04/05/2002 12:00AM

Keeneland's purse bonanza


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The purses on opening day at Keeneland Friday looked like typographical errors but they were for real: Maidens running for $51,000, two-other-than allowance horses going short for $57,000, three-other-than fillies racing for $65,000.

No wonder there were 94 horses entered for the nine races - the only surprise was that there weren't 194. Not that winning is easy: Nine of the 11 entrants in the two-other-than allowance had made at least two stakes appearances, seven of them in their previous starts, challenging traditional notions of class: Is a horse really "dropping" if he goes from the $58,000 Hansel Stakes at Turfway to a $57,000 allowance at Keeneland?

The fat purses are the residue of Keeneland's day job when it's not holding brief race meets - selling yearlings. Its commissions from that lucrative business not only fund purses but allow the nonprofit organization to fund significant charitable projects and worthy causes like its massive new racing library, which will open this summer. The library will be the definitive research facility and archive for a sport that has too often stored its history in leaky broom closets.

It's also possible that this month's purses will look puny by comparison in just a few years, and not because more yearlings will be sold.

A long and typically sordid battle over whether to allow slot machines at the Kentucky tracks looks likely to end with no action this year, but it came so close to passing that savvy observers of local politics believe that slots are inevitable, quite possibly in a year or two. This being Kentucky, racing's share of slot revenue will be generous. Purses throughout the state would soar, and by conservative estimates Keeneland's already astronomical $600,000 a day in average purse distribution would rise to something like $1.3 million.

We could be talking $100,000 maiden races and stakes every day starting twice as high.

"It could be unbelievable," said Nick Nicholson, Keeneland's president. "The Royal Ascot of America and then some. You could do some amazing racing festivals."

You could also do some amazing takeout reductions, and fortunately Nicholson supports that as well. Keeneland's 19 percent takeout on all multiple bets is among the best in the country, its 12 percent pick six takeout at this meeting is revolutionary, and the track is looking at dropping the pick four rate at the fall meeting.

More than a slot, less than a race

Slot machines are not legal in Arkansas yet, and nobody is betting that they will be any time soon, but Oaklawn Park has pioneered an alternative that is beginning to catch on and which offers several things that other one-armed bandits don't: A taste of racing, a chance to cut your losses by using handicapping data, and the possibility of converting handle-pulling zombies into horseplayers.

The 150 Instant Racing machines at Oaklawn look and quack like slots, but qualify under existing laws in most racing jurisdictions as a parimutuel game of skill just like real racing. You could pretend it's just a slot and pick some numbers between 1 and 10 and see if you get lucky. Those numbers, however, are horses in a historical race chosen at random. You can call up some handicapping information on that race (licensed for a fee from Daily Racing Form) before you pick your numbers, and you can watch the stretch run right on the machine's screen. (No, they don't tell you in advance which race it is, so memorizing 10 years worth of results won't make you a zillionaire.)

"We ran over a billion simulations, and found that using the handicapping component increases someone's win frequency from 25 to almost 35 percent," said Oaklawn's Eric Jackson. "The machines have an eight percent takeout but you can improve on that."

The various payoffs on the machine are keyed not to three consecutive cherries, but to the finish of the race.

"Whether the players know it or not," said Jackson, "we're actually teaching them what an exacta, quinella, and trifecta are."

There is also a carryover-like progressive component to the game where all the machines are linked for an ever-growing jackpot. Jackson is salivating at the prospect of tens of thousands of Instant Racing machines being linked across the country, through existing simulcast-pool technology, creating Powerball-sized payoffs at racetracks.

The game has taken a while to catch on, but a fourth version of the original machine - with video-gamish graphics featuring Lucky the Horse and Willy the Jockey - has spurred action to where it hit a record $228,000 on March 30. Oaklawn has raised purses four times at the current meeting.

Tracks in states that permit full slots have shown little interest in Instant Racing because the game is slower, due to the racing video and handicapping elements, and thus returns less revenue per hour. On the other hand, Instant Racing may deserve a closer look beyond those economics since it at least reminds people of the better and more winnable game being played outdoors.