10/20/2011 11:46AM

Keeneland cellphone app gives faster way to bet


LEXINGTON – A new betting app for mobile devices designed to appeal to day-tripping racetrack customers is drawing enthusiastic reviews from users and may help push racing further into the digital age.

The app, developed by the bet-processing company United Tote, was made available for the first time this year to customers at Keeneland Racecourse, whose large crowds and small footprint have made the track a nearly ideal proving ground for the system. With the app, which only works on the racetrack’s property, users can make a bet and fund their accounts without any of the hassles that typically deter a casual racegoer from opening an account with a large internet betting operation.

First offered at last year’s spring meet on a limited, experimental basis, the app, called FastBet, isn’t revolutionary, and it would be familiar to most account-wagering customers with next-generation smart phones. Using the app, a bettor can place any wager offered by the host track by navigating a series of menus using the standard taps or clicks, a service offered by most of the major account-wagering companies for several years through websites and apps that allow a customer to use his or her account over a cellular network.

Where the Keeneland app differs from existing apps, however, is the ease with which a customer can start using it. Account-wagering customers must provide a wealth of verifiable personal and financial information, including social-security numbers, before they can start betting, a hurdle that was singled out in a recent report by McKinsey and Co. that analyzed, in part, racing’s difficulty in attracting fans to account-wagering systems. The new app, however, only requires a customer to walk up to a booth at Keeneland to purchase a card to fund an account. The card gives the customer a link and a password to log on to the FastBet site over a dedicated wireless network, and after that, the customer can start betting.

But while the mobile apps created by account-wagering customers can be used anywhere and can be used to place bets on any track on the account-wagering company’s menu, the FastBet app is limited to the races offered by the host track and can only be used on the host track’s grounds, since customers are required to connect to the track’s wireless network to use the service. Despite those limitations, for many customers – especially Keeneland’s people-watching crowds – just being able to bet on live races from the beer line or without having to coordinate with friends on a place to meet after placing wagers is good enough.

Ron Garnett, a 45-year-old engineering manager at the local printer manufacturer Lexmark, said he downloaded the app on the first of his five visits to Keeneland this year. On a recent Friday, he was enjoying a beer with friends on the track’s apron while making bets over his phone, using money he loaded into his account on his first visit on opening day. He said he has used the app on all five visits.

“It’s really handy,” Garnett said, describing himself as a casual bettor who rarely visits any racetrack other than Keeneland. “You don’t have to worry about carrying around tickets and money. It’s all right there on your phone.”

Garnett said the only drawback to the app was that it sometimes failed to make a connection with the server. Still, what was most important, he said, was his ability to avoid the mutuel lines, which he said are sometimes intimidating to inexperienced bettors.

“I want to take my time and not have people behind me making me nervous because they are waiting for me to get my bets in,” Garnett said. “I really don’t like that part of betting.”

Brad Lovell, Keeneland’s vice president for technology, said more than 500 cards have been issued since the track opened Oct. 7. He called the launch successful and said Keeneland has been pleased to find the service is being adopted by a wide cross-section of customers.

“Clearly, bettors recognize the ease of use, and we recognize that it is a great service to customers,” Lovell said.

The app would seem to be most useful at a crowded racetrack, where lines can be long for mutuel tellers or automated machines. But Ben Murr, the president of United Tote, said he expects the app to be embraced by many racetracks for a more practical reason: cost. Unlike mutuel tellers, a mobile app doesn’t draw a salary or need health insurance.

“We don’t think it’s going to be limited to tracks with large volumes,” Murr said. “We think it’s going to be attractive to any track, and the reason is that it doesn’t cost the track near as much as it does to pay an employee to take bets.”

But Murr also acknowledged the apps are not cost-free. First, tracks need to install the infrastructure to ensure that customers’ devices can connect to wireless hotspots throughout the grounds, an expense that some struggling tracks might consider cost-prohibitive. That infrastructure also has to be maintained and trouble-shot, and the network has to be kept up-to-date to conform to industry security standards.

The New York Racing Association, which operates three mammoth tracks in New York and a rapidly growing account-wagering service, plans to offer the United Tote app sometime next year, almost certainly by the time the association’s ever-popular Saratoga meet rolls around in late July, according to Tom Thill, the association’s chief information officer.

NYRA, a customer of United Tote, has offered a mobile application for customers of its NYRA Rewards account-wagering service for nearly three years, and it has yet to offer the FastBet service because of both administrative and logistical hurdles, according to Thill. First, the association has to get approval from the New York State Racing and Wagering Board to allow wagering on the devices. Secondly, the association needs to install the networking equipment that would allow customers to use the devices, which will require laying fiber-optic cable throughout the grounds, Thill said, a significant undertaking.

Thill said he is enthusiastic about offering the app, especially at Saratoga, where average attendance at the 39-day 2012 meet was 22,353, with most of those people scattered throughout the various areas of the grandstand and the track’s expansive picnic area.

“It’s the people sitting at the restaurant tables, in those tight spaces where it’s hard to get up and get around, and the people picnicking in the back,” Thill said. “We see it as a great tool for them.”

The app would seem to be a natural fit for the crowds expected to attend the upcoming Breeders’ Cup event Nov. 4-5 at Churchill Downs, which is a customer of United Tote. However, Breeders’ Cup officials would not comment on whether the track planned to offer the app, and Churchill Downs officials did not respond to repeated inquiries.

Murr said he could not comment on whether the app would be offered at the event, saying it was up to Churchill and the Breeders’ Cup. Churchill owns the largest account-wagering company in the U.S., a service it aggressively promotes, and the company is expected to eagerly push customers to sign up for accounts during the Breeders’ Cup.