And they're off -- for fair test run

Lottery unveils virtual racing in new game

August 28, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun reporter

With a straw hat on his head, the taste of a cigar on his lips, and a racing form rolled up in his back pocket, Herman Hawkins, squinting disapprovingly at a shot of the Pimlico finish line on TV, looks like a man who just picked the wrong horse.

And he did. Sort of.

Hawkins just tried out Racetrax, the Maryland Lottery's new virtual racing game where the ponies, the jockeys and the tracks are finely crafted simulations, but the money people bet with - and lose with - is quite real.

Hawkins, of Lothian, sampled the game yesterday at the Maryland State Fair where it debuted last weekend before rolling out this week at 50 locations across the state. He wanted to give the fake horses a whirl before betting on the real thing - which they also have at the fair.

But the seasoned gambler miscalculated. At a real race he'd study the horses and their histories to make educated bets. Here, no matter how sweet or spunky the horses appear, it's numbers, pure and simple, with no more skill required than a scratch-off.

"I thought I could make a couple hundred dollars here, and then go down there and bet on a horse that I know about," Hawkins said, after about his fifth loss in a row. "I bet on eight. He came out of there real pretty then fell back, then came up there again and then, heck, I don't know where he went."

Maryland is the first state in the country to offer Racetrax, although the faux thoroughbreds have been looping tracks in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Canada and Australia for some time.

With two nearby states offering slots, Maryland Lottery officials say this new game, with its flashy graphics and bar-friendly premise, is their best hope of competing.

"That's the whole point," Lottery Director Buddy Roogow said. "Without slots, we need something that keeps the excitement here."

Racetrax is similar to Keno in that both are played on video monitors set up in places like taverns and convenience stores. The races among 12 horses happen every five minutes - and just like at the track, people put down wagers right up until the race is set to begin.

The minimum bet is $1 and the payoff depends on the type of bet and the odds assigned to each horse's number.

Since Racetrax was designed for Maryland, the virtual track is modeled after Pimlico. But while the real Pimlico is in the northwestern part of Baltimore, tucked among neighborhoods, in the game the track is obviously downtown, with the city skyline quite recognizable.

With all the talk of actually someday building a track downtown, Gail Gibson, who lives just a tail's shake from Camden Yards in Ridgely's Delight, took the graphics as a bit of foreshadowing.

"That's a little scary," she said, recognizing the World Trade Center as she played out a $4 bet.

That aside (Roogow said the downtown backdrop is not a hint, only a homage to Baltimore), Gibson was having fun with the game.

She had her money on a horse with a name that seemed destined for the back of the pack: Relaxing.

"This could be your lucky race," the imaginary announcer intoned. "Yes!" Gibson yelped. "I think it's gonna be a big one!"

Relaxing, apparently tagged by the gods of chance, pulled it out, coming in first.

The virtual horses are realistically drawn, and come in more colors than one would typically find in any one race at the track - grays and chestnuts and blacks are always running together.

And someone put a lot of thought into their names. Speculate. Neptune's Doll. Broadway Harry. Park Regent. Test Case. Gallant Bloom.

Dean Giacomelli of Cockeysville bet on Sunshine Today, the No. 3 horse, to show. He'd never bet at a race track, but figured he'd give it a shot and maybe learn something.

"Three's coming up the middle! Uh-oh, now he's falling back. Come on! Come on! Come on!" he yelled, getting into it. "Three! Three!"

Three came in second. Boosted by his small win, Giacomelli was back about 10 minutes later, betting $12 on a trifecta combination.

"I'm in the big boy races now," he said with a grin. "I'm a sucker for gambling,"

But Hawkins had already thrown in the towel. It took him less than $10 of betting to realize he was getting nowhere fast and better head to the real races with the real horses where he was on surer footing. "This is a rip-off right there," he said, scoffing over the phony whinnying and prancing. "I'm going back to the real thing. So any mistake I make is me."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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