04/15/2003 12:00AM

Churchill rescinds bet policy

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Churchill Downs Inc. has decided to allow bets at the tracks it owns to be made up until the gate opens, effective immediately. The decision ends Churchill's five-month-old policy of closing betting windows with one minute remaining to post time.

The policy change was announced on Tuesday, 12 days before Churchill Downs is scheduled to open its spring meet and 19 days before the Kentucky Derby. The policy will be implemented at all six of Churchill's tracks.

Churchill had begun closing the windows at the one-minute mark in November in response to concerns about late odds changes. The concerns were brought up in the wake of last year's Breeders' Cup pick six scandal, which shook bettors' confidence in the integrity of parimutuel pools.

Last week, two other tracks that had also closed their pools early, Aqueduct and Keeneland, rescinded the policies, leaving Churchill as the only racing company with a more restrictive policy still in place.

Because of the time it took to load horses in the gate, Churchill's stop-betting policy had resulted in the wagering pools being closed for approximately two minutes before the gates actually opened.

John Long, Churchill's executive vice president, said in a release that the "time is right" for Churchill to drop the policy, citing improvements in security measures and a 30-second cycle between odds updates. Before the pick six scandal, odds updates were completed every 60 seconds.

Churchill owns six racetracks, but none has been open for live Thoroughbred racing since Jan 2, when Calder Race Course in Florida closed its meet. Three Churchill tracks are scheduled to open in the next 10 days; Hollywood Park on April 23, Calder on April 25, and Churchill on April 26. The Churchill-owned Arlington Park will open on May 9.

Few racing officials believed that Churchill would maintain the early stop-betting policy for the Kentucky Derby, which took $79 million in wagers last year, by far the largest handle for any single racing event. Julie Koenig, a spokeswoman for Churchill Downs, said that the Derby business was a "consideration."

"Certainly, we have very long lines for our mutuel windows on Derby day, and we have to make sure that our customers are taken care of," Koenig said.