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As porn is restricted to the Internet, dancing is bullied out from under downtown, and laser tag becomes the commerce of choice in Times Square, OTB has thus far remained its old seedy self: the only hints of technology at its aromatic parlors are the good, old-fashioned TV and telephone.
But now, even OTB is changing to keep pace with the latest, sanitized trends. While it has refrained from installing banks of PCs in its venues and turning them into cyber cafescumbetting salons, OTB is responding to the technological times. Its efforts to gussy up its parlors into chic, velvet-roped bistros have been spurred by thoroughbred racing's newfound rest stop on the information superhighway: OTB's got some serious cyber competition.
Based in Los Angeles, Youbet.com (motto: "Get Your Life On Track!"), a publicly traded online service dedicated solely to the ponies, has been gradually advancing on the betting market. In an effort to avoid the failures of many high-tech operations to accommodate new subscribers, Youbet.com is working with test audiences to make sure it is able to meet their betting needs and picking up subscribers slowly.
To enter Youbet.com's cybertrack, users send away for the initial software, which is free, and then pay a $5.95 monthly fee for continued membership. Once part of the Youbet Network, users receive visual and audio hookups to the 19 different Youbetaffiliated tracks providing real-time access to the races, real odds, past performances of horses, and reams of information on handicapping.
Along with the wagering opportunities, Youbet.com provides a Web site for racing fans. The site is primarily for FAQs and sales of track-related merchandise, but it also acts as a sort of cyber cocktail lounge where users trade racing gossip and tips. The message-board communication alternates between somewhat esoteric insights into the racing world ("Beyer made his crusher $200 exacta based on lone speed, wide trip on an inside bias, and no discernible bias in earlier races on the day of his bet") and complaints about Youbet.com's service ("If the program locks up and you're forced to kill it with a CTRL-ALT-DELETE, you can practically have a pizza delivered by the time you get back online").
Youbet.com adds to its street cred with an occasional column by Hall of Fame überjockey Chris McCarron, who combines insights into the current racing scene, reflections and updates on his own career, and endorsements of Youbet.com and its affiliated e-commerce.
I went online and got to Youbet.com's cybertrack within minutes. I was as close to the track as if I'd hoofed it to OTB's Delancey Street site. I was able to bet and access all the information I needed about those equine rolls of the dice. And I was still in my pajamas and drinking the coffee I'd brewed myself. It was everything an online service is supposed to be. But something was missing. When it comes down to it, I prefer foot traffic. I missed the old-timers, the overheard folk wisdom and dirty jokes, the enthusiasm and cataclysmic disappointments, the threats spat at the dangling RCAs, the feel of cash coming and, more often, going from my hand. I missed the old New York.