01/01/2004 12:00AM

Signal's gone? Get used to it

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NEW YORK - The start of the Florida winter racing season, which since the demise of Hialeah has meant opening day at Gulfstream Park, is as joyous an occasion in the church of horseplaying as any of the traditional religious holidays that precede it. Especially for Easterners like this one, who give themselves a December freshening after Churchill closes and Aqueduct's action moves to the inner track, the Gulfstream opener is a time to start playing seriously again and to pay attention to racing that means something beyond the posted prices.

Early indications are that this could be a strong meet on both counts. The completion of the Palm Meadows training facility means that more horses than ever before should be available to provide full fields, and the place is packed with promising new 3-year-olds. After a disastrous first season operating Gulfstream in 2002 and a mild improvement last year, Magna Entertainment seems poised to put on its best show yet.

For a small but vocal group of horseplayers, though, Magna is beginning 2004 as Betting Public Enemy No. 1 because of its decision to turn off access to its betting pools through some account-wagering companies and to end free Internet access to its video signal to those without a Magna Xpressbet account. The issue has sparked angry discussion on Internet forums and some of the dissatisfied are advocating boycotts and vowing to withhold their bankrolls from Magna pools.

While Magna's decision may be frustrating, the strategy was inevitable and is understandable.

Someone was going to fire this first shot sooner rather than later, and 2004 may be the year that American racetracks try to put the account-wagering genie back into the bottle. When Magna and Churchill Downs Inc. began accumulating racetracks in the last few years, their primary strategy may well have been simply to buy licenses for future slot-machine venues. Whatever pure racing opportunities they saw in the deals involved amassing content, branding it, and expanding sales through their own wagering networks that would go directly into people's homes.

They moved slowly, though, and allowed dozens of account-wagering startups to break ground for them, creating an entrepreneurial landscape where horseplayers could sign up with dot-coms and enjoy betting and streaming video over the Internet. Horseplayers stayed in their bathrobes and turned their dens and living rooms into Vegas racebooks, playing Santa Anita and Gulfstream from home. By the time Magna got Xpressbet up and running, customers saw no compelling reason to open another account.

While account-wagering access increased overall handle somewhat, Magna would have had to create six new customers to compensate for every lost live participant or potential Xpressbet user. If you're getting a 20 percent commission from your own customers and a 3 percent fee from people who bet your races through affiliates, it's not a complicated business decision to try to reclaim those customers as your own.

Get used to it. We're going to see lots of tracks trying to raise their simulcast fees and restrict access to their pools and signals. The tracks are understandably tired of getting a tiny share of the action while any entrepreneur with a website and software takes six times as much revenue. Of course, the tracks have no one to blame but themselves for selling their signals to these operators the last few years.

The short-term losers will of course be the players who will be inconvenienced. Offtrack bettors will have to become vigilant consumers, perhaps with multiple accounts, if they want to be sure of getting down on every race they might want to play. Eventually there probably needs to be a single, industry-owned national account-wagering system with access to everything and negotiated splits depending on the account-holder's residence. That's what TVG was supposed to be, but its exclusivity never took hold and it has often ended up being a free television signal that helps people bet through dot-coms and offshores.

Until a single, convenient system for betting from home emerges, operators such as Magna should be softening the blow with some old-fashioned customer service - apologizing for the inconvenience of its new business strategy and offering people incentives beyond being shut out to become Xpressbet customers. Instead, the Xpressbet website is a daunting maze that includes a list of dozens of confusing territorial restrictions, no rewards for shifting your business, and unfriendly policies such as holding personal checks for 14 days.

It's enough to make you get dressed and actually go to the track.