Updated on 09/17/2011 12:05PM

A warm welcome to worldwide wagering


WASHINGTON - I received an e-mail recently from a fellow horseplayer who informed me that he had uncovered a "stone cold cert" - British for "sure thing."

The wagering opportunity had arisen in a steeplechase at Kempton, England. Marble Arch was the most talented horse and the favorite in the four-horse field, but he had never competed in a steeplechase before. My informant told me that Marble Arch's sire had few offspring who were successful steeplechasers, and his dam had been a total failure over the big obstacles. Moreover, the Kempton course is an extremely difficult one that regularly foils inexperienced jumpers.

Of the other three entrants in the field, one was hopeless. The two remaining horses were Lirfox and Duke of Buckingham - an exacta box that was the stone cold cert. I couldn't resist. I bet the exacta with an on-line British wagering operation where I already had an account. Then I went to the Web site of the bookmaking company William Hill and listened to the live race call from Kempton. When I heard the announcer say that the rider had pulled up Marble Arch in mid-race, I had a winner - an exacta paying about 8-1. What a wonderful world we live in!

Until the 1990's, a horseplayer's universe consisted of the races run at his local track. Since the dawning of the age of simulcasting, a bettor can watch and wager on televised races from all parts of the country. But horse racing has now entered an era when wagers flow from one continent to another, and the industry is starting to exploit the possibilities. "We've pretty much saturated the domestic market," said New York Racing Assocation vice president Bill Nader, "and so we're all looking at selling our races into foreign markets."

Britons wager daily into the parimutuel pools at American tracks. French bettors sent more than $2 million into the pools of Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita. Nighttime customers at most U.S. tracks can watch and wager on Australian races. The possibilities for growth seem limitless, though international betting frequently collides with a barrier: international tax laws.

The relationship between the United States and Canada illustrates the problem. Canadian horseplayers would love to wager into the betting pools at U.S. tracks, and those tracks would love to accept their money. But the United States imposes a withholding tax on money foreign citizens earn in this country.

If, say, a Canadian earned money on a consulting job in the United States, the Internal Revenue Service would withhold 30 percent of that income. This same policy would be applied to every winning bet placed by a Canadian on a simulcast from an American track. If a horseplayer at Woodbine hit a $100 payoff on a race at Gulfstream Park, he would receive $70, with $30 withheld. As a result, Canadian tracks are forced to create their own betting pools for U.S. simulcasts. This withholding-tax policy doesn't apply in England or France, because of tax treaties with those countries. Unfettered by tax issues, an English company that calls itself attheraces has demonstrated the potential of international wagering.

Attheraces operates a round-the-clock television channel that goes into every British home with cable TV. It telecasts South African races in the morning and British races in the afternoon. Because there is little night racing in England, American races fit perfectly into the schedule. When Aqueduct's card begins at 12:30 p.m., it's 5:30 p.m. in London.

Attheraces commentators try to educate viewers about the American game, and those viewers can bet by computer, telephone, or the remote control of their television, with the money going into the parimutuel pools at the American tracks. Scott Finley, the North American development manager for attheraces, said the company will handle about $200 million on the U.S. sport in 2003.

Attheraces has been successful for at least two reasons. Action-hungry gamblers abhor a vacuum - I was thrilled to be able to bet on that Kempton race at 10:20 in the morning - and American races fill a void for English punters. Moreover, every gambler is excited by the opportunity to wager in giant betting pools; Brits don't get many opportunities at home that are comparable to playing a Hollywood Park pick six with a $1 million carryover.

American gamblers would surely love to bet into massive foreign pools as well, but tax laws get into the way. More than 300 simulcasting outlets in North America now offer racing from Australia; the product is an excellent one and it fits conveniently into the nighttime racing schedule. But the U.S. doesn't have a tax treaty with Australia that would allow betting into that country's pools, and so the American tracks must create their own pools, which aren't large enough to entice serious gamblers. If the tax policies were changed, bettors could wager into the Australian tracks' pools that offer the potential for mammoth payoffs. "That would be a godsend," said David Llewellyn, president of Wyvern International, the company that handles the Australian simulcasts.

Eventually, the barriers will be lowered and wagers will flow freely from country to country. And, eventually, Americans will have the chance to bet directly on irresistible exotic wagers, such as the quinte in France and the double trio in Hong Kong. What a wonderful world that will be!

(c) 2003, The Washington Post