08/15/2001 12:00AM

Is that my heart or hoofbeats at Mountaineer?


CHESTER, W.Va. - There are nuclear weapons in West Virginia. I've seen them, touched them, even played with them.

Okay, so they're not truly nuclear weapons . . . only slot machines. But the analogy of slots as a powerful weapon - suggested to me by Mountaineer assistant racing secretary Mark Patterson - is a good one.

These slots are as powerful as nuclear weapons, and because of them, non-slot-machine-wielding states are fighting a losing battle against West Virginia.

Stagnant purses and limited gambling options keep Kentucky and Ohio at a serious disadvantage.

Slots have brought life to West Virginia. A track that once averaged $22,000 per day in purses put up nearly $900,000 in purses last Saturday alone.

Slots have brought good horses back to West Virginia. They've brought fans back into the seats. And by supplementing purses, they've given owners an opportunity to make money owning a Thoroughbred.

They've also given horseplayers a good product on which to wager: full fields, improving quality, competitive races.

A few years ago I never would have considered betting a race from Mountaineer. Now I find myself turning in almost every night to their races on TVG.

I made my first trip to Mountaineer this weekend for the West Virginia Derby to cover the race and to lead a Daily Racing Form handicapping seminar. Virtually every aspect of the track exceeded my expectations - except for the backstretch, which although improving, is worn down.

The track is built in what city folk would call the middle of nowhere. Chester is a small country town on the bank of the Ohio River.

But it happens to be five minutes from the Pennsylvania and Ohio borders. Pittsburgh is only 45 minutes away, and Cleveland is about three hours' drive.

So, in the midst of country roads and farms is the slot-machine oasis known as Mountaineer Park. It's a full service entertainment and gaming center, a mini Las Vegas.

There's a hotel on site, a casino, a 4,000-seat concert arena, a health and fitness center, and yes - a racetrack.

A person could live at this place. I suppose that's the point. They don't want you to leave, and quite frankly, I didn't want to.

As I dozed in my hotel room after midnight Saturday, I was actually watching eight dogs chase a bone around the track at Phoenix Greyhound Park. Mountaineer pipes the simulcast feeds into your hotel room.

Despite all the slots, the most encouraging aspect to Mountaineer was not the gaming. It was the racing.

Before I arrived, I feared I would find patrons mindlessly plugging quarters into one-armed bandits, oblivious to the races around them. That wasn't the case at the track.

More than 18,500 fans showed up for the races Saturday night for the racing. They showed up for the $500,000 West Virginia Derby and for the opportunity to see three Hall of Fame riders - Pat Day, Gary Stevens, and Jerry Bailey - aboard horses in Mountaineer's richest race.

These race fans weren't fans of the low-quality horses that were running for $2,500 purses as recently as six years ago. When good racing came back, so did they.

As people poured out of the track after the races late Saturday, it was interesting to see how many headed to the casino to continue to gamble. The road on the property stretching from the track to the casino was choked with traffic and headlights, reminding me of the scene from "Field of Dreams" when a stream of cars lined up to see Kevin Costner's character's baseball field.

If Mountaineer can do this, what could Churchill Downs do with a casino on Kentucky Derby Day? My guess is that they couldn't build a casino big enough to accommodate the crowd. The 150,000 people that attend the Derby would spend millions that evening.

Their numbers would be off the charts - not only for Derby Day, but year round. And just like at Mountaineer, the racing product would improve.

West Virginia, Iowa, Delaware . . . these states have already beaten others to the punch with slots at the tracks. Can Kentucky and Ohio afford to be idle?