By traditional standards -- such as the size of crowds at racetracks -- thoroughbred racing appears to be beset by troubles. Its woes might have been epitomized last weekend at Belmont Park. On Saturday and Sunday the track offered five Grade I stakes featuring many of the country's best horses; it was blessed by spectacular fall weather; it faced no local competition from baseball or pro football. Yet Belmont couldn't draw as many as 19,000 people on either day -- a far cry from the era when 50,000 regularly would show up for a good Saturday card.
But the sport's prospects are not as grim as they may look. Thoroughbred racing is offsetting its attendance losses with gains in technology. It is bolstering its bottom line by giving its customers new, easy, efficient and convenient ways to place a bet. Two such advances have been introduced in the last few days. One of them, which originated in California, goes by the name of "commingled pools." The other innovation came at Belmont and has a much more user-friendly name: Tiny Tim.
Tiny Tim is a little black box that functions as an individual betting terminal. Patrons in Belmont's dining room had them on their tables, and they never had to leave their seats to place a wager. The system works this way: A customer makes one trip to a normal betting window, fills out a card establishing a personal identification code and turns over the money he wants to bet for the day -- say, $300. He gets a receipt, which also shows his account number.
When he returns to the table, he enters his account number and code into Tiny Tim, whose screen shows the $300 balance. Now all he has to do is touch the screen to indicate the size and type of bet he wants to make. No tickets are issued; Tiny Tim keeps a running total of the bettor's balance through the day. Very soon, New York bettors will be able to establish permanent accounts with Tiny Tim that will carry over from day to day and year to year. A gambler will never have to carry cash or stuff mutuel tickets in his pocket.
And this is just the beginning of the usefulness of the little black box. Tiny Tim is linked to Belmont's central computers through telephone wires, and Clem Imparato, vice president of the New York Racing Association, said: "The original concept of Tiny Tim was for use with telephone accounts. And now that telephone-account wagering has been legalized, Tiny Tim could be used to call into the track's computer." A bettor will be able to make his wagers from the comfort of home and, for his benefit, Tiny Tim's screen will show the up-to-the-minute odds on each horse.
New York's tracks have been more aggressive than most in employing advanced technology for betting; self-service betting terminals are much more widely used at Belmont and Aqueduct than at other tracks. One reason for this, Imparato said, is the nature of NYRA's contracts with its mutuel clerks. The clerks' jobs are guaranteed, and they also have incentive clauses that give them a share of the tracks' total wagering, even if it comes from Tiny Tim. So these clerks may help customers learn to use devices like Tiny Tim instead of viewing them as technological enemies that will cost them their jobs.
Imparato said he can envision a brave new world of betting technology. "The ultimate," he said, "would be a voice-activated computer. You'd just walk up to it and say, 'My account number is so-and-so. I want $500 to win on number three.' The computer would respond, 'Your account is open. You have a balance of $1,000. You want to place $500 to win on number three. Is that correct?' "
On the other side of the country, Santa Anita is pioneering a concept that may change the way the United States bets on horse races. It is a marriage of the two innovations that already have provided a boom in the horse-betting business: simulcasting and intertrack wagering. Simulcasting has enabled tracks to offer their customers a new range of betting opportunities; Maryland will generate a huge amount of business by offering its own wagering pools on the Breeders' Cup races from Belmont this month. Intertrack betting has stimulated wagering by making it much more convenient -- as in the connection of betting between Laurel and Pimlico. But until now, intertrack betting has united the betting pools only of tracks in the same state.
Commingled pools link wagers placed in different states. The concept had its origins when Santa Anita started simulcasting its racing cards to Canterbury Downs in Minnesota. Canterbury would offer its own wagering pools on the California races, but they were so small as to be unattractive to larger gamblers. Even if a gambler wanted to place a $1,000 bet on a horse at Santa Anita, he wouldn't, because the wager would knock the odds haywire. So Santa Anita's management went to work on overcoming the legal barriers that might prevent the transmission of wagers from state to state. Starting on Wednesday, a wager placed at Canterbury goes directly into the pools at Santa Anita.
"A big player betting into a small local pool in Minnesota can have a tremendous effect on the odds," said Bruce Matthias, Santa Anita's director of simulcasting. "But that player can place any sized bet into a pool at Santa Anita."
The legalization of commingled pools will have its most dramatic effects in Las Vegas. Until now, Las Vegas's many race books have functioned as bookmakers who take the risk of losing if their customers win. As a result, they have been reluctant to take large bets. But now many of them are starting to handle wagers that will go directly into the pools at the California tracks; if a customer wants to invest $5,000 in the pick six at Bay Meadows, the Las Vegas establishment will transmit the bet electronically to the track.
Commingled pools are so new that the industry hasn't even begun to focus on their potential, but I have one pet idea that is now feasible and could turn into a national mania: a national pick-seven pool on the Breeders' Cup.
At whatever track has hosted the Breeders' Cup, the normal daily pick six has always generated great interest and excitement because of the nature of the races involved. But it would be possible to create a single national betting pool involving all of the Breeders' Cup events; if a bettor picked all seven winners the potential payoff could run into tens of millions of dollars. Who needs to worry about the size of live crowds at racetracks when you've got action like that?