Updated on 09/13/2011 8:54PM

Hong Kong's big pools command attention

EmailWASHINGTON, D. C. - In the age of simulcasting and betting via computer, American horseplayers can watch and wager on races from almost every track in the country. They can also play races on four other continents. So the addition of one more track to the crowded racing menu might not seem significant.

Before the end of the year, people in the United States will have the chance to play the races from Hong Kong, with their money going into the betting pools at Happy Valley and Sha Tin racecourses. Even though few Americans know much about Hong Kong racing now, I will venture a prediction: The size of the wagering on these foreign races is going to stun the Thoroughbred industry, here and abroad.

"It's going to be love at first sight for U.S. bettors," predicted Bill Nader, the former New York racing executive who this year became the Hong Kong Jockey Club's director of racing. He listed the game's virtues: The races are very competitive, with an average of nearly 13 starters per field. Horses are rarely scratched and races are never taken off the turf. Hong Kong officials are deadly serious about assuring the integrity of the game and keeping it drug-free. Bettors have access to an extraordinary amount of handicapping information, much of it available free online at www.hkjc.com/english/.

But what makes the Hong Kong races so uniquely attractive is the sheer size of their betting pools. The city of 6.9 million people is gambling-mad, and it wagers more than $11 million on the average race. Pools and payoffs for their jackpot bets - the pick six and the triple trio (where the object is to select the first three finishers, in any order, in three consecutive races) can be astronomical.

In the United States, bettors go into a frenzy when they get the rare chance to bet on a pick six with a carryover pool of $1 million. At Hollywood Park this summer, when a jackpot reached $3 million for an ordinary Monday card, horseplayers across the country responded by wagering $7.59 million on the pick six and $18 million on the eight-race card. That memorable day underscored an important truth: nothing stimulates wagering like a giant pool and the chance to make a giant score. In Hong Kong those opportunities exist in every race. The high-rollers and syndicates who plunge into domestic pick-six pools should find Hong Kong irresistible. So, too, should the so-called "robotic" bettors, who employ sophisticated computer systems that scan probable payoffs and place massive wagers in the final seconds before post time. There is only one reason for skepticism about the optimistic expectation of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Americans don't know anything about their racing, and sophisticated bettors don't risk their money on propositions they don't understand. Simulcasts from Great Britain, South America, and South Africa - albeit ones offering much smaller pools - have barely generated a ripple of interest in this country, and anyone who looks at the past performances immediately knows why. The data looks foreign to a U.S. bettor, and it is missing crucial information that horseplayers here expect. Laurel Park has been offering simulcasts from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and while the South American racing product is good enough, the past performances are woefully inadequate. They contain no fractional times, no information about trouble a horse might have encountered in a previous race, no running line that shows where a horse was positioned during the race. Even the class level of races is indiscernible. Understandably, betting on South American races has been relatively meager.

Hong Kong understands this issue and Nader said, "Our task force is working to format information in a style that agrees with the U.S. bettor." A major effort is underway to educate U.S. bettors and give them all the data they need. Mike Murphy, vice president of a marketing firm working on the project, said that a weekly Hong Kong handicapping show has already been scheduled for the Dish Network, which will also carry the races live. He has approached the Len Ragozin organization and the Daily Racing Form and urged them to provide Hong Kong speed figures to which American bettors can relate. He said he is acquiring vital data (such as fractional times) that can be included in American-style past performances. The simulcasts are being handled by the Las Vegas Dissemination Co., which is now negotiating with tracks and online betting sites to take the Hong Kong signal. Greg Wright, the company's CFO, said there are a few more technical details to be worked out, but that the simulcasts should be operating by early December. When that date arrives, horseplayers will enjoy a whole new challenge, and the horse racing industry may see that large international betting pools are the future of the game.

(c) The Washington Post