04/17/2008 12:00AM

Blue Grass an indicator of trouble


By almost any objective measure, Keeneland Race Course is one of the most bettor-friendly tracks in American racing. It provides full and competitive fields with a concentration of quality matched only at Saratoga; it has pioneered the outstanding Trakus system, which provides full and accurate placings during a race; it has been a leader in lowering bet minimums, offering a 50-cent pick-four as well as dime superfectas; and it has one of the best websites in racing, including free streaming video of all its races.

So why was the handle on its racing down 17 percent from last year through the first half of its current 16-day meeting?

Track officials are citing a slowdown in the national economy, but this seems a far-fetched explanation. Oaklawn Park just concluded its 53-day meeting up 1.4 percent in total handle year over year, and the only other sharp declines this year besides Keeneland's have been those caused by the spate of cancellations in California. Besides, parimutuel handle historically has been recession-proof, especially at short boutique meetings like Keeneland's.

Most horseplayers would offer a different reason: Polytrack. Merely suggesting this will prompt indignant howls from those who enjoy gambling on races run over the quirky new surface and those who applaud any attempt to making racing safer. But you really can't argue with a staggering decline from $12.4 million to $10.3 million in daily national handle. Rightly or wrongly, the customers - who are considered right in most businesses - have spoken.

So why did Keeneland post record handle numbers at its last two meetings, its first on Polytrack? This (along with their substantial ownership interest in Polytrack) has led Keeneland to reject the argument that the new surface is unpopular with consumers. It seems more plausible, however, that the customers were willing to give it a try, out of loyalty to a track that otherwise treats them well and offers such a high quality of sport, but have seen about enough and are starting to back off.

It's understandable when Keeneland's marquee races such as the Blue Grass yield the results they do. Last year, odds-on Street Sense lost a blanket finish amid horses he routinely trounced on dirt tracks. Last Saturday, Pyro finished 10th at even money and the other accomplished dirt horses in the field floundered as well. Horseplayers like challenges and puzzles, but not seemingly random outcomes.

Keeneland's final Saturday card features the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes, the final chance for fringe Kentucky Derby aspirants to gain graded earnings to make the 20-horse Derby field. The 3-1 morning-line favorite, Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Atoned, has never raced on Polytrack, and no one will be shocked if he runs first or last. This is also roughly how people feel about the Derby prospects of the winners of this year's two major Polytrack preps, the Lane's End winner, Adriano, and the Blue Grass winner, Monba.

Deciding what to do with Pyro and his Blue Grass performance may be the central riddle in this year's Derby. The statistic that no Derby winner since 1957 has finished worse than fourth in his final Derby prep at first seems compelling, but Pyro will also be the first Derby entrant ever to have finished worse than fourth in a final prep on Polytrack. If Pyro wins the Derby, everyone will say that any idiot should have known to draw a line through his Polytrack misadventure, and if he's off the board everyone will say his 10th-place finish clearly indicated there was something wrong with him. Happy guessing.

The vexation isn't just for the bettors. Owners and trainers have less idea than ever where they stand with their 3-year-olds. Rather than winnowing horses from consideration for the big dance, races such as the Blue Grass keep everyone in play. As many as 33 horses are still under consideration for a Derby start just two weeks out, including eight of the 12 who ran in the Blue Grass. With the built-in "maybe he hated Polytrack" factor in play, you simply go on to the Derby whether your horse ran well or poorly.

No Derby prep field has ever included eight worthy Derby entrants, but you can't blame their handlers for not knowing what to do in the wake of the Blue Grass, any more than you can blame the customers for shying away from betting on these races.