08/21/2006 11:00PM

Internet seems to be catching on


TUCSON, Ariz. - In desperation, after the 227th replay of John M. Karr in his blue-and-pink shirts and blank stare, surrounded by a crazed cluster of paparazzi, I abandoned television forever and fled to my library.

I broke under the relentless yakking of former district and prosecuting attorneys, postulating on the guilt or innocence of Karr; of psychologists and psychiatrists and guys and gals who know no more than you or I, telling why Karr did whatever he did or didn't do. Before that circus came an unending string of retired generals, fighting the war in the Middle East, with replays of battle scenes seen weeks ago.

Although I spent 12 and a half years doing a twice-weekly racing show on a major New York television station, and countless racing shows before that, I have no idea where the industry digs up these people. Do they line up at 3 a.m. waiting for auditions, complete with photographs, resumes, and references?

The end game for me came two nights ago, with a terrifying shrieking nightmare that I had been locked in a room with Nancy Grace of CNN.

In fleeing to the library, I picked up the latest issue of Gaming Today, the weekly Las Vegas journal of happenings in Sin City.

There, on page 1, was the dilemma of horse racing.

It was not a picture of a horse. If it had been, it almost certainly would have been Barbaro, out grassing in sunlight, or Lost in the Fog, lost in the eternal darkness of terminal cancer. That is the general public's image of horse racing today.

Instead, there was the beaming face of one Jamie Gold, smiling the cat-caught-mouse smile of a man who just conquered the world. Financially, he had.

I had never heard of Jamie Gold, but piled high in front of him was a huge mound of money, representing the $12 million dollars he had just won in something called The World Series of Poker.

It turns out that 8,773 poker players each had put up $10,000 to play in this tournament. Ten thousand dollars each! Think of that.

Reading on, I learned this was peanuts. More than 40 million players entered online tournaments last year, paying some $1.1 billion to play, on the Internet. That compared to about $375 million paid in by players sitting in brick-and-mortar casinos.

Party Gaming, the giant in this game, reported revenue of $977 million last year, as against $30.1 million four years ago. Revenue grew at an annual rate of 158 percent from 2000 to 2005, but things are slacking off, and analysts now predict annual increases of "only" about 18 percent from last year to 2010. This led David Stratton, the editor of Gaming Today, to speculate in a front-page article that interest in televised poker will dwindle further. The story was headlined, "Has Poker Become Too Commercial?"

What would your favorite racetrack president give for an 18 percent annual increases in handle for the next four years?

If Gaming Today's experts are correct, the solution is not television, which racing spurned half a century ago when it could have established a foothold, but the Internet, which racing is letting slide by today.

This whole country is being left behind in Internet gaming, which our Justice Department would like to stop altogether. Congress happily has protected racing, but we need to grab that opportunity and modernize our game, do daring stunts, hire truly top PR people, and pile those dollars in plain view on Breeders' Cup day.

The tradition and pageantry and beauty of horse racing is fine, and stirs the blood of all of us in it. The noble sentiments expressed in letters to editors are inspiring. The flowers and gifts and anthropomorphic tributes to Barbaro, and now to Lost in the Fog, as if they recognize and understand them, are touching. But they do not make racing fans.

If head-to-head competition is what is needed, like poker, then let's get on with handicapping tournaments everywhere, with money piled high and publicity on the guy next door who won. Let's make our game a national game, not an insider's game. Sentiment is fine, but survival is better.

We need to put technology ahead of sentiment. We need to market to the masses, rather than preach to the choir. We need expert Internet marketing that ultimately will lead to the tracks.

Those 40 million are out there, money in hand. We had better try to snag them now, before we relive the mistake of half a century ago.