Couch potato wagers pushed With a click of remote, place your horse bets from noon to midnight

Glendening to have final say

Home gambling urged as boost to Md. racing

January 14, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

From the comfort of their living rooms, Maryland residents may soon be able to watch 60 horse races on television every day and place wagers by clicking buttons on hand-held remotes.

On Demand Services, a company based in Colorado, plans on launching a cable and satellite network late this year that for the first time would bring legal betting on a national basis into homes and offices via television. The endeavor, Television Games Network, would feature races from Pimlico and Laurel Park as part of its marquee menu -- a potential boon to the Maryland racing industry.

"This is a home run for Maryland racing," said Tom Aronson, a Television Games Network executive and longtime consultant to the pari-mutuel industry. "We want to make Maryland racing a national product."

In-home wagering is legal in Maryland; it's been on the books since 1984. Although citizens against expanded gambling oppose it and those who work with problem gamblers fear it, all that's needed for the nation's first horse racing channel to gallop into Maryland is the OK from Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He blocked a similar initiative three years ago.

Glendening hasn't decided how he will respond this time, said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman.

"He is carefully and thoroughly reviewing all the recommendations of the Conti commission," Feldmann said. "He will be announcing shortly, perhaps within a week or two, what program he'll put forward to assist the horse racing industry."

Eugene A. Conti Jr., secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, headed a commission last fall that studied ways to help racing. Its leaders in Maryland say they've been losing ground to other forms of gambling, especially the state lottery and slot machines at tracks in Delaware and West Virginia.

The Conti commission supported in-home betting on horse racing as one way the state's equine industry could bolster its finances and grow -- in lieu of slot machines, which Glendening had ruled off the table.

But if Glendening blocks home betting again, Aronson said the network would drop Pimlico and Laurel Park from its lineup. That would cost Maryland's horse industry -- racetracks, trainers, horse owners and breeders -- millions of dollars if the racing network succeeds.

"To put it bluntly," Aronson said, "why would we want to carry Maryland racing nationally if back home the state and its governor, for some reason, are saying this is an inappropriate product line for Maryland residents?"

Conti said he believes the network, prototypes of which he has seen, contains sufficient safeguards to keep problems of excessive gambling to a minimum. Residents could bet only from an established account. They could not use credit cards. The network would offer help to out-of-control gamblers.

Still, Conti said, gambling at home is a concept difficult for some to fathom.

"I think the governor has some of the same concerns we all have about in-home gambling," Conti said. "But I also think he's willing to let the racing commission air this issue in a public forum. In other words, he's willing to let the process move forward."

That could begin today. Conti is slated to appear before the Maryland Racing Commission to discuss his commission's report. Jim Mango, chief administrative officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, will represent the racetracks. Interactive wagering likely will be discussed -- and it won't be the first time.

Three years ago, On Demand Services came to Maryland proposing to test its new technology of in-home betting. When Glendening ordered the racing commission to quash it, ODS scooted west to Kentucky. In September 1995, it began showing and taking bets on races in 300 homes within a few miles of Churchill Downs in Louisville. Today, it operates in about 1,100 homes.

Although programming resembles the bare-bones simulcast product of off-track betting parlors, the continuing test has been a success, Aronson said. Betting per person increased about 50 percent, regardless of whether they were frequent, moderate or infrequent gamblers before.

Now, Television Games Network wants to present horse racing in a livelier, more entertaining package -- "kind of like ESPN 'SportsCenter' meets horse racing meets 'Headline News,' coupled with the ability to wager from home," Aronson said.

The 24-hour network would broadcast four to six races each hour from noon to midnight primarily from its partner tracks, which so far include Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Park in California, Lone Star Park in Texas, Churchill Downs and Turfway Park in Kentucky, Gulfstream Park in Florida, and Pimlico and Laurel in Maryland. Aronson said other tracks would be added.

Throughout the day but primarily from midnight to noon, Aronson said, the network would broadcast features, handicapping tutorials, game shows with racing themes and other horse-related programming.

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