10/04/2001 11:00PM

Be heard, find a way to bet Keeneland

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NEW YORK - American horseplayers have a unique opportunity during the next three weeks to shape their parimutuel destinies for years to come. They can answer the question, through the flow of their wagering dollars, of whether they are discriminating investors the industry must treat with respect or degenerate gamblers who can be shortchanged and mistreated with no adverse consequences.

The decision by the mid-Atlantic tracks and New York OTB's not to allow their customers to watch and bet on the Keeneland fall meeting is an act of astounding hostility toward horseplayers in these markets. Keeneland, which runs for only 17 days, has lowered its takeout to 16 percent from a previous blended rate of around 18 percent, as an experiment in stimulating business through a higher return to customers. The tracks that are refusing to handle wagers on Keeneland say the new rate is too low.

Their position is outrageous. These operators are already seriously underpaying for simulcast signals, giving just 3 cents on the dollar to the host and retaining the remaining takeout - 15 cents at an 18 percent takeout, which goes down to 13 cents at Keeneland's takeout level. The mid-Atlantic tracks' smokescreen position is that their rate should have been reduced in parallel with the takeout. If the split was 15/3 in their favor before, they argue, it should now be something like 13.3/2.7

The decision to drop Keeneland has nothing to do with three-tenths of a percent on a small piece of handle, and everything to do with trying to intimidate other tracks from either experimenting with takeout reductions or even thinking about raising their signal fees. New York's OTB's have been doing this for years. This summer, they force-fed their customers Yavapai Downs instead of Del Mar because they wanted to pay only 2 percent, rather than 2.25 percent, for a signal. Hundreds of thousands of customers were inconvenienced and deprived of a superior product, and the overall economic impact was negative. It was all about drawing a line to keep the depressed rates low.

Instead of pleading poverty, these operators should be thanking their lucky stars that a decade ago, the senders of these signals were so shortsighted that they did not insist on a 50/50 division of takeout.

The idea that a 15/3 split in favor of the receivers was a fair arrangement, and a mere 13/3 grab is not, borders on the hilarious. The economics are so tilted in the receivers' favor that they can afford to kick back half their retention to their best customers in the form of rebates.

This is about greed, not economic principle. When Saratoga instituted a takeout reduction this summer, no one dropped that signal. They knew they couldn't get away with blocking customers from betting on the very best race meet of the year without losing overall business. So they've chosen Keeneland as a target, hoping that customers will only grumble a bit for three weeks and still come out and bet on other, higher-priced\signals.

The OTB's, which are supposed to be "public benefit corporations," and the mid-Atlantic tracks are licensed by their respective states to serve the public interest, and permitted to conduct any simulcasting at all on the premise that they are providing racing fans with the signals they wish to play. If state regulation and licensing were anything but a corrupt joke, these operators might well be overruled and compelled to offer what the patrons want and deserve.

That's not going to happen, so it's up to the customers to change the business decisions being made by the operators. The decision to drop Keeneland was made because the operators apparently think that customers will show up anyway and bet just as much money at higher takeout rates. Horseplayers have a chance to prove them wrong.

In New York, they can bet Keeneland by going to Belmont Park or opening NYRA-One telephone accounts instead of betting at OTB parlors or through OTB phone accounts. In the mid-Atlantic states, they can send the message by betting less or by staying home and finding other venues to play Keeneland through telephone or Internet accounts.

This is where the skinflints may have miscalculated. They no longer have a captive market that must abide by their shortsighted rules. They are going to lose business permanently, beginning this weekend, because customers will find other ways and other places to make the bets they want.

If horseplayers change their behavior, these operators will change their decisions and the customers will get what they deserve. If the players meekly accept this appalling treatment, they will deserve what they get.