08/26/2008 12:00AM

Keeneland eyes physical change

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Too many visitors to Keeneland Racecourse are put off by the lack of permanent seating and the long lines of traffic that strangle access roads during the spring and fall meets, the track's president, Nick Nicholson, said at a public forum held by Keeneland on Monday night.

Nicholson's comments helped explain the track's decision to hire an event-architecture firm, HOK, to develop a master plan for Keeneland's future. Over the last decade, Nicholson said, there has been a 30-percent gain in attendance. The firm is expected to release a report by the end of the year.

"The moral of all this is that we woke up and found out that we're growing faster than our facility," Nicholson said. "Our lines are too long, it takes too long to get to the track, it takes too long to leave."

Additional permanent seating would give Keeneland a chance to host the Breeders' Cup, which typically requires tracks to have at least 25,000 permanent seats. In an interview after the forum, Nicholson said that the track has considered hosting the event, but Keeneland cannot launch a legitimate effort to get the Breeders' Cup until its master plan is developed.

Nicholson said the track has not given any instructions to HOK on the number of seats or square footage that should be added to the grandstand, which has only 8,500 permanent seats. On weekends, Keeneland regularly attracts crowds of 25,000.

"For two-thirds of our customers, that's a long day," Nicholson said.

Nicholson did say that Keeneland would not locate a casino near the grandstand and that the master plan for the main structure would not incorporate any elements designed to accommodate casino games or slot machines. The legalization of casinos at Kentucky racetracks has been a hot political topic for several years, but a consensus has yet to emerge in the legislature on whether casino gambling will be put to a vote.

The forum attracted approximately 125 people. Eleven individuals asked to speak during the forum, and several expressed concern that renovations would endanger what they called the track's "rustic" and "rural" character.

Russ Simons, a senior principal of HOK Sport, said that the firm had been instructed to retain the "soul of Keeneland" in any plan it develops.

"We're not trying to change Keeneland," he said. "We want Keeneland to change to accommodate your needs." Simons called Nicholson and other track officials "our conscience" as HOK develops the plan.

Though Keeneland's facilities - located just outside of Lexington next to Calumet Farm - have undergone a half-dozen renovations since being established in 1935, changes to the grandstand are viewed with trepidation by many fans. The grandstand's facade is mostly gray stone, and previous renovations have maintained that look while adding elements designed to give the public better sight lines.

Mike Maloney, a high-rolling bettor who has been given perks by Keeneland to play at the track instead of through an offshore facility, told Nicholson and Simons that the track needs to preserve that easy access to a live view of horses while also catering to the needs of bettors who are accustomed to playing simulcast races.