05/02/2003 12:00AM

Going back to the future


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The playing of "My Old Kentucky Home," the mournful Stephen Foster ballad that brings mist to many an eye when the horses step onto the Churchill Downs track for the Kentucky Derby each year, has an added resonance this year. The old Kentucky home of the Derby, like the antebellum South recalled in the song, will never be quite the same.

The 23 new luxury boxes on the fourth floor that were opened this week are just the beginning. Another 58 are on the way, creating fifth and sixth floors that will rise as high as the track's signature Twin Spires. The entire track will have a facelift, from a new facade to a redesigned paddock and 13 new elevators whisking patrons up and down the overhauled plant.

The $120 million makeover will be a work in progress next year during the 2004 Derby, and is the reason that the 2004 Breeders' Cup will be held at Lone Star Park rather than Churchill, where it had originally been scheduled. The Cup will instead come to Churchill a year later in 2005, by which time the project will be complete. The timing will make the new and expanded Churchill seem all the more spacious after a Breeders' Cup at space-challenged Lone Star next year.

Churchill officials have promised that the track's historical character will somehow be preserved, but not even a dedicated preservationist would argue that the majority of the changes can only be for the better. Churchill underwent one transformation more than a decade ago when it was truly in disrepair but has remained an incomplete mix of the old and new. Recent additions butt up against areas that seem more suited to a museum exhibit of early 20th century Americana than a modern sports facility. It's just as well that once-a-year visitors can't move around much on Derby Day because only Churchill regulars with sharp pathfinding skills can avoid getting lost trying to get from one end of the facility to the other.

The most interesting, and perhaps heartening, thing about the renovation project is that it seems to contradict the downsizing of the sport and its facilities elsewhere. New tracks, such as Lone Star, have only 20 percent of the seating as the coliseum-style tracks of the past. The new tracks are built for the simulcast era, and their busiest areas are enclosed Las Vegas-style racebooks rather than seats facing a racetrack. No one but Churchill is building a bigger facility with even more permanent seating.

The Derby has a lot to do with that, as does Churchill's regular spot in the Breeders' Cup rotation, but there are local factors as well. Racing in other major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles, is dwarfed by those cities' major league sports franchises. Churchill, however, is Louisville's Yankees or Lakers. Also, its biggest competition for live business is coming from equally ambitious new projects, the gambling riverboats less than 30 minutes away in Indiana, where ever-expanding hotel-casinos such as Caesars and Belterra have been launched in the last three years with investments of more than $500 million each.

There will be room at the new Churchill for slot machines of its own. A year ago, slots in Kentucky nearly passed the legislature, but some political miscalculations stalled the effort and the situation has stagnated under a lame-duck governor. Slots still seem more a question of when rather than if, and Churchill could well end up offering a truly integrated combination of premier racing along with mechanical gaming. Still, it's going to be disconcerting to see the twin spires bridged by a wall of glass luxury suites.

Are TV ratings due to dip?

Another thing that might look different soon is the state of television ratings for the Triple Crown. It's going to be interesting to see whether last year's gains had more to do with supposedly renewed public interest in the game or with the National Basketball Association.

When ratings were slumping in recent years, one of the excuses was that the races on ABC were often up against the NBA on NBC. Then last year, the Triple Crown also went to NBC, which meant not only an end to competition but a bounty of network promotion for racing during the playoffs. Ratings increased dramatically, but some industry officials attributed the spike to racing's own marketing and promotional efforts rather than the NBA's coattails.

Then last year, ABC outbid NBC for basketball, so this year the two could be going head to head again. Only Thursday night victories by the Celtics, Nets, Spurs, and Lakers prevented four decisive game sevens from being played on Derby Day. So far, so good, but there could be compelling games by Preakness and Belmont time.

If the ratings dip, it will be interesting to hear whether the resurgence of public interest was a one-year deal or whether the industry will go back to blaming the NBA.