Updated on 09/17/2011 11:17PM

Online video: Racing's new era


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It was eight years ago that Youbet.com, the pioneer in online horse betting, brought racetracks' in-house television signals to the computer screen. The races were almost unwatchable because the pictures had the quality of a herky-jerky old-time movie. Often the transmission would halt abruptly in mid-race, and bettors would stare in frustration at a frozen picture of horses head-and-head in the stretch.

When viewers scoffed, Youbet.com officials said: Just wait; the necessary technology is coming. And, indeed, it has finally arrived.

With a high-speed Internet connection and up-to-date equipment, fans can see sharp, clear video coverage of races on their computers. Numerous companies, such as Youbet, XpressBet, Brisnet, Winticket, etc. offer video along with online wagering. It is a truly revolutionary development, one that has serious implications for operators of the nation's Thoroughbred tracks - even if they don't realize it yet.

Two advances have made these sharp pictures possible, said Joe Hasson, vice president of mobile products at Youbet.com: "Part of the reason is the quality of the networks that consumers have access to - DSL and wireless. The other is a piece of software called a codec, which compresses the video; it takes a big file and makes it smaller."

The technology still isn't good enough to create a sharp image on a full computer screen - smaller pictures are sharp but they blur when enlarged - though Hasson promised that weakness will be resolved. "We're still in the infancy of this revolution that I call 'personalized TV,'" he said.

Good-quality video removes the last practical reason for a bettor to be physically present at a racetrack. For years horseplayers have been able to place bets legally through telephone and online wagering services. They have also been able to watch some races on home television through networks devoted to the sport, TVG and Horse Racing TV. But these signals are available in most places only by satellite and each covers a limited number of tracks. With a computer, a horseplayer can watch almost any race regardless of where he is.

The profundity of this change dawned on me over the holidays, when my wife and I took a week's vacation to a beach on the west coast of Florida, a location well removed from any Thoroughbred track. This is the time of year when I am always preparing intensely for the upcoming season at Gulfstream Park, watching and making notes on all the races at Calder. In past years I would have been distraught at being out of touch with the sport. But on this trip I carried a new, 2 1/2-pound notebook computer (presumably one with an advanced codec), and I was able to see - clearly - every race and replay I wanted.

If horseplayers don't need racetracks in order to bet or watch races, tracks had better offer some special comforts, ambience, or sociability to attract fans. Lovers of the game will still go to Saratoga or Del Mar, because they have such vitality and distinctive atmospheres. But there is little incentive for a customer to travel to a charmless place such as Laurel Park or a decrepit one such as Pimlico. Such tracks had better find a way to entice customers in the computer age. The most important facility that modern racetracks can offer is a suitable place to watch simulcast races. Some tracks have attempted to replicate the glitzy facilities found in Las Vegas casinos, but even the best simulcasting facilities don't give customers what a computer can.

Officials of Magna Entertainment Corp. are proud of the two simulcast facilities that opened at Gulfstream Park this winter. When a player sits at his personal TV (for a daily charge of $10), he can switch channels to whichever track he wants and can call up a menu for placing his wagers. But the utility of this setup pales in comparison to a personal computer. An online bettor can not only watch the races and wager on them, he also has access to a vast amount of handicapping data. He can watch the replay of any horse's previous races, on Youbet.com, Racereplays.com or other services. If he uses the Daily Racing Form's Formulator software, he has the equivalent of a library of past performances at his fingertips. And he doesn't have to pay $10 to sit in front of a screen. In order to compete, racetracks had better come up with some gee-whiz technology for their simulcast rooms instead of merely plunking their customers in front of a television set.

If racetracks have not responded to this challenge, it is partly because their grandstands are still populated by an aging clientele that is not computer-savvy and has grown up with the habit of going to a track to bet horses. But if American racing is going to attract new fans, they will be members a generation accustomed to shopping, banking, investing, and playing poker online. As the quality of streaming video has improved, making horse racing a viable game for the computer, Hasson said, "The fastest growing segment of our business is 21- to 28-year-olds, the younger generation that has adopted technology."

Of course, older fans can embrace new technology, too. Those of us who can remember traveling for hours to place a bet and watch a race can fully appreciate the convenience of the sport's new era.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post