05/20/2001 11:00PM

An idea for tracks to bank on


A couple of weeks ago, I had a $300 credit-card transaction declined. Be patient: This actually has something to do with the future of horse racing.

I was trying to replenish my online account with Paradise Poker, a Caribbean-based offshore Internet gambling site. Paradise offers the best online poker on the Web, and over the last year I have devoted hundreds of hours to playing online against Internet users from around the world. The site is technically brilliant, the game is on the level, and I had never had a problem either depositing small sums into my bankroll or having winnings credited back to my Chase Visa card. I wasn't getting rich off it, but it was cheap entertainment and a great way to sharpen my skills at my second favorite form of gambling.

So I needed to make a deposit a couple of weeks ago and punched in the transaction information that usually takes less than a minute to credit my bankroll. This time, the transaction was turned down. I figured I had entered a stray digit, as I knew my card had no outstanding balance, so I tried again. Same result.

The next morning I received a call from Chase, asking if I had indeed attempted two transactions the previous night with "Firenet," the innocuous name under which Paradise Poker does its banking. Yes, I replied, and why were my transfers turned down? After a long delay, the customer-service rep found the answer: It was now Chase policy, she said, not to approve any transactions with firms that Chase had identified as Internet gambling sites.

My first reaction was outrage. Who was Chase to legislate morality, and why was gambling their target? Chase wouldn't dream of stopping me from using my Visa card to buy whiskey, cigarettes, pornography, high-cholesterol food, or any of life's other simple pleasures.

Given that we're talking about bankers, however, morality probably had nothing to do with it. Perhaps the issue was collectability. I talked with another Chase customer-service manager, who confirmed that was indeed the case: Chase had no confidence in collecting money from dot-coms on third-world islands, and customers might simply refuse to pay their Visa bills since it is not clear that gambling debts are legally enforceable.

I suppose I could go get another Visa card from a bank without such a policy, but that seems like too much trouble. So I'm out of Paradise Poker, and could probably better use the time to reread Tolstoy or Brohamer. The whole episode seemed nothing more than bad news for some offshore gambling sites. Then a DRF colleague told me about a recent experience trying to replenish his NYRA-One betting account.

His balance was $409, and since New York State law insanely dictates a start-of-day balance of $450 to play, he needed to make a small deposit. He tried using the Citibank Visa card he has always employed for deposits, and his transaction was declined. The bank told him it no longer would support gambling-related transactions on his Visa (proud sponsor of the Triple Crown) card. At least he had a wallet full of other banks' Visa cards, and another one worked.

It may not for long. Earlier this week, DRF reported that an amendment has been attached to the odious college sports-betting bill in the Senate that would "shift liability for Internet gambling debts to credit-card companies [and] make credit-card bills run up at Internet gambling sites unenforceable." If the banks are unwilling or unable to distinguish between offshore poker sites and Belmont Park, what does this mean for the future of in-home account wagering, the supposed savior of the game?

The process of actually getting money into an account has always been given short shrift in the industry's home-betting dreams. Customers have the choice of waiting a week or more for a check to clear or of paying a usurious fee to make a credit-card transfer, and now the latter option may disappear entirely.

Maybe the answer is what I suspect Churchill Downs was thinking when it allowed a local bank to set up a mini-branch at the track: Perhaps racetracks themselves need to get into the banking business. They currently earn nothing on all the teller-box cash and account balances they hold, could make money for needed improvements, and even pay interest, enticing customers to make larger deposits and leave their winnings on account. The next time there's a double carryover at Belmont, I could just pick up the phone and freely transfer funds from my NYRA-Plus Checking account or NYRA Premier Money Market Fund into my NYRA-One wagering account.

The first racing entity to figure out how to do this could make a bundle. The winner in the home-betting derby ultimately may not be the one with the best video or graphics, but the one that offers free checking and a toaster.