09/04/2001 11:00PM

Parting with TRN such sad sorrow


WASHINGTON - My life, as I have known it, is over. The rest of it probably won't be worth living.

I refer, of course, to the demise of The Racing Network, which brought horse racing telecasts into the home. I could spend an afternoon at my desk and watch the complete cards from Pimlico, Delaware, Monmouth, and Philadelphia Park, among many other tracks, and phone my wagers into a telephone-betting account. TRN's six channels offered virtually nonstop action, day and night, from Thoroughbred, harness, and greyhound tracks across the country.

I was one of thousands of horseplayers whose daily routine was changed by TRN. If I wanted to play the horses seriously, my presence at Laurel Park was optional, not mandatory. I was spared two trips a day on the Capital Beltway. The concept of bringing the product to the consumer was so logical, so powerful that many people assumed that in-home betting would be the future of horse racing - and its salvation.

But instead of transforming the sport, The Racing Network attracted too few subscribers and lost so much money that its backers had to pull the plug. The other purveyor of live race telecasts, the TVG Network, survives but has bled red ink even more copiously than its erstwhile competitor.

TVG was the firstborn of the racing channels, backed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association as well as corporate heavyweights who salivated over the potential of interactive wagering via the television screen. TVG sought to appeal to a broad audience by emphasizing the chatter of its on-air personalities as much as the races and odds. Most serious horseplayers hate the TVG format, as well as the limitations of its product; with a single channel, it shows only about six races an hour.

Aimed at the hard-core audience that TVG shunned, TRN was backed by a partnership of operations with telephone-betting services: Greenwood Racing, parent company of Philadelphia Park; Ladbroke at The Meadows, a Pennsylvania harness track; and The Ontario Jockey Club. European investors also had a piece of the action.

Subscribers had to buy a satellite dish, and then pay about $30 a month to receive either a direct feed from TRN or get it via the Dish Network.

TRN's presentation had its flaws - some of the on-air hosts made viewers reach automatically for the mute button - but it gave customers what they wanted: odds, exacta prices, post parades, live race coverage, and results from a large number of tracks. Even though the rationale behind TRN was to promote phone betting, the network was squeamish about doing so on the air. "In retrospect," said Bob Green, chairman of Greenwood Racing, "we may have been a bit lily-livered." Viewers were never urged to open an account with Philadelphia Park or Ladbroke, and many customers watched TRN while betting through offshore services. So the backers of the network never got a proper payoff in their wagering businesses.

They didn't get it from subscriptions, either. Although market research had indicated that TRN could attract 60,000-100,000 customers, the network had only about 12,000 when it died. These were mostly high-end gamblers, trainers, and owners who would have been willing to pay considerably more than $30 a month for such an important service. TRN misestimated its audience and underpriced its product.

TRN was further hurt when the Dish Network took the TVG signal and incorporated it into its main programming. TRN was stuck on a secondary channel requiring customers to have a second dish.

Eventually, the partners got tired of absorbing the losses from TRN and, one by one, pulled out. They might have been second-guessed for some miscalculations, but the fact that TRN could attract so few subscribers is ominous for the sport. Maury Wolff, the economist, gambler, and TRN customer, observed, "If you can't get people to watch the races in their own homes, you have to wonder about the long-term viability of the product. What happened to TRN tells you how few shoulders this business is being propped up on."

These important, disenfranchised customers now have a choice to make. They might watch TVG, or they might follow the races on the Internet - say, with YouBet.com. But the alternatives have serious drawbacks. TVG offers so few races that a gambler can't see Delaware, Philadelphia, or Monmouth or any of the smaller tracks that were part of the TRN menu. The Internet still can't offer picture quality good enough for a serious handicapper to follow the action. Despite these drawbacks, I would bet that very few of the former TRN players are going to resume daily attendance at their local track after enjoying the convenience of betting at home.

Executives of smaller and mid-level tracks have good reason to worry that their business is going to drop now that their races are no longer available on home TV. They surely hope that someone will fill the void and create a new racing channel - perhaps Frank Stronach, who now has no TV outlet for his major tracks, Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita.

But the economic worries of the racetracks are no less severe than the anguish of TRN's customers. What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?

(c) 2001 The Washington Post Company