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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Available by cable and satellite, the 24-hour network will broadcast several races each hour from noon to midnight, primarily from its core tracks -- so far, Santa Anita Park and Hollywood Park in California, Churchill Downs and Turfway Park in Kentucky, Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course in Florida, Lone Star Park in Texas, Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, Turf Paradise in Arizona and Pimlico and Laurel Park in Maryland.

Throughout the day -- but mainly from midnight to noon -- TVG will broadcast features, handicapping tutorials, game shows with racing themes and other horse-related programs.

The network is poised to begin in the eight states where telephone betting is legal: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky, Nevada and Oregon. TVG and racing leaders plan on pushing for legalization in other states.

The developing network dovetails with efforts by the newly formed National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which says its goal is to transform horse racing into one of the top five sports in the country. The NTRA has united the industry with its ambitious plans for, among other things, creative marketing and more racing on TV.

Joe De Francis, principal owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, described TVG as "what I believe will be the premier presentation of horse racing on television in the 21st century.

"TVG will market our Maryland races to other jurisdictions as one of the focal points of its programming," De Francis said. "That is tremendously important to our long-term position in the industry."

The Maryland tracks would receive a percentage of money bet in Maryland as well as out of state on Maryland races. The state would collect its standard pari-mutuel tax of .32 percent.

Jim Mango, chief administrative officer at Pimlico and Laurel Park, said it's impossible to project the financial impact of home-betting on the tracks or the state.

Of greater significance, Mango said, is that TVG provides "self-defense. It gives us the potential to protect our turf. Telephone-account wagering is already happening in Maryland. We have no choice but to become competitive in this field."

Maryland residents already can set up betting accounts with companies in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York, as well as in Caribbean countries.

Not everyone agrees. State Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican from Howard County, is a leading spokesman against more gambling, especially when it's available in people's living rooms. But McCabe said that because in-home betting is already legal in Maryland, a legislative push to rescind it is highly unlikely.

Even Glendening, who thwarted the initiative in 1995, has remained silent this time. Ray Feldmann, a Glendening spokesman, said the governor is undecided on the issue, but is )) willing to allow the racing commission to begin writing rules regulating it. The commission is doing that now.

Gambling concerns

So, then, the question remaining is: Should a network for gambling on horses be as accessible as the Weather Channel?

Curtis L. Barrett, a clinical psychologist in Louisville and founder of the Kentucky Council on Compulsive Gambling, said no reliable data exist on whether in-home betting in Louisville increased incidences of problem gambling.

"That doesn't change the fact that, anytime there's an increase in the opportunity to gamble,there's an increase in the probability that a person predisposed to the disorder will develop it," Barrett said.

Barrett and other experts in the field have been working with TVG to incorporate safeguards into the programming.

"From the top down, its corporate leadership desires to do something about compulsive gambling," Barrett said. "They're going about it in a quite responsible manner."

TVG's Aronson said that subscribers will have to deposit money into an account before they can bet. They can't bet using credit cards, Aronson said.

"You can't do this simply on a whim," he said.

Ways for out-of-control gamblers to summon help will be incorporated into the programming, Aronson said, either by pressing a button on your remote or calling a number on your TV screen -- or both. There might even be a way of asking someone to call you, Aronson said.

Almost to a person, the in-home bettors in Louisville said over-betting is a concern.

Gary Nitzken, 32, owner of an insurance company, took back his box and remote because he was spending too much time in front of the TV. Also, he said, he never took money out of his account -- even after he won.

"I don't know too many people who ever took money out," Nitzken said. "Even if they ran it up real big, they lost it back real quick.

"It's a nice feature, but it's an expensive feature. It's very, very easy to use it too much."

Mike Meiners, 30, an accountant, said home betting is "fantastic, but it's pretty easy to get out of control. Before you know it, you find yourself alone at night betting on Penn National without a program."

And then there's Dave Miller, the man eagerly awaiting the eighth race at Gulfstream Park and one winner away from capturing the Pick Six.

He and his wife, Dawn, huddled in front of their TV in the family room, cluttered with the toys of their three children. They watched intently as one of the horses Miller bet, Vindictive, led the entire race until the final yards. A horse named Cee Ghee caught him at the wire.

But Cee Ghee had bumped another horse in the stretch, and the stewards, after reviewing the film, dropped Cee Ghee to third and placed Vindictive first. You could have heard the Millers whoop clear up to the casinos on the Ohio River.

The Pick Six payoff wasn't as great as Miller had hoped. It was $9,051.60. But for a $32 wager and a Saturday afternoon at home with the family, he couldn't complain.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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