I have been playing the horses for decades, but during the last six weeks I have played in a wholly new way: without going to the track.
With a satellite dish on my roof, I watch races from Laurel, Monmouth, Delaware and other tracks live over The Racing Network. I follow other tracks via the Internet or see their replay shows on DirecTV. I place my bets through a phone-wagering account with Pennsylvania-based Ladbroke Call-A-Bet.
After my initial experience betting from home, I am absolutely convinced of this fact: The revolution has arrived. Horse racing will never be the same again. Most leaders of the industry have not yet grasped the ramifications of what is happening, but in-home betting will alter the way most racetracks do business and it will render some of them obsolete.
Although I do not casually alter my methods of operation as a gambler, I quickly concluded that operating from my home is far more efficient than going to the track. I save time and aggravation by avoiding the trip between Washington and Laurel. I once might have missed the sociability of the racetrack, but in the age of full-card simulcasting, horseplayers spend the entire day immersed in the Daily Racing Form and sociability has disappeared. Even when I go to the track with my closest friends, our conversations are rarely more extensive than: "Do you like anybody in the fifth?" The only handicappers who might find a disadvantage in betting at home are the ones who depend on watching horses in the post parade.
Economist and gambler Maury Wolff of Alexandria observed: "All the people I know who have gotten the [Racing Network satellite] dish have stopped going to the track entirely. There are new classes of society in the horse world: Do you have a dish or not?"
The new technology has been adopted by high-end bettors who don't flinch at paying $320 for the equipment, plus an installation charge and a $14.99 monthly fee. But mainstream customers are taking notice. One of my Maryland racing friends told me: "I'm going to get the dish as soon as I have the cash. When you look at what you spend at the track for programs, parking, concessions and everything else, it's actually cheaper in the long run to get a dish." When the nascent horse-racing channel, the Television Games Network, is offered on cable systems around the country, the cost won't be a factor and almost everyone will be able to bet the races from home.
When people can watch the races so conveniently, why would they go to a track like Laurel Park, with its run-down facilities, mediocre and overpriced concessions and disgruntled customers and employees? The majority of American tracks could be described in similarly unflattering terms. Only a few--such as Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland and Gulfstream Park--have a special ambience that can lure customers for the sheer delight of being at a racetrack. What will other tracks do in the new era?
Some will try, in vain, to resist the changes in technology, but the wise ones will adapt to it. They need to get their races into people's homes and recognize the importance of offering a good-quality television product. While some horseplayers are dedicated to certain tracks, I am prepared to gamble on the ones that I can effectively bet from home.
I would like to follow the racing in Kentucky but none of the state's tracks has a replay show that appears on DirecTV, so I won't bet Kentucky. I decided this summer to play Monmouth Park, because I can see the races live on The Racing Network. But I discovered, to my dismay, that Monmouth's video coverage of races is the worst in the industry. Its camera operator insists on close-up shots at crucial stages of a race, such as the final turn, so that even a diligent viewer can't see horses going wide or getting into trouble. Sometimes a single horse fills the screen for 10 seconds or more. I can't see enough of the races to gamble intelligently, so I won't play the Monmouth races again.
By contrast, Laurel puts forth an excellent television product. The quality of racing is acceptable, and the video coverage of the races themselves could be a model for the rest of the industry. Even though I won't attend Laurel as much as I used to, I might become an even more productive customer for the Maryland tracks, demonstrating how televised racing is going to revolutionize the sport's economics.