07/27/2001 12:00AM

Low takeout beats Wienermobile

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The most important thing happening at Saratoga opening week is not the Schuylerville, Sanford, Baruch, Whitney, or Test. It's not the hat contest, the breakfasts on the porch, or the news story on page 3 of Friday's local newspaper that the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile is coming to town. It's not even the indictment of the mutuel clerks or the OTB sale.

It's the takeout reduction, the boldest experiment in parimutuel economics in more than a decade.

On opening day here, the takeout was reduced from 15 to 14 percent on win, place, and show wagers, from 20 to 17.5 percent on daily doubles and exactas, and from 25 to 20 percent on non-carryover pick sixes. The house gets a smaller cut from each bet and instead returns more to the customers.

This is not an act of philanthropy. The theory, which has proved correct everywhere it has been tried, is that customers will bet more when they receive more because they have a few extra dollars in their pockets and because they believe they have a better chance of winning. According to track officials, Saratoga needs to handle 7 percent more money this summer to pay for the tax cuts and for everyone who takes a piece of the action to come out whole.

The importance of the takeout reduction is that if it works at Saratoga, other venues are likely to give it a try. Some already have and are pleased with the results, but a success at Saratoga, the highest-profile race meeting of the year, will give the concept real legs.

Half a century ago, takeout was 10 percent, and it has steadily and insidiously risen to a detrimental level. Nearly every alternative form of gambling, including sports betting and most casino games, has a rake in the single digits. This keeps people in action longer and makes victory seem less elusive.

A takeout reduction also sends a message to customers that they hear infrequently: that track management values their business and is trying to give them a better deal.

I make it 3-5 that the Saratoga takeout cut will spur a handle increase this summer, and I have vowed to increase my personal handle by at least 7 percent at this meeting to help the cause.

Simulcasting and Saratoga

Of all the interesting numbers generated on the record-breaking opening day - attendance of 31,524, ontrack handle of $3.57 million, total handle of $14.5 million, even Mayakovsky's track-record time of 1:03.32 for 5 1/2 furlongs - the most interesting may have been the $64,000 wagered on the full-card simulcast from Monmouth Park. This works out to a whopping per-capita of $2 on the first full-card simulcast in Saratoga history.

The expansion of full-card signals was the tradeoff for the takeout reduction. The OTB's wanted more product to offer during live racing in New York and agreed to the takeout cut only when given additional signals.

Everywhere else in American racing, expanded simulcasting is keeping business afloat, but at Saratoga it was invisible, which is sort of heartening. There's at least one place left where people feel fully entertained by a card of live racing without needing to make a bet every five minutes. On the other hand, there's no downside to making out-of-town action available to those who want it. Fears that simulcasts would somehow detract from the ontrack Saratoga experience proved completely unfounded.

Now that the ill-advised protectionism that kept simulcasts out of New York for a decade is finally disappearing, similar restrictions on taking Thoroughbred action after 7 p.m. should be the next thing to go. This attempt to keep the moribund harness-racing industry on life support until it gets slot machines is unfair to Thoroughbred bettors who would like to play full cards from California, especially during the current Del Mar meeting.

It's tough to be grouchy during opening week at Saratoga under any circumstances, and this year it's almost impossible. Lower takeout? More product? If they'd hitch some reindeer to that Wienermobile, you might swear it's Christmas in July.