10/04/2001 12:00AM

Once stodgy, Keeneland is on cutting edge


LEXINGTON, Ky. - A 16 percent takeout on all bets. Coordinated post times with New York. A pick five. Imaginative wagers like the four stakes pick four. Color-coded saddle cloths. Replay kiosks. A vastly improved simulcast production.

Consider all these changes and innovations that have been implemented at Keeneland since Nick Nicholson became track president, and one thing is clear: This ain't your daddy's Keeneland.

"If you listen to people, they'll tell you what you need to do," said Nicholson.

For years now, perception has not been reality when it comes to how player-friendly Keeneland is. Maybe the track once deserved criticism as a place that refused to install a public-address system or card more than eight races or offer any exotic wagering beyond a daily double.

Slighted horseplayers believed Keeneland's proudly held slogan, "Racing As It Was Meant to Be," really meant, "Too Stubborn or Arrogant to Change a Thing."

But in 1981, Keeneland became the first American track to scrap the old hand-and-crank mutuel system and go to computers. They got on board the exacta train, then the trifecta, then the whole exotic menu, even trying something called the omni before small fields forced its ouster. They built a sports bar and trucked in Jumbotron televisions. They constructed drive-through betting windows in the parking lot. They beat almost all other tracks in utilizing the Internet, going to real-time audio and video several years ago. They poured million after million into renovating and modernizing.

Nicholson, a 54-year-old native of nearby Winchester, Ky., is quick to downplay his role in the evolution of a track that clearly has become an industry leader in a variety of categories.

"I'm almost embarrassed to talk about it in terms of 'me,' " he said. "This really is an all-around team effort around here." That may be so, but it has been on Nicholson's watch that Keeneland has made its most recent progressive moves.

After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1972, Nicholson worked for nearly 10 years as a top aide to former Kentucky governor and U.S. senator Wendell Ford. Nicholson said he "still uses stuff every day" that Ford taught him when he was young and impressionable.

"Mostly how to listen," said Nicholson. "A lot of these ideas are from when people come into this office or when I'm out walking around talking to customers"

Nicholson, who after working in high-profile positions for The Jockey Club and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association became Keeneland president on Jan. 1, 2000, said he also has been "influenced by Barry Schwartz." Schwartz has drawn praise for his decision-making since becoming chairman of the New York Racing Association.

"A lot of things Barry says, I agree with," said Nicholson. "I'm

comfortable with the direction he's taken. I admire the way he's not afraid to try things."

Schwartz played at least a small role in several of the changes that will be in effect when Keeneland opens Friday. After years of resistance, Schwartz had NYRA switch to the colored saddle cloths. After hearing pleas from his major players, he lowered takeout significantly. And when Keeneland asked whether they could coordinate post times between their tracks, he said of course.

Last spring, Keeneland switched to colored saddle cloths, a move that greatly relieved simulcast players who long complained they had difficulty distinguishing a 5 from a 6 from an 8. This summer, Keeneland announced it would reduce takeout in the fall by dropping all exotic wagers from 18.5 to 16 percent, an industry low (the track's win-place-show take already was 16 percent). And thousands of bettors who had been crying

for saner scheduling finally got their way when Keeneland recently announced that while Belmont would run races at on the hour and 30 minutes past the hour, Keeneland would run at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour.

In addition, partly because the short meets (and limited carryover opportunities) had diminished the allure of the pick six, Keeneland will now try a pick five, a $1 wager that will not carry over but figures to draw a stronger day-to-day handle. The track also confirmed Tuesday that the four stakes pick four, combining two graded stakes each from Keeneland and Santa Anita, will be offered nationwide on Sunday.

These changes, said Nicholson, may or may not work. But at least

"they're worth trying," he said, if for no other reason than his customers have asked for them.

The lower takeout, he said, clearly jeopardizes Keeneland's profit margins, but "we have virtually no relevant data and a lot of differing opinion on how a lower takeout impacts business. Some people think it'll make no difference, and some think it'll be huge. My thought is the industry needs this kind of experiment at least so we can accumulate some facts in this post-simulcasting era. It's a short meet, and we're willing to take the risk."

For serious players, the benefits of lowered take are highly welcome. A winning wager that previously would have returned $81.40 now will return $84. That may not look like much at first glance, but when multiplied time and time again, it becomes significant. Ultimately, bettors will have more money to spend, and most industry analysts believe those extra profits will come back through the mutuel window eventually, anyway.

The overall effect is to generate more handle, or "churn," thus

offsetting potential losses that may be incurred because of the track's lowered share of the betting dollar.

While all these changes have occurred, Keeneland's understated grace and tradition - qualities that have been guarded with an intense solemnity - remain very much in evidence. Nicholson knows all about what Keeneland means to so many: the stately trees; the pastoral setting during the seasonal splendor of spring and fall; the finely attired attendees; the tailgaters who have had a date at Keeneland circled on their calendars for months.

But he also knows what century he is living in.

"You always want to be mindful of the past," he said. "But you also have to keep an eye on the future. We don't want to be afraid to try things here."