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In my experiece it seems to depend on the registrar that the domain is hosted with.
Snapnames has registered two for us. They seem to good relationship with Verisign and Namescout!
With some of the others, we missed the boat!
What I like about their system is that it is flexible in that you can select another domain to backorder if the one you were watching was renewed.
I have heard all sorts of dates. Also, I know the person who owns it, and I might be able to convince them to delete the domain name themselves. (I relied on one of their subdomains for my business. Stooooopid move on my part!) Does that speed up the process? I registered to get it via snapnames.