05/10/2004 12:00AM

Preakness restriction spurs battle for bets


Account wagering on Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course will be limited to XpressBet, the company run by Pimlico's majority owner, Magna Entertainment Corp.

The limitation is a result of Magna's decision late last year to pull its signals from all competing account-wagering services. That decision has angered many horse racing fans and spurred Magna's competitors to offer promotions that are designed to undermine betting on the company's signals.

The Magna blackout has already caused hard feelings on both sides of the conflict, and the restriction on the Preakness Stakes has resulted in competing account-wagering companies trying to draw betting away from the Preakness, one of the largest events in racing.

All this week and through Sunday, Youbet.com, the biggest account-wagering company in the U.S. by handle, is offering its customers a 10 percent bonus on certain wagers made on the tracks it carries, a slate that does not include Pimlico. Youbet is also offering a $25,000 cash giveaway based on wagers made on tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc.

At AmericaTab, a collection of account-wagering websites run by Beulah Park, company officials said on Monday that they are designing promotions for Saturday that are intended to offer customers incentives to bet the tracks available through AmericaTab rather than open an account through XpressBet. AmericaTab's principal owner, Charlie Ruma, has been one of Magna's most vocal critics since the blackout began.

According to Michael Weiss, the general manager of Beulah Park, AmericaTab officials asked Magna several weeks ago if it could carry the Preakness card, but the negotiations were not successful.

"They told us they would prefer to keep the Preakness to themselves," Weiss said.

XpressBet officials did not return phone calls on Monday.

Last year, bettors were able to wager on the three races of the Triple Crown through all of the major account-wagering companies. Although Television Games Network had been the exclusive online provider for the tracks that card Triple Crown races, the company reached agreements with both AmericaTab and Youbet.com to offer wagering on its exclusive tracks several years ago. XpressBet and TVG have failed to reach a similar agreement.

The Preakness Stakes is Pimlico's biggest betting day by far. Last year, betting on the Preakness was $39.9 million, and betting on the entire 13-race card at Pimlico was $59.4 million. Magna bought Pimlico and its sister track, Laurel Park, in 2002, and pulled the tracks from TVG earlier this year.

TVG broadcast the entire Pimlico card live last year, with the exception of the Preakness. TVG is available to 13.7 million households through the DirecTV and Dish satellite networks and a smattering of cable systems, including one in Maryland.

Tony Allevato, TVG's executive producer, said that while the network cannot offer Pimlico's races to its customers, it plans to offer updates of the Preakness field during its broadcasts on Saturday, and provide replays of the race after it is over.

"We still have a lot of good racing that day, so it will be business as usual for us," Allevato said. "But we're going to treat the Preakness as a news event, because it's important to keep our fans informed about what is going on with Smarty Jones and the second leg of the Triple Crown."

Magna's television channel, HorseRacing TV, reaches approximately 1.4 million households, according to the network. The majority of those households are in Pennsylvania, where HRTV is distributed over a public-access channel.