Hit the clicker, your bet is down Home betting: A convenient, less distracting way of wagering on horse racing is working in Kentucky, and might be coming to Maryland by November.

May 05, 1998|By TOM KEYSER | TOM KEYSER,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The telephone rang at Dave Miller's house. It was Saturday afternoon, and Miller, 32, a local businessman, was betting the horses.

As he watched races on his television, he bet by punching buttons on a remote -- as if he were changing from The History Channel to Disney. He aimed the remote at a cable box, which sent his bets by telephone line to a computer in Louisville.

One could wager a pretty penny that Miller loves betting horses at home -- a convenience that might be available to Marylanders by November.

"I've got to ask you something," he said to the caller. "Are you lucky? When you're with people at the track, do they usually say you're a lucky guy to be around or an unlucky guy? Because in 15 minutes, I'm going to find out whether I win, I don't know, I'd say maybe $30,000."

Miller explained that he had bet the Pick Six (the winners of six races in a row) at Gulfstream Park and that his horses had won the first five. Now, 15 minutes before the sixth, he needed one of two horses in the seven-horse field to win so he could collect what he figured might be the payoff of a lifetime.

"It's not like I'm handcuffed to the TV," said Miller, who owns a company that prints banners and billboards. "I can still do stuff at home, like fix lunch for the kids or play ball outside, and then come back in and watch the races I want to watch."

On the verge of perhaps a monumental score, Miller -- on this day anyway -- was not your typical bettor who's been playing the horses from home in Louisville for more than two years. But look into the mirror these bettors in Kentucky hold up, and you see Maryland residents in identical pose: betting on horse racing without ever leaving their homes.

ODS Entertainment, the Colorado company conducting home betting in Louisville, plans on launching a glitzy, 24-hour horse-racing channel in November in several states, including Maryland.

For Television Games Network -- or TVG, as it's called -- Maryland is a cornerstone for two reasons.

One, betting over telephone lines, which transmit bets from home to a wagering hub, is legal in Maryland. Two, Pimlico and Laurel Park, the state's major thoroughbred tracks, offer enough quality racing nearly year-round to help fill the network's insatiable appetite for live races.

"TVG's goal is not to create a small group of people who go to the racetrack a great deal, but to create millions of people who sample it occasionally," said Tom Aronson, a TVG vice president who has worked for years as a consultant to the pari-mutuel industry. "I just don't see horse racing getting to the next level, even surviving, unless it's able to present itself as any other sport is able to present itself, which is on television."

Blocked in Md. in 1995

For Maryland, this isn't the first time home betting has been primed to compete for TV ratings with home shopping.

Three years ago, ODS Entertainment proposed testing its technology for in-home interactive wagering in Maryland, where such activity has been legal since 1984. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening blocked the experiment, decrying the expansion of gambling, and ODS took its idea to Kentucky.

In late 1995, residents of 300 homes in Louisville began betting from their La-Z-Boys. Today, more than 1,000 households participate.

"Will people use it? Will they like it? We've answered those questions with a resounding 'yes,' " said Ron Fore, director of the Louisville operation for TVG. "Now, it's time to move on to the next generation of product."

Although the test product in Louisville resembles your basic bare-bones fare of off-track-betting parlors, Louisville residents have embraced the concept.

"It's the best thing since sliced bread," said William Golata, 61, a truck driver. "They should have done this years ago."

Ted Hollinger, 74, a retired computer operator, said the home-betting channel has inspired a reunion with the sport he loves.

"Until I married my wife," Hollinger said, "I went to the track all the time. But then it dribbled off to three, maybe four times a year. Now I'm at the races every day. I can enjoy my sport of kings without leaving my house."

Said Melanie Davidson, 43, a designer of clothes and jewelry: "It's great. I love the horses, but I don't like going to the track all the time. It's too distracting if you're really seriously betting. You can concentrate better at home and figure out what you're doing."

According to ODS research, each person who opened a home-wagering account bet about twice as much, on average, as he or she had bet on horse racing before.

By using a yellow remote-control device, each person triggered an average of more than 200 transmissions per month (one transmission can carry five wagers).

"It validated what we in the business believed for years," said Aronson, the TVG executive. "It's the inconvenience of the sport that's getting in the way of its success, just the sheer logistics of people going to the track or OTB impeded their inclination to play the game."

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