01/03/2002 1:00AM

Magna pulls online signals


Magna Entertainment Corp. has pulled its signals from several online wagering operations, officials for the operators said on Thursday, as it prepares to launch its own account-wagering service.

The operators said that Magna, the owner of eight Thoroughbred racetracks, including Santa Anita and Gulfstream, withdrew its signals without negotiation at the start of the year from three sites run by the online wagering company AmericaTab - brisbet.com, tsnbet.com, and winticket.com.

"It's our understanding from conversations with them that Magna's position for 2002 is that they are getting into the business themselves and aren't going to be offering us their signals," said Todd Bowker, the general manager of AmericaTab, on Thursday.

Magna officials did not return phone calls on Thursday. The company has declined to discuss its account-wagering plans in the past.

Magna's decision appears to be linked to the preliminary launch of its own online betting service at callabetonline.com. The website for that service, called XpressBet, is soliciting customers, but the service has not been advertised or formally announced.

The developments also come as Magna is attempting to solidify its position as it prepares to enter the telephone-wagering market in California. Phone betting could become legal in the state as early as Jan. 25. Magna filed a license application in California just before the end of the year.

Magna's decision to withdraw its signal from some sites contradicts a position the company has supported in the past. Over the past two years, company officials, including chairman Frank Stronach, have openly attacked Television Games Network, a leading account-wagering company, for supporting the signing of racetracks to exclusive agreements that prohibit the distribution of the tracks' signals elsewhere. TVG has signed the vast majority of high-profile tracks in the country to these exclusive contracts.

Magna officials have consistently maintained that signals should be available to all account-wagering companies, reiterating that position as recently as the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing in December. During a Dec. 6 panel at the conference, Magna chief executive Jim McAlpine criticized exclusive contracts to a packed house of racing officials.

Bowker said Magna's decision "shocked" him because of McAlpine's recent comments. "He seemed to indicate that they would sign non-exclusive contracts with anyone," Bowker said. "But now they are saying that they are not going to let us take any of their signals."

Other account-wagering operators, however, said that Magna has not pulled its signals from them, although Magna has warned operators that the signals could be withheld, some officials said.

"They've assured us that we will continue to have the signal through this year, but they haven't given us any assurances after that," said Bryan Krantz, the president of Fair Grounds, which operates a Louisiana-based internet-betting service.

A person with knowledge of the Magna operation who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the new web service at callabetonline.com was linked to the company's Pennsylvania telephone-betting operation, which Magna purchased last year from Ladbrokes. It is unclear if Magna intends to have the XpressBet site licensed in California.