Updated on 09/17/2011 8:39PM

Who will go off to see this wizard?


LAUREL, Md. - When Laurel Park reopens Saturday, it will unveil not only a new racing surface but a new wagering device. The Horse Wizard looks like a slot machine, sounds like a slot machine, and is aimed at customers who prefer the simplicity of slot-machine gambling to the complexity of Thoroughbred handicapping. It is the brainchild of Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment, Laurel's parent company, and it embodies Stronach's virtues as a racing executive as well as his flaws.

Stronach thinks big, and he is willing to put money behind the ideas he thinks are right for his tracks. He believes that a good racing surface is an essential part of the Thoroughbred product, and Magna has spent more than $20 million on the six-month project to rebuild the dirt and turf courses at Laurel. It is a smart move: the big turf course could revitalize racing at the track next summer.

Another of Stronach's convictions is that the sport must broaden its appeal and attract new fans with spiffy facilities and entertainment besides the races themselves. It was this idea that led Stronach to conceive the Horse Wizard. "He wanted a simplified wagering system to bring novices to the track," said Magna's Dan Logsdon, who developed the game.

Steven Boggs, who worked on the software for Amtote, said, "Frank told us: 'Here's how I want it to look. Here's how I want it to play.'"

When a prospective player enters the Horse Wizard lounge in the Laurel clubhouse, he will be able to buy a betting card at the front desk, take a seat in front of a machine and insert the card. The machine has a body like a slot machine (except with no arm to pull); the display shows the names of entrants in an upcoming race.

Bettors will have five wagering options: $2 to show, or across-the- board bets of $2, $5, $10 and $20 (totaling $6, $15, $30 and $60, respectively). Magna doesn't want to daunt newcomers with complexities like the exacta. And if a bettor finds the concept of choosing a number too daunting, he can let the machine make a pick for him. After placing his bet, he watches the telecast of the race on the Horse Wizard's screen. If he hits a winner - even a $2 show bet - lights start flashing and the machine emits a clanking noise like a real slot machine paying off a jackpot.

When I tested the Horse Wizard at Laurel recently, I watched a race at Aqueduct and, when it was finished, there were two minutes before post time for the next race at Pimlico. To my surprise, no Pimlico appeared on the Horse Wizard. Instead, the display showed information about the upcoming race, eight minutes away, at Flamboro Downs, a Canadian harness track. "You don't have to pick the race," Boggs said. "The operator picks it for you." He made it sound as if this was a virtue.

As I waited for the race at Flamboro, I asked myself the question that will surely occur to anyone else who observes the Horse Wizard: Who will possibly play this thing?

Certainly, no one with even a slight interest in racing will waste his time at a device that doesn't let him pick the race he wants to play and restricts him to betting win, place and show. But if a person likes slot machines, and thus likes to make a bet pulling a handle every few seconds, is he going to sit eight minutes waiting for the next race at Flamboro?

The Horse Wizard is an absurd innovation that will appeal to very few of Laurel's patrons. Yet Magna has spared no expense in the room that contains the 37 Horse Wizard machines; it has glitzy design touches everywhere, flat-panel TV's all around the room, a carousel of machines with a fiber-optic sculpture in the middle. "This is the nicest room built in Maryland for racing since Frank De Francis built the Sports Palace," said Jim Gagliano, Magna's executive vice president for Maryland racing operations.

Many horseplayers will feel a bit galled when they see this elegance. A short distance from the Horse Wizards is Sunny Jim's, the glitzless facility in the Laurel clubhouse where bettors watch simulcasts. Players don't have their own televisions; they sit at desks in front of a wall of TVs and they may not get a good look at the signals they want to follow. They don't have personal betting machines; in order to wager, they have to walk to the windows or the self-service terminals. Why do the track's core customers get second-class facilities while Magna lavishes luxury on people betting $2 across the board through the Horse Wizard?

Maryland's racetracks, like many others, have long failed to take proper care of their best customers. Now that those customers can watch races on television at home and wager through telephone accounts, many have defected. The top priority of tracks should be to hold onto established bettors rather than making misguided attempts to lure fresh faces.

Because modern-day horseplayers bet most of their money on simulcasts rather than the live product, tracks need to make the simulcasting experience as enjoyable and efficient as possible. The way to do this is to let customers sit at a device that allows them to watch any race they choose and also functions as a betting terminal. In other words, something like the Horse Wizard - minus the slot-machine features.

Magna officials say - though none would put it this way - that the Horse Wizard could easily be converted from its present ridiculous format into a useful, high-tech wagering device. Instead of being aimed at a mythical clientele - slot-machine players who accidentally wander into Laurel - it could serve the practical needs of existing horseplayers.

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