Gaming the Victim: Internet books? retreat from D.C. has curtailed Brownstein?s horseplaying. Credit: Charles Steck

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If horse racing can lose Craig Brownstein’s interest, it can lose anybody’s. And it’s losing Brownstein’s.

The U Street area resident and lifelong horseplayer watched only a few Breeders’ Cup races on TV in the basement of his home. He didn’t spend even a minute handicapping the biggest horse-racing card of the year.

“This was my first time watching the Breeders’ Cup without participating,”

says Brownstein.

By “participating,” Brownstein means betting. The Rochester, N.Y., native has been a devoted participant in the sport of kings ever since a family visit to Louisville, Ky., in May 1973, which included a trip with an uncle to Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. And there he saw Secretariat, the greatest horse of all time, win the Derby.

Even more influential was the fact that Brownstein got a bet in on the legend. Brownstein, then 15 years old, was hooked on racing by the time he cashed his $2 win ticket. He soon began illicitly nurturing his horseplaying skills. All these years later, one of Brownstein’s proudest possessions is a yellowed newspaper article from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the local mother who found betting slips in her teenager’s room and realized that the kid had hoodwinked the state racing agency into granting him OTB gambling privileges.

Minors can’t legally bet. The state closed Brownstein’s first account after the story came out.

But he stayed devoted to the sport and went on to set up other wagering accounts after coming of age. Brownstein even took a timeout from his real-world career in public relations for a couple years in the late 1990s to handle publicity for the Maryland Jockey Club, operator of Laurel Park and Pimlico. He put his enthusiasm for the sport on display at annual Kentucky Derby parties at his home, where wagering on the big race was available to partygoers through his Internet gaming account. (Full disclosure: I haven’t missed a Brownstein Derby party in several years.)

But just as the authorities took away Brownstein’s ability to wager as a teenager, he recently lost his home-gaming privileges all over again. Last month, he received a notice from BetPad, an Ohio-based Internet horseplaying service, that the firm was canceling his account.

BetPad told him the company had decided to stop writing any accounts in the District.

Brownstein, with an eye on the upcoming Breeders’ Cup, contacted several of BetPad’s competitors, including YouBet.com and BrisBet.com, but all attempts to set up a replacement account were rejected. All of them have stopped doing business here, also.

Almost overnight, every established Internet horseplaying firm in the U.S. has stopped taking bets from D.C. The industry has decided en masse that to avoid future legal liability, patrons from any jurisdiction where the law doesn’t expressly permit wagering on horses will be denied service. (Federal law already prohibits overseas accounts.)

Brownstein called Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s office to find out if local authorities had any role in the sudden ban but was told that there was no local role in the shutdown. Graham’s legislative analyst, David Vacca, dug up the statute that had apparently frightened off BetPad and its peers.

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The law, which essentially bars gambling on “football, baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, or polo game, or a tennis, golf, or wrestling match, or a tennis or golf tournament, or a prize fight or boxing match, or a trotting or running race of horses, or a running race of dogs, or any other athletic or sporting event or contest,” in Vacca’s view calls into question the legality of office pools for the NCAA tournament or the Super Bowl.

Brownstein is surely peeved about the loss of the betting account. But his anger is aimed at the horse-racing industry, not the gaming firm that bounced him.

“I think this Internet thing is going to catch on, you know?” he says, sarcastically. “So it would seem like this would be a priority of racing interests: Let’s get Internet wagering figured out and get the access to wager to our existing customers, our existing fan base. But I don’t see any industry spokesman, from the [National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a racing advocacy group] or anywhere else, acting like this is a real issue.”

Advocates for other sorts of wagerers have been busy around here lately.

Poker, for example, had a big week. A group called the Poker Players Alliance, speaking for what it says are 15 million Internet poker players in the United States, organized meetings on Capitol Hill and around D.C. to rally support among lawmakers (including presidential candidate Ron Paul) for the Internet version of their favorite card game.

And the face-painted folks outside the World Trade Organization meetings and parading through Georgetown weren’t the only ones yammering about the U.S. trade policies. Inside the meetings, WTO representatives from around the world were saying that this country’s refusal to let offshore online gambling firms do business here was in direct violation of international agreements. If that ban isn’t overturned by mid-December, the U.S. risks fines of more than $100 billion.

“There is hypocrisy about gambling [in the United States],” says Jeffrey Sandman, spokesman for online wagering interests who lobbied Congress last week to pass the Safe and Secure Internet Gambling Initiative, a federal bill that would put the offshore companies back in play here and could help settle the WTO mess.

“Certain types of gambling are moral and other types are not moral,” Sandman says, mentioning ubiquitous state-sanctioned lotteries. “The bottom line is: Prohibition doesn’t work, not with booze in the 1920s, not with gambling today. People who want to gamble on the Internet are going to gamble on the Internet. So why not create a system where taxes can be collected and consumers can be protected?”

Whatever lobbying racing folks are doing these days involves only slot machines. Maryland horsemen, despite years of legislative failures, have not strayed from their slots-or-death mission. The Maryland Jockey Club announced last week that Laurel Park would be closed this Friday, a scheduled racing day, so that trainers and breeders and horsemen can be bused to Annapolis for what is billed as a “Save the Maryland Horse Industry Rally.” At the event, bus riders will issue yet another call for state legislators to grant slot licenses to racetrack owners. “Slot machines won’t grow one racing fan,” Brownstein says.

Horseplayers like Brownstein, alas, have nobody lobbying for them. Graham says he is looking into legislative remedies that would bring the Internet wagering firms back to the city. But Brownstein is fairly certain the odds are against his being able to bet from home.

“With all the problems in the District, I don’t see anybody rewriting the law,” he says. “I guess people figure the racing constituency is a bunch of guys who are dying off, and maybe that’s right. It used to be Mondays and Tuesdays were the only dark days in racing. Now, it’s Monday through Sunday.”

On a possibly related note, the betting handle for this year’s Breeders’ Cup was reported as $12,726,622. That’s down more than 43 percent from last year.