01/27/2004 12:00AM

The 'other' Saratoga becomes a hot spot

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Mark the date and time.

As of 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, Nelson Avenue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., changed forever.

So, as a matter of fact, did the racetracks on both sides of that narrow road, storied Saratoga Racetrack on the east side and charming Saratoga Raceway on the west.

And so did Saratoga Springs itself.

When general manager Skip Carlson opened the doors at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway on Wednesday morning, he opened a new era for the town. Or was it an old era, a return to the days when Saratoga was the gaming mecca of the East?

Waiting behind the doors of the Raceway's gleaming, ultramodern state-of-the-art racino - the first in New York state - were 1,323 VLTs, or VGMs for video gaming machines, or whatever you choose to call them. Call them VLTs, for Video Lottery Terminals, because it is New York's contention that they are simply part of the state's lottery system, governed not by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board but by the Lottery Commission. Surrounding the machines were two restaurants, a bar and food court, a gift shop, and a coat-check booth. Outside there was valet parking.

The racino is being challenged by a man named Joe Dalton, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Saratoga Springs. He and a tough lawyer named Cornelius Murray say VLTs are unconstitutional in New York, and they have gotten their argument all the way to the Appellate Division, New York's highest court.

Sometime next month, that court is expected to rule on the issue of constitutionality. Whatever they rule is likely to be appealed, but it is questionable if a federal court will intervene in gambling, long considered a matter for states to decide themselves.

This means, in effect, that Saratoga Gaming and Raceway has done some mighty big gambling itself, with its partner Delaware North, which will run its racino operation. They have bet $15 million, already spent and on the line, that the constitutionality of VLTs in New York state will ultimately be upheld. All of New York's other tracks, except for Saratoga Racetrack and Belmont Park, are making the same bet, and for very big dollars.

Until now, Saratoga Raceway has been the pretty but neglected neighbor of Saratoga Racetrack. Their stable areas face one another, but the Raceway sits back sedately off Nelson Avenue, with a beautiful wooded training track, a polo field, and a picturesque little grandstand and clubhouse as lovely, to scale, as its huge and famed neighbor across the street.

Until now, few Thoroughbred fanciers strayed to the Raceway, pretty as it always has been. Some years ago Ernie Morris, a distinguished lawyer who ran the track, converted its offices on Nelson Avenue into a five-star restaurant called The Lodge. He imported a New Orleans chef and the food was magnificent. After Morris died, his successor Frank Fitzgerald, renamed the track the Saratoga Equine Sports Center, and welcomed all sorts of horse people, not just racing people, to make the place home. Quality polo was played there, and a host of other equine events used the facility as well.

Fitzgerald is gone now, too, and the Gerritys, father and son, who own the Raceway, now have taken a step that changes the gambling landscape of Saratoga. They hope, of course, that Thoroughbred people will find the Raceway along with non-racing gamblers, and they expect that VLTs will boost their purses from $2.9 million last year to $10 million this year. If they do, the Raceway, always a delightful place to race, now will have real drawing power for better horses and stables.

As for Nelson Avenue during late July and August, ask for divine guidance. Bill Finley was only kidding when he predicted, in a New Year's look forward on ESPN.com, that on July 28, 28,412 people will show up at Saratoga Racetrack and leave furious because of the 347,912 at the racino who had traffic backed up, he wrote, for 65 miles on route I-87.

It won't be that bad, but the geography of Saratoga Springs changed this week, and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway is an important new spot on the map. Many who now find it are going to like it, and it no longer is little sister. It now is a big, beautiful newcomer who will make her presence felt in no uncertain terms.