02/01/2002 1:00AM

New TV racing channel available - at a price


Magna Entertainment and two business partners announced Friday that they have launched a stripped-down and more expensive version of the Racing Network, the defunct satellite-based television service.

The service, called the Racetrack Television Network, will broadcast eight channels of live racing for $99 a month, RTN officials said. Subscribers also will need a special satellite dish and decoder to receive the service. The equipment costs $320, not including shipping, handling, and installation.

The launch, which had been widely expected, comes a week after Magna began taking wagers in California over its new XpressBet account-wagering service. Magna, the owner of Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate Fields, and other tracks, was licensed in California to take account bets after telling regulators it had plans to broadcast its races on television.

Magna's partners include Greenwood Racing, the owner of Philadelphia Park, and Roberts Communications Network, which provides simulcast services to racetracks. Greenwood was a previous partner in The Racing Network.

The service will be a bare-bones broadcast designed to appeal to existing horseplayers, horse owners, and trainers, network officials said Friday. The defunct Racing Network had a similar approach, although that service used studio hosts to guide players to upcoming races and relay updates.

"This is back to basics," said Tod Roberts, president of Roberts Communications. "We believe the player wants to see feeds and tote information, not talking heads. This is not a product geared to mass distribution. It's a specialty niche product. We're not going to have mass appeal because racing does not have mass appeal."

The Racing Network failed last year when the service was unable to attract enough subscribers. At the time of its collapse, the network had 10,000 customers at most, paying $25 a month in subscription fees.

The network's main competitor is Television Games Network, which is available as part of the basic programming on cable systems in Kentucky, Maryland, and California, as well as over the Dish network. TVG has signed many of the most popular racetracks in the country to exclusive contracts, shutting out competitors such as The Racing Network. TVG, which is designed to appeal to novice racing fans and general audiences, was licensed in January to take account wagers in California as well.

Of the eight channels on Magna's network, two will show races from Magna's 10 tracks, two will show races provided by Philadelphia Park, and the other four will be direct simulcast feeds from selected tracks.

Although Magna and Philadelphia both take telephone and internet bets, the new racing network will not be directly linked to account wagering.

The launch coincided with a decision by Philadelphia to cut off its customers in California. Hal Handel, Philadelphia's chief executive officer, said the track made the decision to close its California accounts after the CHRB licensed TVG and XpressBet at its Jan. 24 meeting.

"We were unsure when California was going to adopt its regulatory scheme and start licensing people, and once they did, we advised our California customers that we would no longer be able to take bets," Handel said.

Handel said that the decision was unrelated to the partnership between Magna and Greenwood. He also said that Phonebet, one of the largest and most successful account-wagering operations in the country, had no plans to apply for a license in California.

"It's a business decision," Handel said. "The competition looks pretty fierce. It would be a tough spot for us to do well in, and I think we'll let Magna and TVG go at it."