11/13/2002 12:00AM

Fans learn quickly to place bets earlier

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The new Churchill Downs Inc. policy that shuts down betting on the company's races with zero minutes to post appeared to have little impact on racing fans when implemented for the first time Wednesday.

Officials and fans at Churchill Downs said that because the new policy was so well publicized and announced so often, it was difficult to miss, and no major problems were reported at offtrack sites.

"There haven't been any problems," mutuel clerk Terri Smith said after several races at Churchill. "If you don't know about it by now, it's your own fault."

As Churchill's new policy was being phased in Wednesday, officials at the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Saratoga, and Belmont, said they would adopt a similar procedure effective Dec. 4, but only at offtrack sites. Under NYRA's policy, betting will be shut down at offtrack sites when the first horse goes into the gate, but ontrack betting will continue until the starting gate opens, the officials said. The Churchill policy applies to all betting sites, on and off the track.

Like their counterparts at Churchill, NYRA officials said the policy will allow more accurate odds to be posted because it will give the tracks time to collect information from out-of-state sites and merge the data into their mutuel pools. Ontrack bets will be treated differently, NYRA officials said, because ontrack bets can be transmitted nearly instantly into the pools. NYRA cannot implement the policy until Dec. 4 because software at racetracks across the country will have to be updated to respond to a new stop-betting command.

At Churchill Downs on Wednesday, bright orange notices were prominently posted near betting windows, and announcer Luke Kruytbosch constantly reminded fans of the early closings as each race neared. The result was people betting earlier than normal, although occasionally a fan would be shut out.

Plans are for Churchill to implement the policy at all its tracks, including Hollywood Park, Calder, and Hoosier Park, which currently have live meets. As of Wednesday, Hollywood was still awaiting permission from the California Horse Racing Board to make the change. Calder, in Miami, and Hoosier, in Anderson, Ind., were scheduled to go to the new schedule on Thursday.

The policy was initiated in the wake of the Breeders' Cup pick six betting scandal and was intended to address concerns that odds frequently change significantly between the time a race starts and when payoffs are posted.

On Wednesday at Churchill, about two or three minutes transpired between the time when betting was cut off and a race was started. Late money trickled in after the cutoff time but never after the race had begun.

Some fans said that although the new policy might disrupt their usual betting habits, the change was needed.

"I feel like I was getting cheated on some occasions by somebody who was past-posting," said Tony King, an everyday racegoer at Churchill. "This way is okay, but I still think they're going to lose money.

"There's got to be a better way. Hopefully one of the tote companies will come up with a program that lets people bet up until post, and you still get to see the final odds just a few seconds after the break."

Churchill mutuels director Rick Smith said after six of nine races had been run Wednesday that ontrack handle was down about 10 percent from last year, "which actually is fairly close to what we've been tracking all meet." He said that because New York and California were dark Wednesday, a comparison of all-sources handle to the corresponding 2001 date would be useless.

"It's going to be hard to make a judgment just off today," said Smith. "We've got a light crowd both here and out in the simulcast world. I think Thursday will make for reasonable comparison, and then Saturday will be the real test."

Churchill officials have not said whether the zero-minute policy will be permanent. Kentucky Racing Commission executive director and chief steward Bernie Hettel said he and other officials are hopeful that computer software can be created by early next year that would alleviate the need for the zero-minute policy while also "maintaining the system's integrity."

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty