11/07/2001 1:00AM

Fans followed the bouncing head to the track


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There was a whole lot of bobbling going on at Churchill Downs Saturday, yet not by the horses leaving the starting gate.

The things bouncing Saturday were the Pat Day bobblehead dolls, the little statues with oversized heads that bob on springs. Ten thousand were given away to fans. And the crowd supported the promotion in a way that far exceeded how the betting public responded to lower takeouts.

How unfortunate - not that the Pat Day figurines were so popular, but that lower takeouts at Saratoga and Keeneland this year were not.

Bettors can't expect improved wagering opportunities if they don't show their support. Gamblers need to come out to the track - if only in a fraction of the way that Kentucky fans did by lining up hours early to get their favorite bouncing jockey, Pat Day.

It's a sad statement that a Day bobblehead doll can sell for $78 on Ebay, more than numerous auctions of two tickets to the World Thoroughbred Championships in New York.

Racing has collectors. Now it needs fans.

The bobblehead craze wasn't limited to Ebay. The scene at Churchill Downs resembled the Cabbage Patch Doll scramble that took place at shopping malls years ago. Gates opened five minutes early at 11:25 a.m. and by 11:55 a.m., more than 10,000 admissions had been registered, and all the bobblehead vouchers had been issued.

Attendance for the day totalled 19,806. Although perhaps inflated by repeat-admission patrons, it was the largest non-Breeders' Cup paid attendance that Churchill has experienced for a fall meet in more than a decade.

Even Day was shocked. "I just thought it would be a nice little giveaway," he said. "I jokingly said the other day that I might have to take 9,999 of them home."

Although it would be healthy for the industry to see low-takeout promotions succeed, it is encouraging to see ideas like this go well.

Churchill, in fact, patterned the promotion after successful bobblehead giveaways at baseball stadiums and at tracks on the West Coast.

The move paid off. The track got media coverage they never would have received with a T-shirt giveaway. A full-page story appeared in the local paper in the days leading up to the event, and the hype not only boosted attendance on Saturday but also increased awareness for the fall meet, which can get a bit overlooked after the Kentucky Derby in the spring.

Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn't just novice fans or memorabilia lovers that wanted these bobbleheads.

One handicapper told me he was going early to get one so he could use it for target practice every time Day gets him beat. Apparently winning with nearly 30 percent of his mounts on the meet isn't enough.

Fans in Kentucky may not be as harsh as those in New York, but even here racing attracts a tough crowd.

There have been more bobbleheads online at Ebay than just Day's recently. A quick glance revealed a Laffit Pincay bobblehead selling for $61, and a Chris McCarron fetching $56. Which begs the question, what would a Jerry Bailey doll bring? Based on the popularity of these promotions, my guess is that we may soon find out.