07/31/2001 11:00PM

Racing Network an idea ahead of its time


PHILADELPHIA - A noble experiment died Monday. The Racing Network, without warning, ceased operation.

Serious horse players around the country were disenfranchised. Handle will be affected, especially at some smaller tracks that can least afford the hit.

I know dozens of players who had the satellite-based system in their homes and bet through phone accounts. By definition, these are high-rolling players. Having access to signals from so many tracks increased their knowledge and their betting. They searched for situations. They didn't care if opportunity knocked at Great Lakes Downs or Evangeline Downs.

TRN, like any start-up company, made mistakes. Its biggest mistake came at the very beginning. It asked its customers to pay several hundred dollars for a satellite dish. This, it turned out, was not sound business practice. In many ways, the business never recovered.

TRN executives said they needed 65,000 subscribers to break even. Word out of Philadelphia Park, where TRN is based, was that it never got beyond 10,000.

A few months after the start, TRN began giving away dishes. By then, it was too late.

TRN should just have given the dishes away at the start in exchange for subscribers agreeing to sign up for the service for a year. It was done that way later. The network could have made a big initial splash by giving away satellite dishes. Who could have resisted?

It also turned out the network was charging too little for the service, $30 per month. I know five players who said they would have paid $100. It was, they all said, just a cost of doing business.

In the end, TRN officials never even contacted their customers to see if a price increase would have been palatable. By the time that was considered, Philadelphia Park's partners had already pulled their funding, and there was simply no way the enterprise could continue.

So, on Monday, all of TRN's announcers and technical personnel were let go. Philadelphia Park is left with a state-of-the-art television studio where the press box used to be and tons of red ink.

Players without access to regional cable shows like Philadelphia Park's Racing Channel and Penn National's Racing Alive are left with TVG. There is no one-stop shopping anymore.

Big bettors do not care about frills. In fact, they are distracting.

"I finally turned the sound up Monday,'' said one big player when TRN sent out some signals without announcers.

By Tuesday night, all the signals were gone. A few players wondered why TRN could not just continue to send out the signals with no announcers. The problem is satellite time. It is very expensive, and when you are trying to do all the tracks TRN was doing, it becomes very, very expensive. It was also expensive for TRN to maintain a spot on The Dish Network.

One player in Las Vegas had The Dish Network and a TRN dish. He was about to order a second TRN dish. Why?

So he could have all three TV's going at once and "not have to change the channel.''

TRN was a terrific service for horsemen around America. Owners and trainers could sit at home and watch their horses race without having to drive hundreds of miles. Now, that luxury is gone, too.

It certainly never helped TRN that because of TVG's exclusivity agreements, it could not show the races from any of the New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs-owned tracks or several other important tracks from around the country.

TRN was the future. Turned out that neither the company nor the sport was quite ready yet. The players were ready. They remain ready.