08/24/2004 12:00AM

Peaceful co-existence at Spa

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Handicapping horse racing, as students of these pages learn early on, is not a precise science.

Neither, it turns out, is handicapping the economics of horse racing.

Earlier this year, the professors at NYRA U. were predicting doom and gloom, certain that the siren song of slots at the neighboring harness raceway across narrow Nelson Avenue would make life miserable for venerable Saratoga Race Course. They urged their trotting neighbors to close down their newfound treasures during the day while the runners were in action in August. It would have been a generous neighborly gesture, but the raceway folks, busy counting their windfall, declined with firmness and finality.

Over more than five previous decades of friendly cooperation - the runners used the harness track's stabling for overflow - there never was concern at the race course about any exodus of fans or competition, for the runners ran in bright sunshine and the trotters and pacers performed under bright lights.

Then, on Jan. 28 this year, slots came to the raceway, which quickly changed its name to Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, and its image as well.

Saratoga's trotting track opened in late June 53 years ago, founded by bluebloods of the harness sport. It was built with grace and charm, on spacious lovely grounds. It came to operate year-round, and posed no threat nor created any particular interest to the fans and customers of Saratoga Race Course during the six weeks of summer when both were operating. Many did not even notice when the raceway opened an upscale five-star restaurant under the trees and stars of its grounds a few years back.

But when the runners opened this July, the raceway's racino was operating full blast, and its VLT's continued their luring call throughout the day and into the night. Consternation reigned in the halls of the New York Racing Association.

Without cause, it turns out.

The mid-term grades are in now at the leafy laboratory, and the teachers got low grades.

Both the race course and the raceway are doing booming business.

Ontrack business is up 13 percent at the runners and live handle at the raceway is up 25 percent and was up 32 percent during the first two weeks of Thoroughbred operation. Saratoga Race Course had the best first two weeks in its long history, despite the loss of 16,000 free passes a week by state mandate.

Wagering from other outlets is up 58 percent at the raceway, with Thoroughbred simulcasting up 66 percent and betting on harness signals up 43 percent. Harness purses are up 160 percent compared with a year ago, and the bigger purses have drawn better horses, with 23 track records set at the meeting. There were only 64 horses claimed at the raceway in all of 2003. With more than four months to go this year, total claims stand at 110. Overnight purses at the raceway totaled only $2.9 million last year. They will reach $9 million this year.

The quality of racing at Saratoga Race Course, always supreme, is even better this year, and senior vice president Bill Nader is predicting the second half of the season will surpass the first. He admits the fears of February have given way to the ease of August, saying, "When you look at a competitor opening up next door, the knee-jerk reaction is to expect a negative impact." He concludes, correctly, that "the Saratoga Race Course experience is such a compelling scenario, maybe we forgot how strong it is." And he says with satisfaction that his track "is pitching a perfect game."

The raceway isn't doing too badly on the mound either. When NYRA pulled the parking lease from one of its lots that was providing the city with $35,000 or so in revenue, the raceway and its horsemen quickly jumped in. The horsemen contributed $15,000 and the track and its racino matched it, leading to a headline on Saratogian.com that read, "The harness track giveth what the Thoroughbred track taketh away." The city's commissioner of public works, Tom McTygue, said, "It was a nice donation. They want to send some of the goodness they're receiving from the community."

He was right. Saratoga Springs, once slots were approved, greeted them cordially. Green and yellow banners downtown heralded the arrival of the VLT's, and shuttle service has been provided to the racino.

There is no euphoria, but the nervousness has disappeared, and peace and prosperity reign on both sides of Nelson Avenue.