Computer age is an odds-on favorite For this player, game's the same

January 30, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

If this is the dawn of a new age of racing, it sure bears a striking resemblance to the last one.

Three bucks is still a lot to pay for parking in the middle of nowhere. There's still the unescapable stench of cigar smoke.

And my pick in the sixth -- Paso Fino -- still came in well out of the money.

But there were some subtle signs yesterday at Laurel Race Course of a coming revolution for fans.

With a new, $1.5 million, IBM-AmTote computer system that went into operation yesterday, the track is able to increase drastically the number and frequency of races.

Combined with a bill now working its way through the General Assembly, Pimlico and Laurel could, by the end of this season, bring fans up to 40 races a day from tracks across the country.

And with an agreement between harness and thoroughbred tracks, a fan could show up in the morning at Pimlico and stay for an evening's worth of harness action.

During the course of 12 hours he could bet on up to 70 races in a non-stop, gambling orgy that will make Keno look like an office Super Bowl pool.

Racetrack managers say they have not decided how many races they will carry.

But the new system -- leased by Laurel-Pimlico in conjunction with other tracks -- provides an important technological capability to quickly and accurately tap into the pari-mutuel pools at many tracks at once.

This means that fans at Pimlico will be able to bet on, say, the Kentucky Derby and receive the same odds as fans at Churchill Downs. Currently, the local tracks have had to form their own pari-mutuel pools -- meaning that on some smaller races the odds could fluctuate wildly with a few big bets.

This proved unwieldy for all but the largest stakes races. The new system, and a change in the law, will make "commingling" of pools easier and legal and more simulcasts practical (the tracks are committed to a minimum number of live races each week to prevent an all-electronic racing industry here).

All that is at least weeks away and depends upon a few hurdles being cleared, such as approval in Annapolis and a new labor agreement with pari-mutuel clerks.

Yesterday, 5,442 fans at Laurel, including me, and 2,570 simulcast fans at Pimlico had to make do with just a glimpse of the future.

The tickets were the most obvious change. Gone are the pink and white rectangular slips familiar to fans nationwide.

In their place is a square chit with a series of numbers and symbols resembling a cryptic military communication.

The terminals the clerks punch your bet into are sleek and offer new services.

Bettors can request a printed price report on a prior race, for example, and the terminal will spit out a handy graph showing the win, place and show payoffs.

You can also "preview" a bet. For example, I asked about a triple $1 box of six horses in the 10th race. The tiny printout said this would cost $120. My horse sense said this would be difficult to disguise on an expense account.

There is also an adding machine function, useful for clerks at closing time, but also for bettors ciphering their losses. And a memory function allows a clerk to enter a bet tentatively.

For example, I entered an exacta box on two horses in the eighth race, then requested a place bet on Algebar Henderson.

Before putting the money down, I prudently changed my mind, switching the place bet to Working Late, an entry the track program noted "should be tough here." (He won.)

The clerk cheerfully made the change before the ticket was issued. In the past, the entire bet would have had to be canceled and a new one entered.

One thing remains timeless: of my seven bets throughout the day, only two won, providing a net loss that even the old computer system could have calculated.

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