Bettors will find themselves racing to keep up, when state follows Charles Town into non-stop action of simulcasts


February 25, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

CHARLES TOWN, W. VA. — Charles Town, W.Va.--It is early evening on a recent Wednesday.

Kenneth Branch, a retired marketing manager for IBM, is sweating.

Since afternoon, he has been constantly on the move. He comes to the Charles Town Races from his home near the Capital Centre to bet the horses -- not just the 10 live races with the $2,500 claimers -- but also televised cards that feature the sport's big names from Gulfstream Park in Florida and Santa Anita in California. There are 29 races in all.

The life of a horseplayer at Maryland tracks is about to accelerate at the same frenetic pace.

Next month, Laurel-Pimlico operators want to start taking out-of-state simulcasts from Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Oaklawn parks.

But they will add an extra twist.

The massive dose of electronic races will be integrated into a cross-breed wagering program. Thoroughbred races will be beamed from Laurel or Pimlico -- wherever the live card is being presented that day -- into Rosecroft and Delmarva trotting tracks in the afternoon along with the extensive simulcast lineup. Then the live harness races will be televised at Laurel and Pimlico at night.

All state tracks, and eventually a proposed network of off-track betting parlors, will be open from noon until midnight, offering continuous action on 80 or more races from a variety of circuits around the country.

"It's like letting a sugar addict loose in a candy store," says Michael "The Wizard" Kipness, who markets a $2 selection sheet for the New York tracks at simulcast outlets across the country.

At one point in the late afternoon, races from three tracks are running simultaneously at Charles Town.

Most of the bettors are drawn to the second floor of the clubhouse.

Costy Caras, Charles Town's announcer, calls the live races in a nasal voice. If a Charles Town race is being run, Caras zaps the sound from monitors showing the action in Miami or Los Angeles.

As soon as the horses cross the wire in West Virginia, the sound from Florida and California resumes: A young woman in the Gulfstream paddock runs down the credentials of the field in the coming race. At Santa Anita, a television host interviews Ron Ellis, a trainer on a hot streak.

On one side of the room there is a TV monitor showing the Gulfstream card. People crowd there during the Florida race. Then they move to the other side of the room to watch the action from California.

Betting windows are designated for each track.

The crowd develops a definite rhythm as it moves about. Some fans sit at tables or in chairs lining the walls. They stare at the TV sets-- "a new breed of couch potato," said one track executive.

Michael Blocklin, who sells advertising for a Frederick radio station and lives in Germantown in Montgomery County, said it can get confusing.

"There is so much going on that if you are a serious bettor, you have to do your homework ahead of time," he said. "I don't even bet the Charles Town races. I like betting into the big pools in Florida and California. You pick and choose the spots you want to play. Right now it's getting particularly interesting. You can follow the 3-year-olds as they weed themselves out for the [Kentucky] Derby."

Charlie Linhoss, a friend of Blocklin's, also is here. Linhoss once claimed a horse named Ten Keys at Laurel and won more than $1 million with him.

Linhoss calls the simulcasts "inevitable. They are also tough to figure out. It's hard to know what's going on in Florida or California -- if the speed is holding up or there is a particular track bias. But like anything else, if you follow it enough, you start to learn a little about what's going on. And at Santa Anita, if all else fails, you bet Kent Desormeaux."

What most of these men have in common is that if the Maryland tracks televised these California and Florida races, they would be at Laurel -- or an off-track betting parlor -- instead of at Charles Town.

Catering to the TV generation

It has been a source of embarrassment to Maryland track officials that the minor-league track across the Blue Ridge Mountains has gotten the jump on Maryland and given fans what they want -- non-stop betting action.

"If the customers want it, then you have to give it to them," said Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association, the organization representing the majority of flat tracks in the United States.

"The general feeling is that the half-hour between live races is too slow-paced for the TV generation," Scherf said. "Instead of being product-driven, the racing industry has got to be consumer-driven. That's why Maryland has to offer all of these [electronic] races.

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