in at one time. For example, a player can build a large ticket keying an overlaid horse in a number of win, exacta and trifecta combinations and wait until the last seconds to place the bet, ensuring that the horse's odds do not drop to an unplayable level. It's a nice feature for odds-board watchers.

Telebet does have limitations on depositing money to accounts. Unless you live near one of Penn's OTB parlors and can deposit cash, only personal checks or money orders are accepted, sent via snail mail.

Philadelphia Park's Phonebet

Website: www.phonebet.com

Fees: $1.50 per day

Internet wagering: No (local cable in Philadelphia broadcasts races

Audio/visual feed: No

Deposit restrictions: Credit-card deposits limited to $1,000 or $5,000 a day, depending on level of service

Minimum balance: None

Operated by Philadelphia Park and one of the oldest account-wagering providers, Phonebet prides itself on its bettor-friendly customer service. If you are a high roller, Phonebet will gladly set you up with a private telephone line and free handicapping information, plus other amenities.

Even if you're not a high roller, Phonebet has a player rewards program, with points redeemed for food and beverage vouchers, merchandise, or handicapping products. Even small-time players brag about the level of service.

Phonebet can be comparatively pricey, however, with a $1.50 charge for each day an account holder places a wager - that could mean $45 a month for the committed player (the charge is waived if you bet using the service's touch-tone or voice-recognition options). But for that charge, Phonebet guarantees a user will never wait longer than 10 seconds to place a bet over the phone, and service representatives will pleasantly help a customer figure out how to move money into his or her account as cheaply and as quickly as possible.

Television Games Network

Website: www.tvgnetwork.com

Fees: 25 cents per transaction, capped at $19.95 per month

Internet wagering: Yes

Audio/visual feed: Through television service

Deposit restrictions: First deposit of day available immediately; second deposit not available until following day

Minimum balance: None

For the time being, only consider this option if you live in Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon or Oklahoma, because TVG says it won't accept accounts from residents of any other state. You also have to be 21.

TVG has a dual-platform system, with bets taken over the phone through a hub in Oregon or through an Internet site. The Internet site does not broadcast live video, but is instead intended to be an adjunct to TVG's live network coverage, which is available in Louisville and Lexington in Kentucky and over the Dish network satellite television service.

TVG charges 25 cents per transaction, but caps those fees at $19.95 per month. TVG is running a promotion that will give a new subscriber a $50 wagering credit if the user bets a total of $50 during the first 30 days of service.

The best part of TVG's service is the ability of the subscriber to transfer funds between a checking account and a wagering account - no credit card fees, and instant access.

Youbet.com

Website: www.youbet.com

Fees: $5.95 a month

Internet wagering: Yes

Audio/visual feed: For all tracks

Deposit restrictions: $1,000 per day, $2,000 on "big race days"

Minimum balance: None

Youbet.com recently inked an agreement with TVG that will allow the company to accept wagers on nearly every racetrack in the country, eliminating the biggest drawback to this service. In the next three months, Youbet.com customers will likely be able to wager on 81 tracks from 39 states.

If you are comfortable with computers and have a high-speed Internet connection, Youbet.com will probably be one of your better options. The monthly fee is minimal, limits on wagering are high enough to keep you in action during a prolonged losing streak, and you can make deposits and withdrawals using a variety of options.

The service does not allow direct deposits, however, an option that would put Youbet over the top. And always remember: computers crash, and even the most reliable connections go down. Eventually, you're going to fail to get a bet down. Plan for it, or shrug it off.