11/21/2001 1:00AM

Racing needs phone bets at all tracks in a single call

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WASHINGTON - If in-home betting offers hope for horse racing's salvation, there is one place where televised races and telephone wagering are almost certain to be a bonanza: California.

The state has an enormous base of horse bettors thwarted by geography. Hard-core fans in greater Los Angeles are deterred by traffic congestion from traveling cross-town to Santa Anita or Hollywood. Horseplayers elsewhere in California are served by a woefully inadequate number of off-track betting facilities.

So when the state legislature passed a bill allowing phone and Internet wagering as of Jan. 1, 2002, the change promised to generate billions of dollars in new revenue.

But it has also generated some consternation, for this is the way the system is likely to work: If a California horseplayer wants to bet the races from Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park in January, he might open a telephone-wagering account with Pennsylvania-based Call-A-Bet and deposit funds using a credit card. If he should want to bet on Aqueduct, he'll need an account with another company. If he wants to watch the races on TV, he'll probably be out of luck, but he could open an account with Youbet.com to see the live action via the Internet.

When the California racing action shifts from Santa Anita to Hollywood Park in April, the horseplayer will be able to see the races on home television over the TVG network. But to bet them, he'll have to open an account with TVG's Oregon-based phone-betting service.

This is not exactly a customer-friendly system, and the impending complexities in California mirror what already is happening in the rest of the country.

In an ideal world, a racing-industry consortium would have created and controlled a single system for televising races and handling bets. But this has always been a factious industry and the new technologies evolved in a haphazard way. Pennsylvania passed a law allowing its tracks to accept telephone bets from out of state, and these tracks became entrenched in the phone-betting business.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) put its weight behind the TVG network and its phone-betting operation, but the Pennsylvania tracks wouldn't disappear. Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment owns many important tracks, including Santa Anita and Gulfstream, opposed the TVG monopoly, too, and then bought Call-A-Bet. In a word, the business is fragmented.

As each betting operator tries to protect his own turf, the customer has been the loser. There was a time when a Call-A-Bet customer could bet any track he chose, but now he must wade through a thicket of restrictions. Call-A-Bet customers can't wager on Churchill Downs if they live in Kentucky, Oregon, Maryland, Indiana, or Louisiana. They can bet Aqueduct only if they live in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, or Delaware. They can bet on Keeneland when Call-A-Bet's management isn't mad at Keeneland.

Horseplayers live in constant fear that they will call in a wager on a hot horse one minute before post time and be told, "Sorry, we can't take that bet."

Youbet.com, the pioneer of online wagering, offers the closest thing to one-stop shopping in the betting marketplace, but Ron Luniewski, its chief operating officer, still frets about the impact of this complexity on racing's potential for growth.

"The serious horseplayer can figure all of this out," he said. "However, the upside for racing is to attract new fans, and if we're going to reach them, then TVG and Magna and the NTRA have got to come together. But that doesn't seem to be in the cards." Tom Meeker, the president of Churchill Downs, Inc., owner of Hollywood Park, fretted, "This is like a return to the cottage industry from whence we came. I'm very frustrated by all of this stuff."

Meeker believes that the key to the sport's future is getting races on cable TV, and only a unified industry is going to be able to deal with the heavyweights in the telecommunications business. "You can't play in a national marketplace with a parochial mentality," he said.

But parochial it is, and when telephone betting debuts in California, it will probably do so without TV coverage of Santa Anita and without a customer-friendly system that lets a horseplayer bet any track with a single account.

In California and elsewhere, the racing industry cannot afford to ignore the convenience of its customers because competitors are eager to accommodate them. Offshore horse- and sports-betting operations woo bettors with many incentives and try to avoid telling patrons, "We can't take that bet." It seems absurd that online bookmakers will happily take bets on whether Hillary Clinton will ever be elected president or whether it will snow in London on Christmas, while America's horse industry can't find a way to let a customer bet Santa Anita and Aqueduct with a single phone call.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post