Internet broadcasting is stuck in the stalls

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The Independent Online

The 2.40 race at Lingfield yesterday afternoon was a typical all-weather event, run over 10 furlongs and worth a touch more than £4,000 to the winner.

The 2.40 race at Lingfield yesterday afternoon was a typical all-weather event, run over 10 furlongs and worth a touch more than £4,000 to the winner. But it was also, to give it its full title, the Bet. Watch. Live. attheraces.co.uk Conditions Stakes, named after the website bringing live pictures of British racing to the web which launched on Tuesday lunch-time. On a dull weekday afternoon in December, it was an invitation which proved impossible to refuse.

Attheraces.co.uk is one of the results of the convoluted negotiations to buy British racing's media rights, which ended six months ago with most of the country's tracks signing up to a consortium which includes Channel 4 and Arena Leisure, the owners of Lingfield and a number of other courses. Another product of the deal, a free digital racing channel, is due to launch on 1 May, and the proceeds of betting via interactive televison and the web will, according to some estimates, heap immense riches on all concerned (the punters, obviously, excepted).

First experience of attheraces.co.uk suggests, however, that if Peter Savill is about to buy a few cases of champagne, he had better make sure it's from Tesco. It is not, admittedly, any fault of the attheraces consortium that broadband (ie. high speed) access to the internet remains the preserve of a fortunate few. Most surfers though, this one included, are forced to access the web through a standard modem, and the simple fact is that they are not nearly quick enough to convey pictures of a live horse race in any meaningful way.

In many respects, the attheraces.co.uk site is impressive. It is fast, crisply designed, and geared to delivering information without too many of the clever bells and whistles which web designers adore and users, particularly those with an urgent bet to place, detest.

This deposit is essential for anyone who wants to watch a race, since the site will only allow access to the live pictures if you have money riding on the outcome. The minimum bet is £2, and again the staking process is impressively swift, although at present, only Tote bets are accepted (fixed-odds bookies are due to arrive on the site early next year).

It is this point, though, that the attheraces.co.uk experience starts to fall rather flat. The pictures are there, all right, but the process of watching them using a standard modem is hardly a televisual feast. Rather, it is like leafing through a photograph album, and quite slowly at that. Five seconds after the commentator for the 2.40 announced that the race was off, they were still frozen in the stalls on my screen. When the picture finally changed, they were halfway around the first bend, and so it went on, until a somewhat indistinct blob which was apparently Reef Diver jerked his way past the post a couple of minutes later.

Chris Stoddart, the chief executive of attheraces, acknowledges that for many users, the initial experience of live racing on the net will be underwhelming. "It's true that on a 56k modem, generally it's going to be somewhat jumpy picture quality," Stoddart said yesterday, "but the main thing is it's out there now, and you can see meetings which you can't see on television until our channel comes on stream in May. Streaming technology is getting progressively better, and I really believe that in a year's time, and hopefully before, the quality will have improved."

Stoddart's first target for attheraces.co.uk is to get "100,000 accounts as soon as possible". Unless the viewing experience for the ordinary user improves significantly, though, it may struggle to be a focus of betting on the net.

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