They're Off!

Software lets users spend a day at the races from their desktops

August 23, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

There were 13 minutes left to post at Laurel Park. I had already put $5 down on Mom's Day, as well as the obligatory wager on Edgar Prado -- how can you not bet on Maryland's hottest jockey? -- so I steered my cursor to Cajun Country.

There, at Louisiana Downs, I stumbled onto Apple Baroness, a horse with strong earnings that bettors were underestimating. So I was able to get a few bucks down on the Baroness and still have time to open my e-mail and respond to a few messages from colleagues before it was time to switch back to Laurel -- where I watched Mom's Day fade to third.

Welcome to the world of cyber-racing, where the thundering of hoofs and aroma of manure are replaced by flashing cursors and the scentless hum of a CPU. The developers of Youbet.com -- and others in the American racing industry -- are hoping we'll find desktop racing so convenient we'll come back to the track, if only virtually.

Youbet.com still has to work out a few bugs in its software, but it's an intriguing innovation for a sport badly in need of updating. And it's fun. An audio-visual hookup displays live feeds from racetrack cameras on your PC. Past-performance data for the horses are easy to access. Betting is accomplished with a straightforward series of forms and clear graphics.

The biggest hassle is getting the program up and running on your computer. I had help from a newsroom techie, and even then he and I were on and off the phone with Youbet's tech support desk several times (leaving my techie colleague to pronounce the program "not ready for prime time").

A tangle of technical and regulatory issues squeezes you through three organizations before you can start betting. First you have to call or sign on to Youbet.com's Web page and order its CD through the mail. Then you have to call and set up a "phone betting" account with a Pennsylvania racetrack, moving money into a computer bank via cashier's check or your credit card. Finally, you have to log onto the World Wide Web to operate the program.

Why the three-headed beast? The first two are a result of interstate gambling laws that allow only racetracks to operate telephone betting services.

Instead of buying a track, Youbet.com has contracted with Ladbroke at the Meadows, a harness oval outside Pittsburgh, to handle the wagering. Although you'll do most of your betting through the computer, the wagers are routed through Ladbroke and are legally considered telephone bets.

The involvement of your Internet Service Provider is a function of technology. Youbet's software is essentially a limited-purpose Web browser designed to keep your transactions secure and private.

One problem with this cluttered arrangement is that everyone is looking to get paid. Youbet.com gets its money from a monthly $5.95 membership fee and the sale of past-performance information (75 cents per track per day). Ladbroke charges a 6 percent fee each time you move money into your account (a $20 day at the races costs $21.20). You also have to pay a monthly or hourly fee to your ISP, although you're probably using your Internet account for other purposes, too. In any case, you start out in the red.

For serious horseplayers, the service is a convenient alternative to a trip to the track. Casual fans might find it a good way to practice their handicapping, although the past-performance information available is bare-bones (Youbet.com promises this will improve in coming months, with premium data being offered at a premium price). These issues, combined with the monthly fee, might keep the service from being worth the expense for an occasional bet.

Among those who may find online betting all too convenient are the nation's 15 million problem gamblers. Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Baltimore-based Compulsive Gambling Center Inc., views such services with alarm.

"It's more rapid, and you can lose more money, and you can do it from your home. It's instant devastation," Lorenz said. "There are absolutely no safeguards."

Thirty racetracks are signed up with Youbet.com to provide full audio-visual service. However, some of these, including Laurel and Pimlico Race Course, might have to drop out when TVG, the racing industry's much-anticipated cable television network, starts up and adds an Internet component. These tracks have signed exclusive agreements with TVG.

Another 13 tracks, including Churchill Downs, Gulfstream, Del Mar and a few other notables, offer more limited service through Youbet.com. You can buy virtual programs and get results, but there's no audio-visual feed. And you can't bet online -- you have to call in your wager to Ladbroke.

The video display is tiny, resembling a 2-inch-square TV screen in the upper-right-hand corner of your monitor. And the action is herky-jerky. This is a function of limited bandwidth: only a few frames per second can be transmitted. But it does the trick -- you can watch the race. All in all, a remarkable feat.

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