Publish date:


"Introducing the brand-new bet made just for television," read the ads that appeared at New York City's Off-Track Betting shops for the first time a month ago. The brand-new bet is called a Double Exacta, and in playing it a bettor attempts to pick the first two finishers in a televised horse race from the Bowie Race Course in Maryland as well as the first two finishers in a TV race from Florida's Hialeah in their "exact" order of finish. The payoffs for the few individuals who have won the Double Exacta have been big: for a $3 bet, the first one returned $18,070, the second $57,397 and last week's fourth in the series, $5,866. But the real winners—and losers—of OTB's new television wagering are yet to be determined. Horsemen, tracks and state governments all have a stake in the Double Exacta. If they fare well, TV wagering, which is already expanding beyond New York, could eventually change televised racing into a horse of a different color in many areas of the U.S.

OTB is a state-regulated string of wagering parlors that allows horseplayers to bet legally without going to the track. In its almost four years of operation, OTB has attracted bets totaling $1.7 billion. Although most of that sum has been paid back to winning wagerers, New York City has earned $79 million from Off-Track Betting, the state has picked up $33 million and $46 million has been returned to horse racing. To get the Double Exacta on television, OTB put together a weekly Saturday afternoon package on New York City's independent WOR-TV. The program presents six races, the most thoroughbred races ever done during a single show in a major market, and the bettors' reaction to them has been enthusiastic. The first week six races were televised, horseplayers risked $793,492 on them. By last week the action totaled $1.2 million. With two more weeks remaining before New York's thoroughbred season opens and knocks the Double Exacta off the air, politicians and racing people already are looking on the experiment with widening eyes.

Revenues on the televised races have yielded approximately $75,000 for New York State so far, and Bowie and Hialeah have received approximately $50,000 each. It is not the quality of the shows that is attracting all those dollars. Produced by Marvin H. Sugarman Productions, Inc., the races are about as well done as the home movies your cousin took when he visited Denver last year. The response comes from the fact that a horseplayer can get down six bets and then watch how they all come out in a rapid-fire, 60-minute session. And, if he has a telephone account with OTB, he can bet without leaving his living room.

Ever since OTB came sluggishly out of the starting gate in April 1971, it had tried to hook up with television. But every time it seemed set to sign a major contract with a racetrack, one side or the other pulled out a dry pen. OTB had good reason to believe that putting on its own TV package would result in a windfall. On its first day of business in 1971 only $66,080 was bet. Less than a month later it booked $1 million on one race: Canonero II's victory in the nationally televised Kentucky Derby. Triple Crown races, all shown live, have drawn more than $21.5 million in OTB wagers since then.

Soon OTB will be making another use of television by airing a series of spot commercials baldly encouraging people to bet. "Until recently we were never able to use commercials on television," says OTB Chairman and President Paul Screvane. "We had been restricted by the National Association of Broadcasters from doing so. Now that they have eased up their rules we are going to advertise—probably in a big way."

People concerned with the well-being of racing often look uneasily at television, even though in France, for example, it has sometimes been a boon for both the sport and the tax collector. Two weeks ago wagers totaling $28 million were placed on the televised Prix d'Amerique trot in Paris, and horsemen and tracks received almost $2.5 million of that to help their sport, a far larger share of the profits than their New York counterparts get from OTB.

But during the past several months in the U.S., many racing people have begun to view the marriage of horse racing and television as a menace, because of a strange deal between New York and Connecticut. The television rights for all races at New York's major tracks—Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga, Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceway—were sold to Connecticut for a pittance. Under this plan, Connecticut will open a chain of "Tele-Tracks," charge $2 admission, take off-track bets and show the races live and in color on 30-foot-high screens. Track operators are understandably distraught. "We tried to fight it but lost," says Tim Rooney, president of Yonkers Raceway. "Our horses, trainers, drivers—our whole show—were given away for about $50 a race. A good percentage of our attendance comes from Connecticut. The loss of that portion of our crowds could be the difference between the track breaking even or losing money."

Although the Connecticut plan is not yet in operation, the success of OTB indicates the Nutmeg State can figure on spicing up its treasury by showing New York races on TV. And that is apt to make the combination of television and remote wagering irresistible to politicians in other states. The quiet introduction of the brand-new bet in New York could end up having dramatic, and perhaps deleterious, effects on all horse racing in the months and years ahead.