10/10/2002 11:00PM

Video streams the next wave


NEW YORK - If you're a horseplayer and you have been putting off getting a high-speed Internet connection, delay no longer. The last few weeks have seen a flowering of online offerings designed not only to let handicappers play the daily fare from home but also to review and study all the key races leading to the Breeders' Cup Oct. 26.

Thanks to www.keeneland.com, I was able to "attend" opening day of the fall meeting without getting within 1,000 miles of a burgoo stand. Keeneland, as part of its transformation from a forbidding and stuffy anachronism into a progressive and customer-friendly operation, has taken the lead on the Internet with live streaming video of its entire meeting and a race-replay archive. It's all fast and free, and while the picture taking up a quarter of your monitor screen is a tad small, it's crisp enough to see every bad ride and rough trip.

At www.nyra.com, live races can be seen only on a 10-minute delay, but there's an invaluable replay archive of the entire Saratoga and Belmont fall meetings that is accessible for the price of your email address. The service is provided through www.racereplays.com, which will try to sell you unlimited replay-viewing from a dozen tracks for a reasonable $9.95 a month, but for now access to the NYRA races is free.

At www.ntra.com, the lamentably discontinued Breeders' Cup prep DVD of years past has found a second life as a free service. Ten relevant preps for each of the eight Cup races can be downloaded to your hard drive for repeated viewing and, if you were so inclined, you could burn your own DVD. These downloads are especially valuable for the foreign preps, such as Rock of Gibraltar's Sussex Stakes, which can be inscrutable from a single viewing on television but begin to make sense with repeated watching.

With little promotional fanfare and two weeks until post time, these downloads have already attracted 5,000 visitors, according to the NTRA, which hopes to draw another 70,000 viewers in the days leading to the Cup.

In conjunction with a set of Breeders' Cup pre-entry past performances (available Wednesday morning at www.drf.com), these various archived replays will allow players to take their game to a new level of sophisticated preparation. It's a whole new world from the one of just a decade ago, when having seen even a few of the preps once in person gave you an edge on the crowd.

This explosion of access to both live and archived racing coverage raises some interesting questions about bringing racing into the home.

The industry has spent much of the last decade focused on increasing cable-television access and exposure, and tracks were at one time willing to sign over exclusive access to their signals to companies trying to secure a spot on individual local cable lineups. It has been a bumpy process. Regulatory and jurisdictional issues have slowed growth, and competition between both racetrack and media owners has fragmented access and the marketplace.

Broadcast television will of course continue to be a key part of the recruitment of new customers. For presenting major events, and putting racing back onto the general public's radar, coverage on major network and cable channels has far greater reach than any website ever will. For servicing existing customers, though, the Internet may prove the best medium. Is it possible that the solution to the whole current in-home betting mess will be as simple as fans typing www.anytrackyouwant into their browsers?

It may depend on how quickly the technology advances. Obviously a four-inch square window of streaming video is a far cry from a full-screen digital cable picture, a picture that will only get better as high-definition television becomes a reality. It's a lot less clear whether Internet video will get to current television quality levels in more like 1 or 10 years. There's also debate about whether the future of home entertainment lies in a smarter television that behaves more like a computer, or in a friendlier computer with better live video.

Either way, it comes down to a convergence of the two that requires new thinking about the best way to bring racing to the public. However it shakes out, there's likely to be a future pricetag for the player through new equipment or access and subscription fees. For now, though, it's just a great time to be a horseplayer with a broadband Internet connection, studying the Sussex and playing the double at Keeneland without getting out of your bathrobe.