06/17/2009 11:00PM

Players punished in NYRA-Nassau OTB spat


NEW YORK - At 11:30 Thursday morning, Long Island horseplayers accustomed to watching the previous day's Belmont Park replays on Cablevision's Channel 74 instead were being shown the daily-double probables from Churchill Downs. Every combination was paying $9,999, because there was no money in the pool yet.

At noon, when Belmont's pre-race analysis show "Talkin' Horses" usually airs, there instead were more mostly-empty pools from Belmont and Churchill. An hour later, when the races began, there were still no pictures or sound from Belmont, just rotating slates and some background racecalls from other eastern tracks starting their cards.

This has been going on since June 3, three days before the Belmont Stakes, when the New York Racing Association pulled its signal from Nassau OTB, one of the state's six regional OTB corporations, in retaliation for some unauthorized video-streaming on Nassau OTB's website earlier this year.

This current dispute between NYRA and Nassau OTB is especially infantile in its particulars. More broadly, though, it reflects both decades of dysfunctionality in New York racing and the industry's nationwide failure to make in-home betting an engine for growth instead of yet another bungled opportunity.

NYRA pulled its signal because Nassau OTB was showing the live video stream of its signal on its website from Jan. 29 through April 15. This sounds like a good thing, but it's currently illegal without NYRA's consent, which NYRA understandably withholds because the OTBs don't allow NYRA to stream its own signal on its own website. No, I'm not making this up.

You would think it would make more sense for NYRA and all the OTBs to stream the races on their websites, exposing the races to the widest possible audience, but that would be far too simple and logical. Instead, everyone vetoes everyone else. Welcome to the Empire State.

When NYRA asked Nassau to stop the unauthorized streaming, Nassau did so in April, forwarding a letter from Scientific Games, its video provider, saying that it had been inadvertently streaming the signal. NYRA officials disputed Nassau's claim that it was unaware of what Scientific Games was doing, saying they had made cold calls to Nassau OTB customer service, asking anonymously if they could watch the races on Nassau's website, and were told they could.

So NYRA asked Nassau OTB for a letter of apology taking blame for the streaming, and Nassau has refused to write such a letter. On June 3, NYRA pulled the plug. That's all it boils down to: Nassau OTB won't say it's sorry in an acceptable way, so no in-home racing from Belmont.

This is what's known as cutting off your nose to spite your face: Both entities will lose handle, and customers will be driven away from New York racing or from playing the game altogether. No one at NYRA or Nassau OTB will lose his job, so the fans are the only people being punished, though eventually the state and horsemen will see less money.

Reasonable business people would have found a middleground by now, or a meaningful regulatory body would have forced a compromise, keeping the signal on air until the children were compelled to play nicely. Instead, both sides have hardened their positions, and last week Nassau OTB filed a lawsuit seeking $15 million in damages.

What's a horseplayer to do? The short-term remedies are all unsatisfactory. If you're a Cablevision customer, you can get TVG for an extra $4.95 a month, but its coverage of New York racing is a far cry from a dedicated NYRA simulcast feed. If you want to get HRTV, you have to change over to satellite television or a new cable provider. You could open a new betting account with one of several national companies, but this doesn't work for New Yorkers who bet through either NYRA or an OTB so they can use the same account on trips to the track or teletheatre.

In that respect, the local situation mirrors the national one. Players have to navigate a bewildering array of accounts and telecommunications services just to see and bet on all the different races they might want to play. As badly as New York needs to consolidate its seven ontrack and offtrack entities into a single television, Internet, and wagering service, racing nationally needs to do something similar.

Racing was at its peak of popularity in the last century when it had a virtual monopoly on legal gambling. It lost that with the growth of casinos and lotteries but could have just as powerful an exclusive now with its charmed (and perhaps short-lived) status as the only legal form of online gambling. Instead of embracing that opportunity though, both locally and nationally, racing seems instead to be doing all it can to alienate existing customers and discourage new ones.