12/23/2001 12:00AM

Phone bets face delays

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With a meet stretching into the middle of April, Santa Anita Park will likely be the first track in California to benefit from legal account wagering in the state. But as of Santa Anita's opening, the telephone-wagering situation in California is as muddled as it was six weeks ago, with uncertainty reigning over an industry that is anxiously awaiting the technology's arrival.

The California Horse Racing Board will likely approve a set of rules to regulate telephone wagering at its Jan. 24 meeting. Although that will make telephone betting technically legal, it is doubtful account-wagering companies will begin taking wagers over the phone and Internet immediately, racing officials said.

"This is uncharted territory," said Donald Valpredo, a horse owner and breeder who is a board member of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "We want to do this in the best possible format, because it's going to be very hard to go back and redo it. And since we have to look at it in the big picture, I'm thinking this is going to take longer than Jan. 24."

Most racing officials in the state agree with Valpredo, and say that the earliest account wagers will be accepted in the state is late February. Others contend that March is more realistic.

Two approvals will be critical. First, account-wagering companies will have to be licensed by the state. Second, the companies will need approval from the TOC in order to legally accept wagers on California races.

Already, a number of issues have been brought up by both regulators and horsemen that could threaten those immediate approvals.

On Dec. 16, for example, the TOC said in an open letter and advertisement that telephone wagering companies should cooperate on a betting hub so that fans can bet on California races year-round through one account. The TOC also hinted in the letter that it would use its right to approve or withhold the racing signal as a means of forcing compliance with its concerns.

The one-account issue has become one of the most heated in the state. As it stands now, fans will have to open at least two accounts in order to bet on races from major California racetracks year-round. That is because Magna Entertainment, which owns Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate Fields, has been unable to reach an agreement with Television Games Network, the interactive horse race wagering and broadcast company that has exclusive rights to Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Oak Tree at Santa Anita.

An agreement between the two companies is at this point extremely unlikely. Magna officials have continually stated that they will not sign exclusive contracts, which TVG seeks from the majority of its partners.

As of Dec. 22, only Magna and Youbet.com had filed a license application with the CHRB, although TVG officials have said that they intend to file an application by the first of the year.

Mike Marten, a spokesman for the board, said Friday that the companies that had already filed will have their license reviews completed by the Jan. 24 meeting. That does not guarantee, however, that commissioner will be ready to approve any licenses.