09/14/2004 12:00AM

Tracks to cut Belmont signal

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A group of 19 Thoroughbred and harness racetracks in eight Eastern states was preparing on Tuesday night to shut off the simulcast signal from Belmont Park beginning as early as Wednesday because of a dispute over account-wagering rights.

The disagreement, according to representatives of both sides, revolves around the ability of some of the group's tracks to offer telephone wagering on Belmont. No negotiations are scheduled, the representatives said. The dispute centers on the simulcast signals from tracks operated by the New York Racing Association, including Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga

The 19 tracks planning to cut off the Belmont signal are members of the Mid-Atlantic Cooperative, which was formed in 1999 to leverage their combined strength and negotiate lower simulcast rates. The group has cut off simulcast signals during other disputes, including a decision in 2001 to drop the signal from Keeneland Racecourse after Keeneland reduced its takeout. Representatives of the group said that the lower takeout would reduce its member tracks' revenues.

The executive director of the cooperative, Martin Lieberman, who is also counsel for Daily Racing Form, said that an agreement recently reached between NYRA and Television Games Network would prevent the co-op's member tracks in New Hampshire and Virginia from taking account wagers on Belmont races. Also, he said that the agreement would prohibit tracks in Pennsylvania from broadcasting Belmont's races on cable systems and that the cooperative decided to stand on principle.

"These are rights we had for five years, and NYRA said we can't have them any more," Lieberman said.

Bill Nader, the executive vice president of NYRA, acknowledged that TVG's new contract would restrict account wagering in New Hampshire and Virginia for TVG customers. But Nader said that those states either did not belong to the cooperative last year or did not have account wagering at the time of the previous contract.

TVG, a racing television and betting company, reached an agreement with NYRA at the beginning of September that renewed a deal giving TVG exclusive rights to broadcast NYRA's races in homes outside of New York. The deal included a large cash payment to NYRA that the association used to help replenish its horsemen's purse account. NYRA had borrowed money against the account in the past, drawing the scrutiny of horsemen and state and federal regulators.

TVG's general counsel, John Hindman, blamed the Mid-Atlantic tracks for overreacting to the new restrictions.

"Racing fans should know that there is nothing about our relationship with NYRA that prevents their local track from taking the NYRA simulcast signal," Hindman said. "Unfortunately, the Mid-Atlantic co-op has chosen to link the intertrack signal to our rights to televise NYRA's races to the detriment of their own customers."

Tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region and especially those in Pennsylvania have frequently expressed concerns that their own account-wagering businesses could by hurt by TVG's efforts to expand.

Both sides said that the tracks in Pennsylvania and New Jersey would be able to continue to offer betting on the Belmont signal to account-wagering customers regardless of the new TVG deal. Lieberman said that those tracks, however, would not be able to show live races from Belmont on their cable systems. Officials for TVG said that Pennsylvania tracks were welcome to negotiate with TVG for a license to the Belmont broadcast rights.

The Thoroughbred tracks that were expected to shut off Belmont's signal by Wednesday were Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park in Maryland; Philadelphia Park and Penn National Race Course in Pennsylvania; Charles Town in West Virginia; Delaware Park in Delaware; and the Meadowlands and Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire were expected to shut off the signal after Sunday. Harness tracks in the affected states also planned to shut off Belmont.