12/30/2004 12:00AM

Watching a pro play horses from home

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Benoit & Associates
Fusaichi Samurai rolls to victory, a triumph, too, for one play-at-home horseplayer who had offered above track odds on three longshots in the field.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It is a peaceful autumn Saturday in a sleepy Southern California neighborhood that hums with familiar sounds - a lawnmower, someone washing a car, children laughing and playing outdoors.

It could be Any Town, U.S.A. - miles from a racetrack or offtrack betting facility. The weather is mild, and the windows are open, nothing unusual. But as one resident greets a guest at the front door of his spacious home, the action inside is about to heat up.

First post is approaching at Hollywood Park and the resident's housekeeper checks for any last-minute tasks. There are none. The richly decorated home is clean and discreet.

The resident settles in for an afternoon of wagering.

It's his job.

The home would be easy to overlook. In a figurative sense, perhaps the racing industry has done just that - allow an important constituency to slip away. Although the drive from this home to Hollywood Park is not far, there is no reason to do it. From a pure economic sense, the at-home horseplayer is better off staying put.

A bedroom has been converted into a betting office, with a window facing north into the front-yard landscape.

From inside this home, about $500,000 was wagered through the parimutuels in 2004. Millions more were risked through betting exchanges. Drive to the track? No, everything the bettor needs is here at home.

This is a one-day profile of one modern-day professional horseplayer. The bettor, who asked to be unidentified, has Internet access to real-time odds, accounts at betting exchanges and rebate shops, live races on HRTV and TVG, and a high-speed printer that spits out Daily Racing Form past performances and workout reports from local clockers.

It's an at-home racebook with all the necessary tools. A wide-screen television is in the corner at a 45-degree angle for easy viewing. A small laptop in front of the wide screen is logged onto BrisBet.com and provides constant odds updates.

The bettor's work station includes separate monitors that display odds at betting exchanges eHorse, ibetx, and Tradebetx. Much of the bettor's attention is devoted to the exchanges, where he typically "books" action on 12 to 15 races per day - effectively betting against horses by offering other players higher-than-post-time odds.

It is Dec. 11, and the horseplayer "hates" the favorite in the first race at Hollywood Park - Right Direction at 3-2. With a few strokes of the keyboard, he swings into action. On the betting exchanges, he stakes his negative opinion by offering 2-1 to other exchange bettors who like the favorite.

Betting exchanges are not legal in the U.S., but they exist and their popularity grows. Exchanges eventually may be sanctioned, but for now, the at-home bettor is more concerned with Right Direction losing the opener. It would mean a small profit of $364; he would lose $728 if Right Direction wins.

The at-home bettor is doing a favor for other bettors. An ontrack horseplayer gets 3-2 on Right Direction through the parimutuels; an exchange bettor can get the horse at 2-1. Right Direction sets the pace, tires in deep stretch, and finishes second. The bettor shrugs at his profit and admits, "I could have been wrong."

Most of the player's betting-exchange action is offering higher-than-track odds for horses he does not like. Through mid-December, he had won 1,584 races and lost 200. In race 4 at Hollywood, the bettor was confident. On the exchanges, he offered 40-1 on three horses whose ontrack odds were half that - Bull Ranch and Nodoubletouch, who started at 17-1, and Newton John at 18-1.

Other exchange bettors quickly snatched the 40-1, and by post time the bettor's potential loss was $9,290. The outcome was never in doubt. In the six-horse field, the three horses the bettor did not like finished fourth, fifth, and sixth. His profit was a modest $731, and as Fusaichi Samurai coasted to the wire, the bettor squirmed in his office chair that rolls back and forth between monitors. "That," he said smiling, "is a very good horse."

Betting exchanges effectively lower the takeout rate by charging a small percentage fee for handling the transaction. It's like Ebay for bettors. And exchanges allow bettors to lock in a price - wager at fixed odds. It is often less frustrating than parimutuel wagering, in which 5-2 shots sometimes drop to 8-5 during the race. The at-home bettor said the dozen or so races that he books each day are ones "I would not bet otherwise."

Opposite the grind-it-out style of booking bets through exchanges, the at-home bettor frequently swings for the proverbial home run. A pick six carryover of $300,358 was up for grabs Dec. 11 at Hollywood. The bettor had done most of his handicapping the night before, leaving race day for wagering decisions. About 10 minutes before the first leg of the sequence, the bettor picked up his phone to place his pick six bets.

It was an interesting contradiction. On the exchange, he was willing to risk nearly $10,000 in order to win less than $1,000. Now he was phoning in pick six wagers totaling $1,156 while trying to win a bet that could return $100,000 or more.

The phone call went to a well-known offshore firm that provides rebates to its biggest customers. The bettor was lowering his cost of doing business. Rebate shops return a percentage of handle to the individual bettor. The at-home bettor averages $2,500 in daily handle through the rebate shop, which qualifies him for a 7.8 percent rebate on straight bets, and an 11.8 percent rebate on exotic wagers.

Factoring in the rebate, the $1,156 in pick-six wagers cost just $1,020 (the $136 discount represents the 11.8 percent rebate). Rebates add up. The bettor's 2004 handle, mostly on exotic wagers, generated rebates that exceeded $50,000. It is why many big bettors wager offshore instead of ontrack.

The bettor did not win the pick six that day. His handicapping opinions were based on two turf races in the middle of the sequence, but Hollywood Park's tardy reaction to a problem with its course led to both turf races being switched to the main track, a decision that was not made until after the first leg of the pick six. The key horse in the bettor's pick six was a turf horse that scratched when the surface was switched. There are a lot of ways to lose.

And there are a lot of ways to play the game. For this at-home professional gambler, it is all done away from the California tracks on which he wagers during a Wednesday-through-Sunday work week. Monday and Tuesday are for "normal" diversions such as errands and entertainment.

While technological advancements provide the at-home bettor with innovative ways to play, he is no Johnny-come-lately. He is in his mid-50's, and has been handicapping and betting for most of his adult life.

He works at home, but does not have a "real" job. He is a conventional man with an unconventional occupation - professional horseplayer.