A New Level of Fantasy Betting?

11 April 2001
Simply wagering on horses isn’t enough for some race bettors, and those who are always looking to get closer to the action can find it on the Web. Thanks to a new betting site, Digiturf.com, bettors can do more than just wager; they can actually train and buy their own horses. . . sort of.

The horses are of the virtual variety, but Digiturf chief of operations Marc Weinberg says that giving users the chance to buy and train horses has been a popular move for the site.

The service launched only two weeks ago but has already seen a great deal of interest from prospective stable owners in the U.K..

"The response from bettors has been nothing short of overwhelming," Weinberg said. "We have sold over 230 horses, and are already scheduling upwards of 10 races a day. Bettors are no different to other armchair fans. Everyone, I believe, wants to get in the action and coach or in this case train."

The site is set up to enable users to accumulate funds which can in turn be used to bet on races or to train and race a championship horse.

Users then are offered two choices on the site: They can simply log on and place wagers on one of the scheduled virtual races for the day or they can build and train a horse to enter in a race.

Weinberg says it's fantasy sports at a whole new level.

Based in the Netherlands Antilles, Digiturf is the brainchild of a renowned South African ex-racehorse trainer, who still owns and breeds horses today. He approached Weinberg to build and run his unique vision of a virtual horseracing community.

Digiturf then teamed up with Aqua Online to provide the technology for the site.

"They (Aqua Online) provided us with a small army (over 20 in all) of talented programmers, designers and developers," Weinberg said. "We were able to turn his dream into the site you see today."

Since its early start, Digiturf hasn’t proceeded with a full launch or marketing campaign. Weinberg said the focus for the company is in Europe at this point, but he feels America could create huge opportunities for the site.

"I think this will have a tremendous future in the States, and if anything, it will introduce a new generation to the excitement and pleasures of horseracing," he said. "Digiturf is not simply a horseracing simulation, nor is it only for the die-hard bettor who knows a lot about the sport. It has a lot of appeal for anyone who enjoys strategy games, betting or entertainment on the Internet. There is such a huge market in the States for fantasy leagues, and Digiturf has taken that concept to another level, with an even higher degree of interactivity and entertainment."

Weinberg doesn’t see the virtual option of horse racing that is offered through Digiturf hurting real-life racetracks. If anything, he says, it will increase the interest in live horseracing.

"I really feel strongly that Digiturf will bring a lot of people back to real racing," he said, "as the two complement each other so well."

Not only do the two complement each other, but also Weinberg says Digiturf it likely to expose the sport to a new generation of fans.

"Digiturf features an exhaustive glossary and help section, as well as site demos, that attempts to guide the novice through the entire process," Weinberg said. "By novice, I mean both computer novices who are not that familiar with the Net, as well as racing novices."

Digiturf did launch at the height of the foot and mouth disease epidemic, which forced numerous horse races to be cancelled. Weinberg said the timing was beneficial at first for the site, but they have proved to have staying power.

"It was advantageous to us initially, in that it provided us with a springboard for some highly visible publicity in the English press, but on the whole I do not feel that it has made a difference," he said. "I did not want Digiturf to be seen as an alternative to real racing, so that once the crisis abated--as is largely the case now--people would ignore us as nothing more than a well-timed novelty."

Weinberg also pointed out that while live horseracing is back to normal, U.K. punters are still flocking to the site.

"Horseracing is now almost back to normal in the U.K.," he said. "The vast majority (75 percent) of our new members continue to come from the U.K."

While Digiturf is still focusing only on the U.K. market, Weinberg sees a global potential with the site.

"If you think about the number of horseracing enthusiasts and people who love to play online games, not only in the U.K. and USA, but also in the Far East and Australia, then you begin to sense how huge Digiturf could become," he said. "It would be premature to make any wild predictions at this stage but there is nothing else like this out there, and a huge market is waiting to find out about it, so we're definitely positive about the future."

Aqua Online, a Johannesburg company, developed the technology which is now owned and patented by Digiturf.

Weinberg says the site lures players for long periods of time since the key to having a successful horse is spending time training and preparing it when it isn’t racing.

"Once you have bought a horse and start to train it, it becomes a personal challenge to do well with it," he said.

The urge to succeed forces users to want to have a stable full of horses.

"We see very few members with just one horse," he said. "Soon, they want to own a stable of virtual horses, to race them all the time and to earn as much stakes money as possible."

Weinberg said that the one negative to the site turns out to be its main attraction. To do well owners are forced to spend time with their horse. There is no instant gratification, but those who are serious about making money can succeed if they spend the right time on the site.

"Gratification on Digiturf takes a little bit of time," he said. "There is so much to see and do on the site, that it takes a few minutes to explore and find one's feet. You can go on, buy your horse, register your silks and race within one hour, but members will be far more successful if they put some thought into it. They can work out their horse's strengths and weaknesses before finding the ideal race to nominate into. The more time one spends on the site, the better one will do."

The time requirements for training the horse lend themselves to a loyal customer base.

"They log in every single day in order to gallop their horses, monitor progress, apply products, enter into races, and then for good measure they log in again later in the day to see the actual race and check their account balance," he said. "We don’t count a repeat user as a ‘loyalist,’ a practice employed by the majority of community-based Internet sites. We don't need to. Our members are on the site every single day, for long periods of time."

Not only will users find themselves coming back to the site, but also, Weinberg says, they will find themselves emotionally attached to their horses.

"Their horses become more than a little graphic running around a screen," he said. "They want to earn stakes money, but they also want to see that their training methods and decisions as to which races to compete in have worked. There is a kind of pride involved that transcends other gaming sites, and will make Digiturf their favorite site."

But, the bottom line with the entire virtual racing experience, just as it is for live racing, is money. And Digiturf has plenty of that to spread around to winning horses. The end of July will see a large purse awarded to winners, and Weinberg says owners are preparing in advance for the big day.

"There is the real opportunity of making a lot of money for a relatively small investment," he said. "The chance of owning one of the six horses who will each win $20,000 on July 31 drives a lot of bettors to own more than one horse."

Nobody knows where Kevin Smith came from. He simply showed up one day and started writing articles for IGN. We liked him, so we decided to keep him. We think you'll like him too. Kevin can be reached at kevin@igamingnews.com.