Gamers go to the whip over pari-mutuels

Jul 23, 2002 10:14 AM

Pari-mutuel bets generated $81.1 million for Nevada’s race books last fiscal year. That’s nearly as much as baseball, basketball and football ”” combined.

Yet that figure is falling as other jurisdictions, including offshore operators, siphon off Nevada’s action.

"We’ve fallen behind. ­­Others are blowing by us,’’ veteran bookie John Avello tells GamingToday.

Hoping to keep the Silver State in the game, the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association will present an hour-long briefing to the Gaming Commission this week. The goal, says executive director Patty Jones, is to lay out the industry’s history, challenges and opportunities.

"Our handle has been down since 9-11,’’ Jones says. "And we’re down compared with five years ago when we had the rebate program.’’

With the explosion of Internet betting (which advertises rebates of up to 20 percent), Nevada’s pari-mutuel action has stagnated. Even though the state now has a record high 73 betting outlets, the handle remains flat.

This slump spells trouble for books, and the state’s coffers.

"[Pari-mutuel] has the best guaranteed hold in the business by far,’’ says Avello, race and sports book director at Bally’s-Paris.

California, the 800-pound gorilla of gaming, jumpstarted its pari-mutuel revenues this year by launching an account wagering program which is netting millions of dollars in track action. Such customer-friendly services are needed here, bookies say.

"We have to prove that phone bets are in-state,’’ notes one oddsmaker. "Beepers and PIN verifications take time and horse racing is a timely wager where every second counts.’’

While the pari-mutuel association appreciates the need to stay within the legal boundaries, some in the industry are clamoring for a level playing field. Unlike offshore operations, for example, Nevada outlets are prohibited from accepting wagers from outside the state’s borders ”” even as racetracks and OTB parlors are proliferating worldwide.

Tony Fontaine, who heads up Station Casinos’ tech division, will discuss technological advances that could speed and streamline wagering. Customized Palm Pilots and other interactive hand-held devices are currently being developed and tested for use. John Sullivan of Las Vegas Disseminators will also display some of the latest gadgetry.

And Tony Cabot of Lionel Sawyer and Collins will talk about pari-mutuel’s legal standing in Congress, and how Nevada’s laws square with federal regulations.

"Nevada was the undisputed leader in the early 1990s,’’ Avello says. Now he and others say it’s time to reclaim that position.