Updated on 09/16/2011 9:23AM

New-look Keeneland: Who'dathunkit?

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WASHINGTON - For much of its history, Keeneland was best known as a place that revered tradition. That was the polite way of saying that the Lexington, Ky., racetrack was a hopeless anachronism.

Keeneland prided itself on having no announcer, even though fans had difficulty following the action and were left in the dark in the event of late scratches or other changes. The track resisted the use of color-coded saddlecloths that enable fans to identify horses more easily. Keeneland resisted the proliferation of exotic wagers, even though bettors love exactas, trifectas, and all the rest. Because its principal business is the operation of the world's most important Thoroughbred auctions, Keeneland always took good care of owners, breeders, and the sport's elite, but it seemingly cared little about horseplayers.

In view of this history, Keeneland's transformation in recent years is a stunning development. Not only have its purses become so formidable that it offers some of the best racing in the country, Keeneland has become as innovative and fan-friendly as any track on earth.

Keeneland was ushered into the modern world by the advent of full-card simulcasting. The track annually operates three-week meetings in the spring and the fall, but since it has been able to stay open year-round and offer simulcasts, it has stockpiled revenue that is channeled into a small number of races. At the 17-day meeting that began Friday afternoon, Keeneland's purses will average $583,706 per day - a figure that dwarfs every track in the country but Saratoga. Over the next three days, it will run seven stakes races worth between $150,000 and $500,000 each. Even maidens run for purses of $50,000 that would be worthy of stakes raced elsewhere in the country. The high quality of the competition attracts the interest of simulcast bettors from coast to coast; in the spring, wagering on Keeneland's races averaged $8.1 million a day - most of it coming from out of the state.

Simulcasting forced Keeneland to aim its product at a broader audience, rather than the insular market of Lexington, where folks revere the place so much they rarely questioned absurdities such as the absence of a public-address system. For the sake of the simulcast market, Keeneland hired a track announcer, adopted colored saddlecloths and offered a full array of exotic wagering. But this was only part of its change. "We are committed to be the most customer-friendly racing establishment that we can be," said track president Nick Nicholson. "We're going to keep challenging ourselves to come up with new and better ideas."

Among its ideas:

* Keeneland developed one of the best websites in the industry. It offers a live online telecast of each racing card, and makes the films of past races readily available in an archive. If a bettor is considering a horse who made his last start at Keeneland, he can review that horse's performance with the click of a mouse. When Keeneland conducts its horse auctions, the sales are shown live on the website and the catalogs are available there, too.

* Keeneland has been one of the few tracks to champion the idea that lower parimutuel takeout is good for its fans and healthy for the sport as a whole. Unlike most tracks that take as much as 25 cents from every dollar wagered, Keeneland keeps only 16 percent from win, place and show wagers and 19 percent from all exotics.

* For several years the track has accommodated its live customers by operating drive-through betting windows. This fall it is employing mobile mutuel clerks who will spare fans the inconvenience of standing in line to bet. They will use handheld devices that can print tickets and cash wagers.

If Keeneland has changed, it is partly because the nature of the racing business has changed as well. There was a time when Keeneland could afford to be elitist. But as Thoroughbred racing's popularity has declined, and the sport faces intense competition from other forms of gambling, it can't afford to take customers for granted any more. Keeneland has an especially large stake in the well-being of the game. In order for it to keep selling million-dollar yearlings to American buyers, there have to be prosperous racetracks where those horses can run.

"If we are going to get new owners," Nicholson said, "the sport must be healthy. We need places where people who bet can go and enjoy themselves. When new fans come here, we want them to be able to say, 'This is something I'd like to be involved in.' What we're trying to be is a showcase for Thoroughbred racing."

(c) 2002, The Washington Post