12/06/2011 7:15PM

University of Arizona Symposium hears of online handicapping education

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The next generation of handicappers is not likely to hone its skills the old-fashioned way - at the racetrack - but will instead learn the intricacies of the game from a crop of new interactive and educational websites and Internet programs, officials of the sites said on Tuesday during a panel on the opening day of the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming.

The websites, which include Horseplayernow.com and Horseracingnation.com, have been launched in the last several years to mimic fan sites for other sports and hobbies, and they offer wide arrays of interactive options for Internet users. In large part, the sites intend to re-create the racetrack experience, in which fans share opinions about betting and horses freely, but with two critical distinctions -- they don't typically offer live betting, and the interaction is faceless, well away from a live track.

The Tuesday afternoon panel, called "Reaching and Teaching the Horseplayers of Tomorrow," was the most popular session on the Tuesday schedule of the symposium, largely because it addressed a critical issue facing racing. Over the past several years, handle on U.S. horse races has contracted 25 percent, with wagering this year on track to register the lowest total since 1995, and the industry is struggling to develop fans who are willing to risk their cash on a sport that is hovering on the precipice of irrelevance in a highly competitive market.

Panelists said that the key to reinvigorating the market is intense education, principally because gambling on horse racing remains one of the most complex and intimidating wagering prospects in a market saturated with get-rich-quick games that require little to no effort.

"People walk into a racetrack, they don't learn anything, and then they walk right back out," said Joe Kristufek, a public handicapper who is a host of the internet education project "Night School," which launched earlier this year. "We need to hold these people's hands. This is an intimidating game."

Supported financially by a number of racetracks (and Daily Racing Form), "Night School" is a 90-minute Internet product focusing each week on a handicapping topic. It includes guest panelists of handicappers and racing participants, including jockeys, and Internet participants of the program can interact with the hosts and panelists through live chat sessions.

Numbers for the show have been mixed. According to the producers, the shows have averaged 1,232 participants a week, not an especially large number considering the hundreds of thousands of followers a minor celebrity might have on Twitter. But Kristufek said that the show is largely succeeding in giving existing players a free opportunity to regularly sharpen their handicapping skills, in a way that capitalizes on the benefits provided by the Internet's built-in interactivity.

"This is a good target audience, because these are people who are interested in expanding their knowledge," Kristufek said.

Interestingly, demographic data collected by the program's producers appear to confirm that horse racing remain a game enjoyed by older people, despite the program's sole availability on the computer. Of the program's total viewers, 75 percent are 40 or older, according to the data, and of the so-called "newbies" who participate - people who are new to the game - 69 percent are 40 or over. The largest single age group in both categories was 40-49.

"This is not a bad thing," Kristufek said. "The people in the age group between 40 and 49 are the people that are going to bet."

Mark Midland, the chief executive and co-founder of Horseracingnation.com, said that racing needs to capitalize on the strategies employed by social-networking sites to create like-minded communities of people who will feed off and learn from other participants. His site attempts to do that in myriad ways, including no-cost handicapping contests and a reliance on user-generated content for pages about specific horses and ranking of horses in various categories. On the sites, participants can be a "fan" of specific horses or choose a limited number of horses as their "favorites" for specific rankings lists, while also clicking on their friends' rankings and picks for certain races.

"There's a lot of confidence-builders, a lot of safety in numbers," Midland said.

The panel also included a presentation from Christopher Torina, who created a business linking amateur poker players with professional poker players and other celebrities in online training tournaments and educational seminars, a venture he called "monetizing training and education." Torina said the business has been successful largely because casual fans derive satisfaction from interacting with the major players in the business, a satisfaction for which they are willing to pay.

But he said the lesson from his business for horse racing is that education only strengthens a fan's interest in the game, a bond that pays dividends down the line.

"If you have a well-educated customer, you have a customer for life," Torina said.