07/11/2002 11:00PM

At Lone Star, it's heaven nowadays


NEW YORK - When racing's leaders speculate about what the successful racetrack of the future might look like, they needn't talk purely in hypotheticals. They can do what I did last weekend and fly into Dallas-Fort Worth and see one up and running at Lone Star Park.

Lone Star, which wraps up a three-month meeting this weekend, has enjoyed one business success after another since opening in 1997, and continues to climb toward the top rank of American tracks. While its daily fare is still a long way from competing for national simulcasting dollars with the very top tier of spring/summer signals, it is doing a model job of serving its local market and customers through truly extraordinary facilities and customer service.

Lone Star was built for the 21st century with permanent seating for only 10,000 but with the nation's premier ontrack simulcasting facility. The Post Time Pavilion, a separate building right next to the seven-story grandstand, is a bigger version of the best Las Vegas race books, with state-of-the-art electronic information boards, 175 television monitors, and generally plush surroundings. There is a generous player-rewards program for all the regulars, and private rooms and other incentives for the heaviest hitters.

The track does an equally good job of accommodating the more casual live-racing crowd. The almost aggressive helpfulness of the track's employees is almost jarring in a racetrack setting. It's hard to stand around looking confused for more than a moment without someone from the track staff rushing up to offer assistance.

It's both a challenge and a benefit that Lone Star is operating in a market that, despite the state's longstanding fondness for horses and gambling, had nothing but bush tracks a decade ago. Texans used to drive north to Oklahoma or east to Arkansas for their racing action. Now they have year-round racing throughout the state, and Lone Star officials say that as much as a third of the crowd on any given day is composed of first-time visitors.

The potential further growth implicit in that statistic is a chief reason that Magna Entertainment set its acquisitive sights on Lone Star earlier this year, and a transaction is expected to become official Aug. 15. Unlike Santa Anita and Gulfstream, where Magna plans to undertake massive construction projects to mold its vision of tracks as new-age entertainment centers, Lone Star requires no such overhauling. Track insiders and admirers say their fondest hope is that Magna will pretty much leave the place alone.

The live racing at Lone Star has had an almost bizarre quality this year with a perhaps unprecedented domination of a race meet by two powerhouse outfits. Lone Star is the primary reason that Steve Asmussen and Cole Norman rank first and fourth nationally in training victories this year. Though July 11, 83 of Asmussen's 205 victories this year had come at Lone Star, as had 78 of Norman's 121. Locally, everyone else is running for third. After Asmussen's 83 victories and $1.8 million in purses at the meet and Norman's 78 victories and $1.4 million, it is an incredibly long way back to Dallas Keene with 23 winners and $246,000.

It seems that nearly every race features a favorite trained by Asmussen and ridden by Corey Lanerie, the meet's leading rider; a co-favorite trained by Norman and ridden by Anthony Lovato, who is second in the standings; and an inordinate number of competitors whose training or riding records are something like 1 for 43 or 2 for 67. Asmussen appears likely to prevail in a hotly contested trainer's race that had both of them dropping their claiming horses in price recently. He has inched ahead with more stock at his disposal but Norman has kept it close by winning consistently at a spectacular 31 percent clip.

It's not an entirely healthy situation. The racing would benefit from the arrival of a couple of more well-stocked outfits. If purses continue to head north, there may also be a welcome infusion of shippers from Kentucky and Illinois. Currently, the vast majority of runners on every card have done all their running in Texas, and national simulcast players are not entirely attuned to evaluating form at Retama and Manor Downs. There is also a trend for backyard breeders of terrible local stock to train their horses as well, and many of these cowboys are clearly as inept at training as they are at arranging matings.

It's a strange handicapping environment for an outsider, but there are plenty of opportunities with a relatively unsophisticated ontrack betting crowd, fairly small pools and a full complement of exotic wagers. Last Sunday, several superfectas paid off with an "all" in the fourth spot and, even more unusual, so did two pick threes.

Lone Star's ascent in American racing will be certified when it becomes the youngest track to land the Breeders' Cup, which will be run there in either 2004 or 2005, depending on Churchill Downs's renovations schedule. If the place looks as good and runs as well then as it did last weekend, Magna will have done its best job of stewardship yet.