11/15/2006 12:00AM

Players losing an advocate

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PHILADELPHIA - One lament is universal at every racetrack. When something ridiculous happens at the track, the players will say to each other, "If only management knew something about the game they are supposed to understand."

Ken Kirchner is the exception. He listens to his customers. He understands them. He interacts with them.

A confession. I have know Kirchner for nearly 20 years, first in his time as executive director of the Pennsylvania Racing Commission and more recently as the senior vice president of product development for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Breeders' Cup. I like him personally. I have great respect for him professionally for one very basic reason. He sees the game from the players' perspective.

Kirchner's fancy NTRA/BC title is longhand for "he runs the gambling aspect of Breeders' Cup Day."

This year's was his 11th event. Since he took over in 1996, handle on the Breeders' Cup races has gone from $64 million to a record $134 million in 2006. This did not happen by accident.

Rolling pick threes were introduced in 1997. We now have trifectas and superfectas on every race. If there is a bet out there, it is on the BC menu.

"We changed a lot over the 10 years," Kirchner said. "In 1999, we made one of the most significant changes which was uncoupling all entries, which allowed 14 betting interests. You no longer had the three- or four-horse D. Wayne Lukas entry. Now, it would be a Todd Pletcher entry.

"There wasn't a pick four on anybody's menu until we introduced it in 2000. Now, it's on everybody's bet menu.

"Two years ago, rather than setting the races in advance, we waited until the pre-entry draw so that we could optimize the race order.

"You continually refine and improve the product. All of this has led to what we tried to work so hard on - making this the best betting day in sports. It's readily acknowledged by horseplayers all over the country that this is the best betting day, and we are slowly getting that message to sports fans and the general public that if you are going to pay attention to horse racing, this better be the one day you pay attention."

Everybody in the press box knows Kirchner, but the fans really don't. He is their advocate. Kirchner headed the NTRA Players' Panel of top handicappers four years ago. He has turned the National Handicapping Championship into the premier players' event in the country.

Unfortunately, as part of the NTRA's layoffs that were announced a few months ago, Kirchner's contract is not being renewed. That is really the players' loss.

Ask Kirchner a question, you get an answer. When I asked how the two winning 2006 pick six tickets worth $1.45 million each were structured, he explained that one of the winning tickets cost $8,960 and had only Invasor in the Classic. The same player had bet another $18,400 spread over four tickets.

The other winner bet $38,016 on one ticket and was four deep in the Classic on a ticket that was structured 2x6x11x6x6x4.

Some other racing executives might have decided to keep that a secret.

Why? The $1.45 million is great advertising. Let people know what it took to get there.

What it took to more than double the BC handle in a decade was simple hard work.

"We made our biggest inroads in the international community, particularly in common pools," Kirchner said. "Back in '95, the only international sites were Canada and Mexico, and they were separate pools."

In 1997, France bet $500,000. This year, it was $4.4 million. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, South Africa, and the Netherlands all take BC action. This year, there was nearly $20 million bet internationally.

"It's been a developing process," Kirchner said. "You have a lot of different issues, technical issues, ability of systems to talk to each other.

"We've been able to develop the relationships and get the technical issues solved. Now, we're able to focus our efforts on how we market the product."

Kirchner estimates there are 10,000 outlets worldwide (8,000 in France, which has action on every block) that take BC bets now. More than 1,000 are in the United States.

If they could ever get into the Far East market, where the action is quite insane, the handle would really blow up.

"Time zone is a big issue," Kirchner said. "Japan has legal restrictions. They are not allowed to wager on foreign simulcasts.

"Our discussions with the Japanese have been cordial. They have not yet yielded on the statutory restrictions that they have. The meeting we had with them in Paris last month showed they recognize they are going to have to change to open up to the world community."

Kirchner has made enough contacts in his travels around the world that he does hear from many players after the event each year.

"I hear the stories from guys all the time," Kirchner said. "They save all year to bet on this day. And they turned $200 into $12,000 and it's the biggest score they've ever had. And we just made their entire year.

"It's been a conscious effort on trying to build this over the years. We've worked hard on trying to optimize the bet menu, the number of outlets, the international participation, the value that players get race in and race out."

As players, we are judged on one thing - the bottom line. The numbers are the numbers. In Ken Kirchner's case, the numbers are really, really good numbers.