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Monday, July 31
Welcome to virtual horse racing


Like most horse racing fans, you've probably dreamed of owning your own thoroughbred. You can just picture it, standing in the winner's circle following a Grade I stake and telling Jim McKay how you knew your horse had it in him all along.

Then comes the wake-up call -- buying and racing a thoroughbred can add up to big bucks, even at the lowest levels of the game.

But just because you don't have money to burn, doesn't mean you can't experience the thrill of racing your own stable of horses. Thanks to a new web site -- Digiturf.com -- you can buy a virtual horse, of any color or sex you wish, name it whatever you want and then watch it run in 3D computer-animated races. You can even bet on your horse or someone else's.

Digiturf tries to make the virtual racing experience as close as possible to the real thing. Virtual owners can buy horses, purchase equipment (like blinkers and aluminum shoes) to enhance their horses' performance and even design their own silks. None of this is free, but if you think about it, that makes the experience all the more realistic.

Here's how it works. After registering at the site, you go to an area called The Sales Ring. There you select your future Secretariat, specifying all the particulars you want your horse to be. (Sorry, "fast" isn't one of the options.) You can buy and race as many horses as you wish, but each horse costs $15 per month, kind of like training and stabling fees in the real world. You can even elect to pay a one-time $50 supplementary fee to make your horse a candidate for Digiturf's Breeders' Cup-style championship days.

Next you design and register your silks, selecting from more than 30 patterns that you can customize with your own color combinations. After that, you're ready to race -- the best part.

Every day on the Digiturf site there are at least a half dozen different races with varying levels of difficulty. While you wouldn't mistake them for the real thing, the rendering of the races is very impressive.

All Digiturf races are 3D computer animated and and are displayed using a viewer that also provides tote information and running order in the race. You can even choose how you want to watch the race, selecting from several different camera angles that can be changed on the fly. You can view races from a fixed position (like you're watching from the grandstand) or you can ride along with the jockeys. All angles allow you to zoom in or out and even change the elevation to suit your tastes -- if only you could do that at a real track!

How does Digiturf make money? By selling and maintaining the virtual horse on its site as well as operating like a real racetrack -- taking a percentage of the money wagered to cover prize money and operating costs. Digiturf stresses that it is a service company and has no vested interest in the outcome of its races. The accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers monitors the algorithms used to determine which horses win to ensure that everything is on the up and up.

In the coming weeks, racing at Digiturf will be featured in this ESPN.com Horse Racing Special Section. So keep up with all the action surrounding horse racing in cyberspace.

And who knows, should you become a virtual owner, you just might be reading about yourself right here after a big win, explaining that you knew your horse had it in him all along. How would that be for a dream fufilled?

To find out more about virtual horse racing, go to Digiturf.com.